The University of Iowa

Student Reflections on Race and Ethnicity: From small town Iowa to China

December 20th, 2012

Reflections on Race and Ethnicity

Dear Prospective Student,

My name is Diane Pham. I am currently a sophomore studying International Studies and Informatics at the University of Iowa. Before I came to college, I knew I wanted to study abroad. I decided to study Chinese my freshman year in order to fulfill my language requirement for my IS major. When I found out about the Iowa in Tianjin summer program, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to start studying abroad. As a girl from small town Iowa, I had never been out of the country before, much less than fly on a plane. So you could say for my first airplane ride, I was “going big.”

I was born in the United States, and my parents are from Vietnam. During my first year of college, some people mistook me as Chinese, but most people can guess Vietnamese from my last name. I guess I should have mentally prepared to mistaken as Chinese more because from the moment I stepped into the boarding room, a Chinese lady asked me (in Chinese, of course) to help her read her boarding ticket.

My first week in China was confusing, to say the least. As soon as we stepped off the airplane, we were constantly immersed in the Chinese language and culture. There was no one to translate everything our tour guide and new teachers said, so at least for the beginning, us first year student gave blank stares and pretended to understand while trying to rely on our fellow students in the more advanced classes to translate.

As Asian-American, my common phrase quickly came to be, “Wo shi Meigguoren.” Outside of my teachers and classmates, everyone assumed me to be Chinese. And if I didn’t say too much, my Chinese speaking skills deemed me passable as a natural Chinese citizen. However, my confusion or hearing me speak English usually gave me away, so most of the time, they would ask to clarify if I was Chinese, or they would ask if I was Japanese or Korean. In the beginning, I would reply that I am Vietnamese, but then I realized they would think I was actually from Vietnam. So I switched to “I am American, my parents are from Vietnam.”

During our trip, we made a lot of comparisons between our home and host countries. Most Americans stereotype China as some huge, scary Communist country, but I never really felt like I was in danger while I was in China. While I do love America, there are some things I envy about Chinese culture. For example, everyone in China is way more honest or blunt whereas in America, people are more worried about hurting feelings. People in China will comment, in a non-insulting way, on your appearance as they see it, like shopkeepers will say, “That doesn’t look good on you.” As an equally blunt person, I personally appreciated their honesty.  And of course, I loved how everything in China is way cheaper, tastes better, and looks cuter.

On the Great Wall of China with new friends
Therefore, I would deem my first study abroad experience as a great success. The city I was in, Tianjin, isn’t as glamorous as typical study abroad destinations, like London, Paris, or Hong Kong, but because of this, it allowed me to deeply immerse myself into Chinese culture. I would advise anyone to study abroad, especially those who have never gone before. Studying abroad is a great way to experience diversity and learn about an entirely different culture from your own. College isn’t about limiting yourself, so why stick to one country when there are hundreds more to visit?

Diane Pham