You’re sitting at a cramped, square dining table in a dimly lit apartment with people from a culture you know nothing about. As they banter in their native language and put food on the table, you think to yourself, “What are they saying? Am I making a good impression? What if I do something wrong? I have no idea what I’ve gotten myself into!”
They give you a pair of chopsticks to eat the stewed tofu they’ve prepared and, out of nervousness, you plunge the sticks clumsily into the bowl, breaking a piece of the butter-soft bean curd in half. Panic sets in and, as your hand jitters, you’re quite sure that you’ve already made a bad impression.
Still, the people encourage you to keep trying — and then it hits you: They understand your feelings. For a few hours, you’re uneasy about stepping into their culture, but these people brave a culture that’s almost entirely new to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
This is reality for about 40 Chinese students and scholars at MU who live in University Place Apartments, near MU. Although they seem to carry on just as their American counterparts in dress and manner, these students face significant problems: getting a driver’s license, learning the American version of the English language — including its countless slang terms — finding food they can tolerate and bridging a sometimes vast culture gap.
On a cold fall Friday afternoon, Ruifeng Dong and Xiangmin Zeng walk around their apartment in University Place. Ruifeng lights up a Hongtashan cigarette and pours some green tea into a beer mug. Then he brushes off copies of the People’s Daily, China’s official national newspaper, from the faded lavender couch so that we can sit down.
Ruifeng, a 30-year-old visiting scholar from the Communication University of China in Beijing who came to Columbia in August, is shaking when he first sits down. Perhaps he, too, is nervous about something.
However, as the cigarette burns down and the tiny Sanyo television sitting on a nearby table is turned off, the saddle shoe crossed over his left leg stops jolting up and down, and he begins to calm down.
And when the topic of his driving test is brought up, he’s more than willing to talk.
Ruifeng says Beijing has some of the world’s worst traffic. But he swears he’s a cautious driver, and he can’t understand why he failed an American driver’s test.
“I drove the way I would in Beijing, but the traffic there is terrible,” Ruifeng says with a grin-and-bear-it smile. “Many don’t obey traffic rules, and some people drive drunk. You never know when someone will pass a red light.”
“Maybe I was too careful?” he asks.
Ruifeng says that, in China, driving tests are given on courses in driving schools.
On the next Saturday morning, Ruifeng steps into the driver’s seat of a hunter-green Ford ZX2, my car. Before long, it becomes clear that he is a skilled and cautious driver. In fact, upon our return to University Place, he parallel parks the car because I’m not able to pull into a space.
A few days later, on his third and final chance, Ruifeng does pass the test. He thanks me even though I haven’t done much to help him.
Any foreign student applying to MU must show a certain degree of proficiency in English before being allowed to begin a regular class schedule. First, these students must pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam. TOEFL, which is sold by the Educational Testing Service, is used to ensure that students enrolling in English-speaking colleges and universities know enough English to understand the materials presented in their courses.
After that, the students must pass an English proficiency test from MU’s English Language Support Program in order to begin a regular class schedule.
Besides having to meet stringent testing requirements, foreign students must learn “American English” in order to gain understanding of the culture and of their American peers.
Xiangmin, a 32-year-old visiting scholar who is also from the Communication University of China in Beijing, is working on his doctoral dissertation about the audience-segmentation trends of mass media. With straight black hair, a five o’clock shadow, a white Nike jacket, Nike sneakers and a thin frame, Xiangmin looks similar to some of his American classmates. However, he says, he doesn’t always communicate with them as well as he would like.
“Sometimes I feel lonely in class because my English isn’t as good as theirs,” Xiangmin says. “The students speak too fast, and I can’t always talk about my research or my homework in class.”
Despite this difficulty, Xiangmin and Ruifeng are eager to learn as much English as possible. When Ruifeng announces that he has rented one of the storage cages available to MU students in the dark, cramped West-stacks sections of Ellis Library, I suggest that he call it his “dungeon.” Immediately, Ruifeng writes down the word and asks its meaning.
All of a sudden, Xiangmin asks a question about the name “William,” which exemplifies one of English’s many strange quirks.
“Is William a first name or a last name?” he asks.
I explain to him that it’s a first name but that the letter “s” can be tacked on the end of it to form a last name.
“So someone could be named ‘William Williams?’” he asks, quite amused.
As I nod, Xiangmin and Ruifeng both laugh and shake their heads.
“William Williams!” Ruifeng repeats as he tilts his head down, laughing. “It’s so strange.”
Although Xiangmin and Ruifeng are trying to improve their English, they are not nearly as enthusiastic about eating American food.
“I hate deep-fried chicken and hamburgers, and I avoided fast food even in China,” Xiangmin says as his face tightens, the smirk giving way to a look of disgust. “Americans put sweet, spicy and sour flavors in one dish sometimes, and you can’t taste any one flavor. Chinese food has more pure flavors: Spicy is spicy, and sweet is sweet.”
Ruifeng and Xiangmin, like many of Columbia’s Chinese residents, prefer to cook at home. To get proper Chinese food, they depend on friends to take them to the Hong Kong Market. Known to most as the “big red barn” at 3506 I-70 Drive SE, the market has served Columbia’s Asian communities since 1996.
Owner Mike Wong, who came to the United States in 1981, left his sister’s New York City restaurant in hopes that he could open his own business. He says it’s less stressful than the restaurant business. Seventy percent of his customers are Chinese, he says.
As you enter the market, you move past a glass display case filled with mah-jongg sets, several racks of Asian videos and a giant golden statue of Buddha. Past these are the foods that allow Columbia’s Asian residents to keep a part of home here with them. From Sichuan hot-pot seasoning, a blend of spices used to flavor a soup stock, to fish sauce from Hong Kong to Pocky, a Japanese candy in which cookie sticks are dipped in chocolate, the market has quite a variety.
Once you move past an entire rack of cooking and eating utensils, including thousands of chopsticks, you reach the market’s freezer cases, where cuts of fish, pork and poultry are available. However, you won’t find the freshest meat in the house in these freezers — you’ll find it outside, in a cage behind the store. As a sign on the cash register explains, live pigeons are available for $2.50.
After a shopping trip to the market one Saturday morning, Ruifeng and Xiangmin say that they plan to cook some “real” Chinese food. They ask how much spice I can handle, to which I reply, “I can handle anything.” I hope I’m right, because they plan to cook dishes native to the Sichuan province of China that use extremely spicy red and black pepper seasonings.
After about an hour of preparation, we sit down to a huge meal of pork with celery, fried beef with carrots, stewed chicken wings, shrimp with ginger, tofu with peppercorns and chili seasoning, and fried peanuts.
I ask silly questions about Chinese food, but Ruifeng and Xiangmin understand my ignorance.
“So this isn’t at all like the food in Chinese restaurants here in Columbia,” I say, nervously hoping this verbal bait will hook someone. “Where do those restaurants get their ideas about Chinese food and Chinese cooking?”
An ear-to-ear smile breaks across Xiangmin’s face.
“From Americans!” he bellows.
Willingly sounding foolish, I continue. “So the little deep-fried chunks of pork and chicken covered in sauce aren’t like authentic Chinese food?”
Xiangmin laughs and shakes his head, telling me to look at the food on the table and tell him if it looks like that in the restaurants. It’s obvious that it doesn’t. While several of the dishes were cooked in oil, none has a coating. Also, rather than putting sauce on top of the meat to flavor it, the goal seems to be getting the meat to absorb the flavor of the sauce while it’s in the pot. Everything at the table has been cooked in stock-like sauces, much thinner than those used in Chinese restaurants, with spices thrown into the pot.
The food is spicy, but the spice adds flavor; it isn’t there just to add heat. The tofu, for example, tastes like meat with a chili rub. It’s much better than the bland, plain tofu served in many American restaurants.
After the meal, Ruifeng says he misses nothing more than moon cakes — small, round cakes usually filled with bean paste or lotus-seed paste that are eaten in celebration of China’s Mid-Autumn Festival holiday. Also called the Moon Festival, this holiday celebrates Chang Er, a woman who legend says flew to the moon.
Ruifeng has grudgingly found a substitute in pizza.
“It’s round,” he says. “That’s as close as I can get.”
In China, it’s a practice for three generations of a family to live together, as many older people lack financial security and move in with their children. But for some of MU’s Chinese students, not even their spouses or children are living with them.
Mingjuan Wang, a 31-year-old earning her doctorate in chemistry, had to leave her husband, Ping Jin, and her 3-year-old daughter, Yichuan Jin, in Shanghai and quit her job at Shanghai Whitecat Co. Ltd. when she came to Columbia in August.
Mingjuan — a short, thin woman with a small nose and meticulously trimmed eyebrows — looks 10 years younger than she is. She was an engineer who helped research and develop new products for Whitecat, a company that produces household cleaners and skin-care products.
She doesn’t regret quitting her job, but leaving Yichuan behind has taken its toll.
“I wish I could hug her, but I can’t,” Mingjuan says in an emotional voice, staring at the pictures of Yichuan taped to her bedroom desk and surrounding her tiny Dell Inspiron notebook computer. “At least I can see her with my Internet camera.”
Mingjuan plans to spend five years at MU. Her husband was able to get a student visa, so he and their daughter have arrived since this story was written.
Some residents of University Place who did bring family from China are having their own difficulties.
Ailian Liu — a divorced, 41-year-old visiting scholar and reporter from the Shenzhen Press Group in Guangdong — brought her 8-year-old daughter, Lucy, with her to Columbia. The two share one bedroom of a two-bedroom apartment, which she pays for with saved money.
“I’m trying to get a fellowship so that I can stay here and support us, but it’s not easy,” Ailian says outside Ellis Library one day as she waits for Lucy to finish her piano lesson inside MU’s Fine Arts Building.
“Lucy needs attention, and she’s still too young to understand that I’m busy sometimes.”
Ailian — with black, shoulder-length hair and a silk Chinese blouse — says that she tries to keep Lucy busy with activities such as piano lessons and swimming classes but that she has to make sure her daughter stays on track.
“She watches too much television,” Ailian shouts as she looks across the walkway at Lucy. “Also, because she’s a child, there are things she doesn’t understand, like why we can’t go back to China to see her puppies.”
When Ailian explains that they left their dogs with “family,” I ask her if they are with her ex-husband. Lucy butts in, saying “My dad has three cats, and dogs can’t live with cats.”
“You see what I mean?” Ailian asks, laughing at the remark
Ailian hopes to stay in the United States longer than the one year she’s been given. Since this was written, she has moved to Canada for a while, because she has a green card there.
“My direction is unclear, but I’m optimistic,” she says, half-worried and half-joyful. “I appreciate the freedom in this culture.”