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Living with Americans

By Jiaxi (Lenny) Chen, TBC Marketing Intern

When I first saw the recruitment article for Chinese Roommates (CR) by The Beijing Center (TBC) in my WeChat Moments feed, little did I know that it was going to be an experience that would completely change my college life. TBC’s semester study abroad program provides its students with the option to live with a local Chinese Roommate, an experience which I’m proud to say in most cases, ends up becoming the student’s favorite part of their semester in Beijing.

The Chinese Roommate program was originally set up to enrich TBC students’ China experiences, but as someone who has been a Chinese Roommate at TBC for five semesters, I can attest that TBC students are not the sole beneficiary of this program. Each of my five roommates came from very different backgrounds from mine and at first I was always a bit nervous that it would get in the way of us getting along. But with every single one of them, gradually finding common ground through daily conversations, gobbling dumplings and mid-night runs to 7-eleven has been incredibly rewarding in the best of ways. Here are a couple of things that I found most unique and precious to this experience that I wish to share:

Our Thanksgiving

  • Introspective dialogue about languages.

The first and the most conspicuous difference in rooming with an American roommate is that both of us will constantly be conversing in our non-native languages and teaching each other words whenever one of us comes across one that he doesn’t understand. Surprisingly, oftentimes teaching a non-native speaker about your native language becomes a very introspective experience for yourself too. To explain an expression to another person, you usually try to dissect the phrases and more often than not, you find out things about your language and you always took for granted and never really paid attention to. For example, in Chinese, 熊猫 means “panda”, with 熊 meaning “bear” and “猫” meaning cat. Throughout my life I had never thought about how a panda is just an animal that combined the characteristics of these two and is really just a bear that naps a lot until I explained this to my roommate.


The angel (me, of course) and the devil on the Great Wall

  • Everything in my normal routine becomes an adventure.

One of my favorite things about living with an American roommate is that I get to experience their excitement of living in a foreign country with them, even as I take them to do the most regular things on my daily routine like grabbing lunch and taking the metro. As a result, what would usually just be pedestrian moments in my life gets filled with laughter and excitement. It’s always fun to help someone adjust to eating with chopsticks and watching someone from another country try and love the food I grew up eating is one of the most satisfying experiences all on its own.

My roommate Sebastian trying out my hometown rice noodles

  • Seeing interesting collisions of thought in daily conversations.

Another thing I like about having an American roommate is how differently we approach certain topics, which is really shaped by one’s life experiences and the environment we grew up in. Through these differences, it is really fascinating how different life experiences give us different assumptions to make when we approach problems. For example, in the beginning, as we talked about education, my roommate found it interesting that I paid so much attention to the prestige and recognition of a school and I was surprised that cost was such a strong factor for people going to school in the US.

The boys before a night out

  • Learning more about American culture.

Hanging out with American college students has been the single best way for me to learn about American culture, especially how diverse it can be across different regions of the country. People who grew up in the country tend to like country music while most people who grew up in the city hate it with a passion; students from the middle of US use different slangs than people who come from the west coast. Before becoming a Chinese Roommate, I had a rather simplistic understanding of what American culture entailed, most of which was from the TV shows and movies I watched. It was the experience of being a Chinese Roommate and being friends with the people from the US that put me more deeply in touch with the American culture.

The magical trip to Shanghai Disneyland

  • Realizing how much we are alike.

A couple dozen lunches, a few karaoke nights and a few months of living together in the same building, it didn’t take long for me and my American friends to realize that underneath all those differences on the surface, how much we are alike underneath. We may laugh at different jokes, watch different TV, listen to different music and eat different foods. But we all still chuckle when somebody pulls a silly April Fool’s prank, hate Litter Finger with our guts on Game of Thrones, can’t help but start dancing at the sound of Africa by Toto, and collectively salivate at the smell of soup dumplings. We all have the same anxieties of transitioning to the adulthood in the face of the daunting uncertainties life brings us, but we all remain hopeful and supportive of one another and get overjoyed out of our minds when one of us gets admitted into a good grad school or their dream job, not to mention how overcome with emotion we all are when the semester is over and it’s time to say goodbye. 

It’s so hard to say goodbye

Looking back, I’m incredibly thankful for the decision I made in my Freshman year to join The Beijing Center in its mission to promote cultural exchange and friendship. Being a CR has been an eye-opening journey filled with fond memories that I will treasure for the rest of my life, and I only wish more people could have the opportunity to do the same.