As someone who had never watched a movie until he was 15 years old and had never seen the great blue water of the sea with his own eyes until he entered college, my life is no different from that of millions of Chinese students. Even though I hate to say this, it’s true that most Chinese students spend almost all of their time studying and the rest of their time complaining about why the exams only test the knowledge they don’t know. It may not be the case for those born in burgeoning Chinese cities. They have a wider spectrum of activities they can choose from, like learning the piano or practicing martial arts, which are not accessible nor affordable for the majority of Chinese children.
As a result, whenever I look back at the way I went from being a happy rural vibrant kid in a typical Chinese village to becoming an ambitious to-be-college graduate in a bustling fast-paced international cosmopolitan city, I always attribute my little success to my constant efforts and good luck. I always think I’m lucky because no matter which country you are born in, it’s equally hard for you to get into a great school solely on your own efforts. You know what I mean.
For most of my life, I was known as a nerd until I entered one of the best universities in Asia and met with people who are even more studious than me. The thing is that I seldom felt stigmatized or marginalized in school because I was told that books and knowledge should be my best friend. As a result, I spent on average 10 hours buried in books every day. I did enjoy all the jealous looks on people’s faces when I passed by the red banner hung on the wall in my high school’s teaching building whenever the monthly or weekly test results came out because they put the top 10 students’ pictures on the banner and I was usually at the very top. My life was still good even though no girls ever had a crush on me and I was terrible at basketball. I always felt self-fulfilled when I managed to memorize three English words while making the most out of my time in the toilet.
But things really changed after I entered university. Prior to university, my life worked as if a good university were its ultimate purpose. I never pictured life at university or what I wanted to do afterwards. I ranked 4th among over 160,000 students who took the same exam in my province and finally got into a good university. But it turned out to be a huge disaster for me because I had no idea what to do in college. I felt like I’d reached the final goal of my life. The void that comes together with that, on the contrary, really made me, and many of my peers, feel lost in the university.
I was frustrated and lost for quite a bit of time and then realized that I had been confined to my own box for too long. I made the decision I wanted to make the most out of all the exchange opportunities I had at college and to go somewhere really different in the world. I thought it’d better be some place where people speak English fluently because I always remembered being laughed at in high school because nobody in my class understood my rural accent in the first ever speech I delivered in English. Back then, the idea to converse with some foreigner was intimidating enough to impede the normal functioning of my brain. At that time, I was too conceited to let the scene repeat where the guy who constantly occupied the first place on the monthly updated red banner got so embarrassed in front of some bulky foreign guy just because he forgot how to answer the question ‘how are you?’
Brown was put at the top of my list when I did online research about all the exchange institutions we had in Hong Kong. The best thing is that people there speak English because they are Americans. But what put it on the top of my list is that according the online comments that I found, Brown students are the happiest in the world. I wasn’t really happy at that point in my life and I thought Brown should be the perfect place for me.
The selection process for going to Brown as an exchange student turned out to be really competitive. I felt really depressed when I heard that only two students out of over 30 applicants could get this chance. I spent a whole week preparing for the selection interview and wrote a 3,000-word script for all the possible questions that I may be asked about. I never expected I would be the lucky guy but I happened to be selected. I regarded the chance to study at Brown as the one of the few chances I would ever have in my whole life to really do something that I wanted. It was too tiring and tedious to study like a nerd and I’d had been doing that for most of my life.
Life at Brown didn’t go as well as I expected when I first got there. People still had trouble understanding me and my accent and I also found it hard to have a conversation with Americans. I slept without a quilt for the first night when the temperature was -20 degrees Celsius outside because I failed at describing quilts to the salesperson at the store. I remember going to a party for the first time at Brown and spending a half an hour observing how people played beer pong. At that time, just standing in the crowd and trying to find something to talk about seemed like a terrible idea to me because it would be probably defined as wasting time in my home country. Sometimes I even though they should’ve used the time to study and gain more knowledge. On top of that, I also wondered why American students squandered their money to get drunk. In terms of studying, the most common comment I got from my professors on my writing assignments was that I should go to writing center to polish my language skills. I was eager to talk to more people and get to know more people but somehow I found that people there were not so interested in my topics. I tried not to take it personally but inevitably I felt a bit helpless and began to wonder if it was really worth it for me to come to Brown. For the first time, I questioned if I would still be happy in the happiest college on the planet.
One thing that never changed about me is that I never stopped making attempts and making efforts. Traditional Chinese philosophy encourages people to strive hard for their goals and says that where thereis a will, there is way. My growing experiences further testified to this. During my stay at Brown, I never gave up changing myself and adapting myself. To overcome my communication problems, I went to the English Language Learning Workshops at Brown three or four times a week; to gain more understanding of American culture and American society, I never missed any chance to go to on-campus parties and mingle with people; to know more about my friends, I joined their intramural soccer team even though I’d never played it before. I made some awkward mistakes too. I put embarrassing pictures of my friends on Facebook and unintentionally walked into my friend’s room without knocking the door when he was getting changed. Luckily, my friends never got bored with answering all my questions and they forgave all my unintentional offenses. They invited me to play Frisbee, to celebrate birthdays, and to go to skiing with them. I started to really enjoy my life there after the transition period.
I remembered being really frustrated in the last month I spent at Brown. It’s really a pity that I could only spend one semester there. Unlike other full time students who are being nurtured to become leaders in all aspects of life, I tried to immerse myself in every part of Brown and to learn American culture. The most valuable thing I learned from my friends there was to be open-minded, helpful, humble, and hard-working. All of these have laid a mark on my life and will never fade with time.
I was lucky to be invited to stay in my friends’ houses when I had to move out of my dorm. It was one of best parts of my life. My friend’s father, who is an attorney, took me the Boston Supreme Court and introduced me to the judge when I asked him out of curiosity whether the court house is open to the public. My friend’s mother was always busy arranging all kinds of eye-opening activities for me and took me to Maine to eat the best lobster in the world. She even called me her ‘second son.’ I am always really grateful to all the people I met in my adventure in the U.S. They made me my life feel unreal and strengthened my determination to make it back there one day in the future.
Recalling all the great experiences at Brown still seems unreal to me. Meeting all the great people at Brown definitely makes me feel better than standing out as the first on the red banner. I still feel lucky as before, but what’s different now is that I know we can work hard, be happy, and have good friends at the same time. Brown will always have a unique place in my heart, and so will all the great friends I made there.