How I moved from China to Nashville and had to rediscover myself
Moving to Vanderbilt involved 21 hours of travel and 8,113 miles
The only two mainland Chinese cities most Americans I’ve talked to know about are Beijing and Shanghai. But I’m from a city called Canton, also known as Guangzhou.
Located on the Pearl River, about a 2 hour drive from Hong Kong, Canton is an important national transportation hub and trading port. With a population of 13 million, it is the third largest Chinese city after the two aforementioned metropolises.
It is also known as the City of Flowers, as flowers blossom all year round, and the City of Food, because of our famous Cantonese cuisine.
Although full of aspiration, I was also intensely nervous when moving to Vanderbilt, since it would be my first time living outside of China.
I arrived at Nashville’s international airport with three suitcases and a backpack on August 16, 2015.
Now, it’s been eight months since I first stepped onto Vanderbilt’s beautiful campus. In some ways, my eyes have been opened. I learn about new things everyday.
But, at the same time, I am part of a minority which makes up only 7.5% of the entire student body.
I’ve struggled and felt disheartened during my first two semesters for a multitude of reasons.
The language barrier
Although I went to a private preparatory school which provided AP curriculum, I had never used English on a daily basis.
My teachers were either from the States or Britain, but all my classmates were Chinese. English was only used in the classroom, not in everyday conversation.
In the first few months of my college life, I struggled with answering questions in class and having random chats in the elevators that native students normally have little difficulty accomplishing.
This became even more difficult when I encountered topics of conversation that were completely new to me. Issues such as race and nationality weren’t things I’d had to consider before, since almost all my friends back home were Han Chinese.
Part of the reason I chose Vandy was because of its location in the South. But when winter came, I couldn’t bear the weather in Nashville. The latitude of Canton is even lower than that of Miami!
I remember once when I was in junior high, the temperature dropped below 5°C (41°F). The next day it was all over the headlines of the newspapers.
Although I missed the mild winters of Canton, which are always marked by the Flower Fair during the Lunar New Year, I also rejoiced over the first snow this year on campus, since it was also the first snow I had ever seen!
I was used to taking metros and buses around Canton for a very cheap price (about 30 cents).
However, getting around Nashville is difficult without a car. And the cab fares here are so expensive!
Most of my high school friends don’t have cars. The legal driving age in China is 18, and even then, many people choose not to drive because the public transportation is so much more convenient.
Adjusting to the food here was definitely the biggest struggle I’ve faced since moving to Vanderbilt!
I ate Chinese food for 18 years, so it took really a long time to change my dietary habits. I still feel a little depressed when I browse over pictures of food from home, or when I accidentally eat something shitty at Commons.
Usually my friends and I go on pilgrimage to Asian restaurants every Friday night to try and curb my food home-sickness!
My ‘Long March’, adjusting from life in Canton to life in Nashville, has been frustrating at times. Living abroad is difficult. I’m far away from the people (and the food) I love.
However, having Chinese friends at Vanderbilt creates a sense of home and community, even though we are in a different country.
VUCA, Vanderbilt Undergraduate Chinese Association, also provides various opportunities for me to experience my home culture and promote it to the rest of the campus.
Adapting to a new culture is a pain in the ass, but I rejoice over the different experiences I’m gaining on my way.
I wouldn’t have been able to explore all the different subjects I’m interested in if I had stayed in China for college, since Chinese students decide their majors before entering college.
I’ve learned a lot outside the classroom. Not only about American culture, but also about a variety of other cultures, since America is such a hodgepodge of different people.
I once felt ashamed of having a different accent and a different taste in food to native students. On campus, I felt marginalized, so I tried to hide my identity as a foreigner.
I avoided talking about where I come from, in the hopes I could blend in with the crowd.
But now I realize my voice is just as important as anyone else’s, even if my nationality is different.
After a semester of discovery, I feel proud of my culture and proud of my identity as a Chinese.
I cherish my first-year experience at Vanderbilt.
I’ve not only grown more independent, and become stronger, but also I have broadened my horizons in ways I could never have imagined before I left home.