How coming to college from China let me embrace my creativity

I found a lost piece of myself at UMass

20.4 million: a substantial number in it of itself. Even more staggering when we consider that there were 20.4 million projected students attending American Colleges and Universities this fall.

According to an article published in Time U.S. in November 2016, over 1 million students during the 2015-2016 calendar year were international. The majority of these students were Chinese, who composed 31.5% of the international student body.

I myself come from Hong Kong and graduated from an international school in Beijing, which means that I fit into that number somewhere. I have been here for two years now, and have acquired a better sense of what life is like for an international student. I also have had the opportunity to speak to many other Chinese students about their experiences here.

The most interesting, and perhaps most valuable, thing I have learned so far is that the same element of Asia’s educational culture has affected most of us. Personally, photography has always been an interest of mine, but in high school it was considered as either an incompetent or a rich student’s lifestyle. These odd extremes kept me from pursuing my passions. During my first two years here at UMass- away from the culture that stifled my creativity, I rediscovered my capacity and love for photography.

Field of study is always one of the primary conversation starters, as every university student has something to contribute to that subject matter. The more students from China I spoke to, the clearer it became that there is a pattern. Most are, or were, pursuing majors that felt predictable: a variety of "hard sciences" (especially the pre-med track), computer sciences, or engineering. These tracks specifically are seen as culturally valuable in Asia. While I politely nodded along during those conversations, my brain was already thinking back to my high-school environment, searching for a source of this odd pattern.

To preface, my high-school, while extremely academically competitive, was considered a progressive school in the manner of educating their students in comparison to the local schools of China and Hong Kong. By the time I graduated, several new programs had been introduced to maintain pace with the ever-evolving realm of education. Despite the school's tremendous effort to become creative by encouraging students to pursue their passions, there was one conspicuous factor that was, and will remain, difficult to overcome.

The culture.

For a while now, popular mentality has advocated that students should acquire skills and take classes that lead to stable, well-payed jobs. This was obvious when I first contemplated the situation, though I had never realized the magnitude to which it affected everyone.

While I never felt the same degree of parental pressure to explore a career in engineering or pre-med as some other people from China do, I realize now that many of my first decisions at UMass were based on my desire to impress, not only my parents, but the other students with whom I grew up with. Even now, as a student who studies Wildlife Conservation and is involved in research opportunities, I am not only breaching the norm, but I fall short of par.

It occurred to me that the majority of the cultural problem manifests itself in conversation. Parents discuss their children between each other, leading to an inevitable conversation with their own, comparing them to another parent’s child.

While this may seem innocuous, the contents of those conversations prove more subtly damaging than one may anticipate. Superficiality aside, comparing children usually breaks down to: whose child is further along in acquiring a better paying job. Though it is fair to say that twelve or thirteen year old children do not typically have much of an opinion on the matter, it does instill in them the idea that some careers are ‘superior’ to others. This continues to evolve inside everyone’s mind until, not too far into our academic careers, we form opinions of other people and make life decisions based on that very notion.

In coming back to my experience at UMass, I have rediscovered the creative passions I had in high school, specifically those I forgot when they were less valued. This is largely because of the notion that one should be a prodigy in order to pursue a creative passion. Whether or not this is a ridiculous notion is up for debate; regardless, I do know that restricting creativity enables one to forget how to be imaginative and original. Sir Ken Robinson, a renowned author who works with governments and corporations to ameliorate educational systems, has stipulated that we as people grow out of creativity. Upon reflecting on my high school life and my first two years of university, I realize now that I watched that very process unfold.

I am expressing all of this because I urge students who have grown up in similar environments to pursue any creative passions they have, encourage others to do the same, and/or begin to delve into something that piques their interest. There is never a guarantee that one is inherently talented or creative, nor is there a guarantee that one will become great at something creative. However, from experience, it seems likely that many have not tested their talents and capacities.

Creativity doesn’t solely include the fine arts, which is perhaps the popular interpretation of the word. It can be integrated into many, if not all, aspects of one’s academic career (and obviously, life).

From the beginning of my life at UMass, I have revisited photography and explored creative writing as a hobby. There are endless advantages to being creative, no matter what your field of study, career, or future job entails. I realize how hard it can be to break free from societal molds, especially when we may not even know we are casted into them, but it is important nonetheless. Frankly, I refuse to believe that it is too late to start searching for what we did not know was there to be found before.

UMass Amherst