Shiyun Chen attended the best high school in Shanghai. After graduating, most students attended the top four universities in China. However, Chen chose NYU Shanghai.
NYU Shanghai painted a picture that Chen admired. “Before coming, NYU Shanghai presents a pretty good utopian look. I was naive and I believed in the utopia, thatus an ideal ‘utopia’, where Chinese and international students would mingle effortlessly.” But that’s not true at all.”
Although feeling a bit deceived by the utopia presented by NYU Shanghai didn’t live up to this ideal , Chen still stands by the decision he made. “Everyone was going [to Fudan University], but I wanted to do something different. I think I’ve learned more at NYU Shanghai than I would have at Fudan. After all, I wouldn’t even know about the hard truths of cross-cultural communications [at Fudan].” Chen said.
Chen felt that one of the clearest evidences that such “utopia” never came easy is that, entering sophomore year, most students choose to room with peers from their own identity group, due to complications living with their freshman year roommates. “International students mostly have never had roommates before,” Chen believes, “and the uneasiness is mostly just living in the same room as someone else but we blame it on cultural differences. If everyone thinks like this, no wonder this happens.” At the end of his freshman year, Chen spoke to his roommate Oscar about whether or not they would live together sophomore year. “If you choose an American roommate you might be happier,” Chen explained to his roommate, “but not being with a roommate from a different culture deprives you of an important experience at NYU Shanghai.”
Acquiring the cross-cultural efficiency depicted by Jeffrey Lehman does require huge effort and the courage leaving the comfort zone. However, Chen believes some easy jargons would serve as the signaling gesture to bring people together, which he realized in his freshman year. “I was talking with my roommate’s friend and she said to me, ‘oh, you’re the cool Chinese guy.’” The realization that Chen took away from that encounter has stuck with him throughout his time at NYU Shanghai. “I realized that international students classify Chinese students as cool versus normal, normal meaning introverted or not talking like international students. For one Chinese dude to become a cool Chinese guy, you just have to know a set some jargons as signals to the internationals that you are one of them, like ‘this is dope,’dope’, ‘lame’” Chen explained. “In Chinese high schools, we don’t even know what ‘what’s up?’ means. It might sound ridiculous but it makes sense. Any social group loves using jargons to improve internal bonding.”
Some other Chinese students, however, have not always agreed with him. “When I say this to other Chinese students, they ask me ‘why must I learn those words so as to make friends with foreigners?’ and they’re a bit offended,” Chen explained. “I think they’re not putting themselves in other people’s shoes. However, Chinese would also feel closer to foreigners if they talked like ‘oh, this is very geili (给力)’, which means awesome – just like ‘dope’ in English slangs.”
Chen feels that this realization is not common for all Chinese students. “For most Chinese students, they don’t might not even know there’s aof such gap and it’s between the internationals and themselves. “It’s not the international students’ fault. The gap is naturally there. Oscar speaks good Chinese fluently,” Chen said, referencing his freshman year roommate, “but I still wouldn’t talk to him like other Chinese student friends.” Chen believes learning this jargon/slang is key, that it “lets people know you’re within the same cultural context, and most Chinese students just don’t realize this, since they couldn’t have learnt that from textbooks.”
Chen also took time his freshman year to go out with international students until early in the morning sometimes and feels this was important. “Over vodka, we’d talk about all these issues. It’s the state closest to the utopia that I’ve ever reach, though not quite alike the promotional videos,” Chen said. “But I have to sacrifice something to keep being in that state, and not everyone likes going out. I did need personal time and I don’t like to stay up late, so it’s hard.”
Chen knows that this is not necessarily who NYU Shanghai wants students to learn about integrating with different cultures. “When Lehman says cross-cultural efficiency, it’s an ability he’s talking about, not a state. So it’s okay that we don’t always stay in that utopia. But through the process, we can go in and out of it and then someday transfer that ability to the workplace. It’s being able to communicate well with foreigners, but it’s harder to stay in that state that is this utopia.”
Chen thinks this is something that NYU Shanghai students will learn to accept. “Coming here, I thought I’ll get this utopia, which was unrealistic utopia, but after all I have acquired that cross-cultural ability,” he said. “They’re not lying to us, it’s just a hard truth they didn’t want to tell us.”
Chen thinks freshman year shed light on other difficulties for him as a Chinese student coming to NYU Shanghai. In Chen’s high school, they were quizzed every week on their knowledge they had attained in the class and then given the range of scores and the average. That was the way students were able to tell how they were performing, but it’s different at NYU Shanghai. “Here, you don’t have that feedback. You won’t know that it will affect your GPA and you’re losing the most important compass in your academic career, so some people lose their direction,” Chen explained. “The systematic difference makes some Chinese students stop working as hard.”
This new method led Chen to develop a different understanding of his education. “You recognize that you have to focus on what you want to learn to stay motivated,” he explained. “In Almaz Zelleke’s Capitalism, Socialism, Communism class, it was an experience I would never get in a Chinese university. We’re a socialist country, but we don’t learn those theories and so I was faced with a chunk of Karl Marx’s works and it really spiked my curiosity. And leveraging that curiosity turned out rewards me the best grades.”
Another difference Chen noticed was in the living regulations. “Chinese and US universities all have dorm rooms, but in China most dorms have a curfew,” Chen said, laughing as he explained that his old high school classmates envy him in this regard. Chen feels that this is an important difference in the ways that the universities are run.
“NYU Shanghai allows you to make mistakes. It’s allowed, if not encouraged or accelerated,” Chen said, “you get to make so many choices and you get to fail sooner. After all, there is no curfew in real life.” Chen had to learn this lesson regarding curfews the hard way. “Other students were coming back from the library at 2 or 3 am, but I would return from partying when the sun rises,” Chen said, smiling. “I soon realized this was not so good for my grades.” But, he doesn’t regret it. “The school allows you to fuck things up faster, so you can correct yourself and get back on track earlier.”
In Chen’s job search, he’s realized that NYU Shanghai still has a ways to go to gain the recognition it deserves for all of the different aspects he’s learned here. “Employers have no idea how competent we are,” Chen said. “It will change soon in the future though, as we get more alumni and once they have hired us, they’ll know how good we are,” Chen said.
This article was written by Allison Chesky. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Shiyun Chen