A couple of weeks ago, I went to a lecture hosted by the William F. Buckley Jr. Program. At the end of the lecture, a friend of mine asked the speaker a question: I understand most Yale students are very cosmopolitan, but Yale is still primarily an American institution. Shouldn’t we first consider American interests and then talk about serving humanity?
That was the first time I felt really uneasy at Yale. But I knew instantly that he had a point. Although international students are a visible presence on campus, we don’t really belong here.
Every Chinese student who plans to attend an American university is warned about culture shock — but that doesn’t lessen its impact. The first time I heard the term “hook up” was at the sexual education workshop, so I secretly asked my freshman counselor what it meant, keeping my voice as low as possible. On the first day of class my freshman year I unwittingly induced eye-rolls and cringes when I referred to the professor as “sir” (in China, such formality is the norm). To this day, when I go out to eat with my friends, I don’t know what to order for the “side” of a burger (I still find the term weird), so I always ask the waiter, “What do you recommend? I don’t have a preference.” However, believe it or not, those are the more pleasurable moments in life. Clumsiness can be an asset — you actually make more friends through it. Americans like clumsy foreigners.
But there was another, more serious aspect to culture shock: Americans share a common set of political and empirical assumptions that I had never encountered.
In one of my courses on human rights, we discussed the Amish population in Wisconsin. I said, “What’s the difference between their separation policy and racial segregation?” Other students immediately flared up, “They have the freedom to do it! It’s their right!” I hadn’t meant to offend anyone. As a Chinese student, I am not so sensitive to the distinction between voluntary and coerced action. Right now, that distinction is less prevalent in Chinese politics.
In addition, many Americans assume that luxuries common in the West are common everywhere. I fell ill in the second semester of my freshman year, so I took the rest of the year off. When I applied for reinstatement, I realized that Yale had assumed I would do it the American way. Yale thought there would be a community college system in China where I could take two courses prior to my return. It also thought there would be a mental health hospital in my city where I could get treatment. I struggled to meet these requirements. I made it, but only after a great deal of stress and special arrangements.
I am not criticizing anyone. Don’t get me wrong. Yale is heaven for international students. As a lower-middle-class kid, I get a free education here. Residential college deans and masters take care of us like parents. What else can I expect? So I find a lot of campus talk about cosmopolitanism absurd. Yale is not a cosmopolitan institution and it should not be. It is an American school with a strong international element, and thank God for that.
But we do need to solve some practical problems. Mental health counseling is rare in China, and Yale doesn’t seem to know that. That’s why I went on the record with the News to talk about my struggles with Yale Health. I was afraid. Publicity is scary, especially when other internationals aren’t speaking up. Our fixation with identity politics often overlooks more concrete, practical issues such as the challenges international students face. I bet most internationals had their uneasy moments — moments when we hoped dearly that there could be a little more understanding. An American institution has no obligation to accommodate each and every need of foreigners, but it should at least make an effort to understand those needs. Boasting about cosmopolitanism won’t help. We need to get down to real issues: possible exemptions for certain reinstatement requirements and more courses on non-Western thought where students learn to think in non-Western ways (instead of using Western feminism to critique Confucius). Internationals can contribute much more to this campus by speaking up than by pretending to be American.
Wenbin Gao is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .