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.

Flowers are all over my high school every spring.

Flowers petals cover the ground of my high school every spring

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.

Me with all my luggages at home on the eve of leaving for Vanderbilt.

Me with all my luggage at home on the eve of leaving for Vanderbilt

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.

My international friends here at Vanderbilt. Some of them are the first of their country that I’ve ever talked to!

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.

My AP Psychology teacher took this picture during our first exam.

My AP Psychology teacher took this picture during our first exam

The weather

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.

Me and my grandmother at the Flower Fair. A shirt and jeans is enough for the winter.

Me and my grandma at the Flower Fair. In Canton, a shirt and jeans is enough for the winter

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 took so many pictures that day because it was my first time seeing real snow!

My first winter in Nashville! I took so many pictures that day because it was my first time seeing real snow!

Transportation

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!

Last summer, the trains were decorated for the 15th anniversary of the Canton Metro.

Last summer, the trains were decorated for the 15th anniversary of the Canton Metro

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.

A friend of mine bought a car last semester and I took this selfie when I was in his car. First time sitting in a car driven by a person of my same age! Feel kind of strange!

A friend of mine bought a car last semester and I took this selfie when I was in his car. It was my first time sitting in a car driven by a person the same age as me! It felt kind of strange!

The food

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.

This is the reality...the pancake is good though.

The reality of a Commons breakfast…waffles are pretty good though!

Usually my friends and I go on pilgrimage to Asian restaurants every Friday night to try and curb my food home-sickness!

I cooked Chinese food with my friends on the Lunar New Year's Eve.

I cooked Chinese food with my friends on Lunar New Year’s Eve

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.

My Chinese friends and I before the Found's Walk.

My Chinese friends and I before Founder’s Walk

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.

Playing Five in a Row, a traditional Eastern Asian board game, with my friend at a VUCA GBM.

Playing Five in a Row, a traditional Eastern Asian board game, with my friend at a VUCA event

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.

My Interfaith Spring Break experience in D.C. exposed me to different religions and beliefs

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.

My first football game (I left early because I didn’t understand anything that was happening)

But now I realize my voice is just as important as anyone else’s, even if my nationality is different.

Performing martial arts at ANYF is one of my favorite Vandy experiences.

Performing martial arts at ANYF is one of my favorite Vandy experiences

After a semester of discovery, I feel proud of my culture and proud of my identity as a Chinese.

I decorated the door of my room with Chinese couplets I brought from home during the Lunar New Year.

I decorated the door of my dorm room with Chinese couplets I brought from home during the Lunar New Year

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.

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