Franklin & Marshall College junior Ngoun Lay spent last summer in Changchun, a provincial capital in northeastern China, where the experience offered him insights into his American identity as well as Chinese viewpoints of the United States.
“Some study-abroad challenges can be avoided by you preparing for it,” Lay said. “You can read other people’s experiences through blogs and journals to prepare yourself for what you will face.”
However, the joint studies major from California said, there’s no way to prepare for some challenges. Instead, “embrace the situation and turn it into a cultural exchange and learning experience. Then it’s not a challenge anymore, but an opportunity to grow and learn.”
Lay faced such an opportunity in his first week in Changchun, where he and other Critical Language Scholarship students were exploring the city’s life.
“We stumbled upon a group of Yéye (grandfathers) outside their houses, playing a mixture of Chinese traditional string instruments,” he recalled. “At first, they were playing a traditional folk song called ‘Mo Li Hua,’ but as we slowly approached, creating a circle around them, they change the tune to ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.’ We were all clapping and smiling as we heard the tune that we were all familiar with. As they stopped playing, one of the Yéye pointed at me and asked, ‘Where are they from?’
“I was confused as I tried to process his question. I slowly replied, ‘We all came from the United States.’ His expression changed, and now he seemed confused. He asked, ‘Even you, too?’ Immediately, I understood. He thought I was a tour guide, showing foreigners around the city because I was one of the few Asian Americans in the group. Instead of being angry with him for his assumption, I smiled and said in my thick accent, ‘Yes, we came here to learn Mandarin.’”
Lay concluded, “This was one of the experiences that made me realize that other people outside of the United States have an image of America reinforced through what they see in media. They still have the idea that every American has blue eyes and blond hair. For similar encounters that followed, I always responded with ‘Yes, I am an American.’ And when they asked, ‘But you look like us; how are you American?’ I always smiled and replied, ‘Mei guo you ge zhong ge yang de ren (美国有各种各样的人),’ which means America has all kinds of people.”