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Discussing Multi-Cultural Complexities with TBC Student Joyce Fu

On a cold Beijing afternoon, I sat down with Joyce Fu, a current Fall 2020 American Pathway Program student, who, despite the ongoing global obstacles, has managed to remain optimistic about her academic future and has found the opportunity for personal and academic growth at TBC this semester. In doing so, Joyce is finding her TBC experience to be a gateway into fully discovering her Chinese culture – a culture she has experienced periodically throughout her life but predominantly identifies with. During our discussion, Joyce gave insight into her dynamic mindset while facing the reality of clashing cultural backgrounds and frustrating cultural aspects, particularly in the Chinese context. While our discussion brought to light some difficult truths to swallow, it left a satisfying aftertaste of the significance of complete open-mindedness in understanding another culture – or in this case, your very own.

Can you tell me a little bit about your cultural and educational background.

I grew up in Singapore, but I was born in Hong Kong. I have attended the Singapore American School my whole life. Currently, I am in a study abroad locally program in Beijing. So, I think my educational background has been international in a sense because I grew up in the expat community in Singapore. Still, at the same time, I think I have a more diverse background than just the average expat – simply by virtue of my race. Singapore is an ex-colonial society; it was a British colony up until 60 years or so. An impact of that is that there is still a heavy colonial sentiment in society. So the way some of my white friends were treated by the local population made it difficult for them to integrate into local traditions and customs, even though they may not be aware of their privilege at the time. And I guess there is a lot of implicit bias surrounding that; it’s not something people in Singapore suffer from – they benefit from it – but at the same time, non-white expats like myself would, I feel at least, face discrimination as a result of that. Simply, as an aftereffect of decades of colonial oppression that happened. And the fact that when people look at me, they don’t see a foreigner, at least, I think I understood the local population more than my average white friends. So, as a result of my background and the fact that I identify as Chinese, I think I became really interested in social realities, which is why I chose to study sociology and also why I wanted to come back to Beijing this semester because I feel I should know more about the country that I feel like I am from.

You mentioned you are studying sociology at the University of Notre Dame. That being said, we can’t ignore the fact that there is a current pandemic. How do you feel the pandemic has prompted your experience abroad, or how has it made your student experience more unique?

I don’t think the political climate in the US is something that I would feel safe entering right now, and before I came, I heard that the Notre Dame community has always been extremely tolerant, has experienced some racial attacks, and I don’t think that is an environment I want to be heading into at this moment. That is part of the reason why I came back to Beijing. I also feel like people need different voices during this time. I would find it difficult to comment on China and the situation surrounding the epidemic in China if I haven’t been here, so that is why I chose to fly in from Singapore.

Since you mentioned you partially decided to come back to Beijing amid the global and local climate, do you feel like the pandemic’s effect on your student experience has taken away from its value? Do you think you would have gotten a better study abroad experience had it not been for the geographical constraints, for example?

I suspect that I wouldn’t have chosen China as a study abroad location if it wasn’t for the pandemic. At the same time, I think the pandemic is such a novel situation for everyone that it would be difficult to quantify my study abroad semester. I think if anything – concerning a variety of factors – I would have preferred to be on campus during my first semester just so I kind of know what is going on, at least with the campus community and what is expected of me as a student. But I know I would have chosen to study abroad regardless, maybe just at a different time. However, coming here has been a unique opportunity, and the classes that I am taking are about Chinese culture, which I am extremely interested in.

Of course, with every study abroad experience, you gain something from it regardless of the location. What do you feel has been the most surprising or unique about being here in Beijing so far? Maybe something you didn’t expect or has surprised you.

The human to human behavior is very different in China – and I guess that can be interpreted both positively and negatively. When I am outside of China, I consider myself kind of a cultural representative. Still, when I come back to China, I start asking myself: perhaps the China I want it to be is not always the China that I am faced with – I mean this in a social sense. Every time I come back, I always think I should be doing things to improve the entire situation, but I know a lot of the time when people say things like this about China, they say it from a critical perspective. But, I say it from a place where I actually care about this place and want it to be better. A lot of the people I have come into contact with (not part of the local population), but kind of my group here – having been raised in more traditional Chinese backgrounds – I think there are things that frustrate me. I feel that cultural dissemination is a different category of frustration that I am feeling. The frustration that I feel is about things that I think people should be above, and in a way, I feel that if these things aren’t even dealt with, then how can we even move onto the next step of cultural dissemination.

So being in this situation and being in contact with students from a different cultural background has given emphasis to the difference in your cultural upbringing and values, and in turn, cultural dissemination.

Yes, in terms of my interactions with students from different cultural backgrounds. I am starting to realize that perhaps the type of cultural dissemination that I am doing isn’t necessarily in line with their goals.

On a lighter note, what has been your favorite part of the student experience here? There are still some constraints, but particularly because you are experiencing a less remote and more metropolitan academic environment.

I have grown up in major cities my whole life, so this is where I am comfortable. I did grow up in Singapore, and so I grew up eating Chinese food, but the food here is so good. All of my friends make fun of me because they think the food is bad. Apparently, the food on campus is for Beijing campuses – notorious for being bad. To me, it is ridiculous because I look forward to every meal every day. The food on campus is my favorite part.

You talked about your experience with students with different cultural backgrounds and as it relates to your diverse background. What do you feel that you are learning about yourself during this time? Not just in a singular sense, but more so, what are things you catch yourself discovering – perhaps a certain mindset or skill that has come to light.

There is a distance between wanting to do something and being able to do something. Everyone has their dreams and all, but the number of people who can actually do measurable things that will bring them there, the number of such people is significantly less. I think I am finding myself wondering if I am in that category – how much I am really willing to actively work towards things that I believe in—also, this idea of complexity. I think perspective is so important, and when I am outside of China, I consider myself so Chinese, and I am sure other people also consider me Chinese, but sometimes when you come back, and you realize that you are so distinct from everyone around you, does your definition of your nationality need to be changed or who you are, needs to be changed. I think complexity is a good thing for sure, but the process of realizing just how far we want to go to show everyone else that is a much heavier issue.

So you would say coming from Singapore with a diverse background this time has made you question your cultural identity and has perhaps challenged your perspective of how people view you and how you view your cultural identity?

I think less in the way of a challenge, but more has enhanced my understanding of my cultural identity because I think we all behave differently in different situations. Kind of the way I am behaving in this new environment is also teaching me about my cultural identity in different contexts as well, so in that sense, yes.

It seems you are studying abroad the right way – digging deep into yourself and the surrounding people and culture. That being said, why did you decide to study abroad at TBC?

The reason I chose TBC is because I actually like the courses offered. Some classmates say they are studying Chinese culture, and they feel like they don’t need to because they are Chinese students. I consider myself Chinese, but there are so many things that I don’t know about Chinese culture that some take for granted – by virtue of having been immersed in this environment their entire life. And so, I like the course selection, and I like that I can use this as an opportunity to learn about my culture, which I think is such an important part of understanding my identity. I think TBC really fit what I wanted at the time.

You brought up a crucial point here. People don’t usually consider studying their own culture further because they may see it as not the best use of their time; people usually intend to study another culture because it is outside of their familiarity, even though many people might not know their culture in its entirety.

I think cultural confidence is difficult if you don’t even know your culture. I grew up as the child of a wave of Chinese people who went for opportunities overseas. A lot of the time, people like me grow up and forget there are so many things that are worth knowing in their own culture as well. And so, I really don’t want to forget that.