By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor
The University at Buffalo was pretty intimidating to me when I started school there as a freshman way back in the fall of 1979 – and I was only coming from South Cheektowaga.
Yajuan Xiang traveled more than 6,000 miles from her homeland to get here seven years ago, along with other Chinese nationals also headed for UB.
All of them took English in junior high school, which is mandatory in China. I took French for five years at West Seneca East junior and senior high schools, and if you dropped me off in Paris for graduate school back in the 1980s, I would have struggled mightily.
“When we had a connecting flight, where we came here on a small airplane, each of us came with three big (pieces) of luggage,” she said. “You didn’t know until you landed that you can’t find your luggage. It’s completely delayed, and no one told you. They ask you to describe what the suitcase looks like. I’m like, ‘I have no idea!’ The lady was very nice. She gave me pictures that I could look at. Probably for three days, I had nothing. I slept on a carpet at a friend’s house and borrowed somebody’s new toothbrush.”
At age 18, Xiang left Urumqi – the capital city of Xinjiang Province in northwest China, along the borders of Russia, Pakistan and Mongolia – and went to college in the Chinese capital city of Beijing. After that, she was off to UB, where she is about to receive her doctorate from the school’s Graduate School of Education, with a specialty in early childhood education.
She one day hopes to return home to start a learning laboratory similar to the place where she’s learned and worked while in Western New York, the UB Early Childhood Research Center. First, she will head to a tenure-track faculty post at the University of Southern Indiana, where she will teach students what she learned in Buffalo, and her home country.
Xiang, 29, whose full name is pronounced Ya-Jrin Shung, credited the UB Chinese Student Association for helping to get her settled in our region. She said it took quite a while to get acclimated.
Below are excerpts from our interview in which she talked about how hard it is for a Chinese immigrant to go to school in the U.S., and what it was like after she got here:
What was school like in China?
It’s just a regular experience. The good thing people from different ethnic groups go to class together, so we try to understand each other’s culture. In our city (of 3.1 million), every single sign, every advertisement, is represented in the two (ethnic Chinese languages). It’s quite a remote place. If we want to go to Beijing or Shanghai, it takes a very long time.
Here, the college semester is shorter than what I experienced. In China, we have two semesters. The fall semester starts in September and it goes around to February. We have one month break in March and then we start spring semester to July. I got my bachelor’s degree from Beijing Information Technology University in public administration.
The education I received before is more like doing academic work, giving less thought about what your really want to be. The educational system does not provide much information into where each major is taking you. We don’t have a school counselor to give advice like American schools would do.
In China, you have to decide your major (in high school) before you take the college entrance exam. The whole country takes the exam together. It depends on how many others are applying for (a program) if you get in. It’s very tricky each year and you have to have a high enough score to get in. I don’t have the statistics but it’s relatively low.
When did you decide as an undergraduate that you wanted to come to the U.S., and why?
I have always been the person who wanted to look outside. Because of the culture I was raised in, in my own hometown, I enjoy meeting different people and learning things that I don’t know. People in my hometown tend to stay there. But I traveled all the way to Beijing to take my undergraduate work there, so it was a very eye-opening experience to me, to look at that world, which is very internationally connected. I did a lot of work with senior people and children. That’s when I started to think about, ‘I should go some places that really supports children, someplace where I want to work to make me happy.
What was the application process like?
I came to UB for my master’s and PhD. It takes a long time to apply. As an international student, you have to have your language test and a GRE test for your graduate acceptance. So to (prepare) for those tests, I probably started as a sophomore. To prepare for these exams, you have to take extra classes at school and do the extra training. It took me three years to prepare because I didn’t do well the first time.
English is mandatory in our education. We start to learn English in junior high. But learning a second language is always difficult if you don’t have the environment (where others are speaking that language); also, if you don’t get to use it very often. What we learned was more about writing and reading, but for basic daily communication, it was something lacking.
You didn’t tour UB, so what was your first reaction when you got here?
All the schools you apply (to), you do a little research about the school, about a program. You want something you like. When you get an offer letter, it’s really exciting. I feel like I was more excited during applying. When I accepted the letter, and started doing the visa stuff, I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know what’s next. I don’t know about this country. I don’t know what I’m going to go through the following years for my studies.’ So I started to get a little bit scared.
It’s good because in China people are very collective, so a bunch of students accepted by UB that year, we started (connecting). We booked the air tickets together. We came to school and the Chinese Student Association, they came to the airport and picked us up. They arranged temporary accommodation in order for us to stay for a couple of days...
I never thought what would actually scare me about living in a different country, not until I came to my first class and feel like I can’t understand half of the class. ... I asked my first professor, ‘Can I audiotape your course, so I can go back and listen to it?’ So I did, for a whole semester. That really helped me to improve my English.
But that took extra time.
Definitely. Here, (on the UB North campus academic spine), on the bus home. Also, I have my little dictionary, a digital one. I kept looking up words in class and my classmate thought I was texting the whole time.
What is the weather like for you here?
It’s really similar to where I come from. The four seasons. A lot of snow. The coldness. The summer. It’s really similar. I’m very much used to it.
What were some of the first lessons that first semester?
English was definitely my biggest concern. When I came here, I had no idea about how to talk to professors, how to be polite. Here, they would expect students to be more involved in classroom discussions, which took me a very long time. I had to spend extra time to prepare for the lessons. But discussions add on to (other things), so when you prepare, it’s not what you can really learn in the classroom.
I would be so slow compared to other students. If I had something to say, in my mind, once I get a chance to raise up my hand and to organize all my languages, the topic is gone. But that was good for me to have that intense English. I appreciate all the professors I had that first semester. They were very considerate about my situation.
How have things changed over time?
It’s been a very eye-opening experience. I’d never thought about, (maybe) I can’t achieve all these goals for my life if I don’t come out to the United States. Also, I appreciate all the opportunities I’ve been given by the professors here. Kelly (Ross Kantz Roy, director of the research center) has given me a lot of chances to teach and work with the children. Also, giving training to teachers and going to international conferences, there’s a lot of things I’ve learned in the U.S. and the program to prepare me professionally and personally.
You’d like to stay in the U.S. at least awhile longer?
Yes. Being in the country actually helped me to see both sides. Because I’ve grown up in China, with the technology I’ll be able to know what’s going on there. Also, being here, teaching in the educational system, I know how the system (works) here. The two countries definitely have a lot of differences, but I see a lot of opportunities to connect the countries together. I feel like my training has prepared me to work in this system – it’s a practical experience, but I do want to have more experience working at a university level. Here, you have more opportunities and people value the diversity. It’s a good opportunity to stay and have more working experiences.