“It’s a new experience. If you’re always stuck in one place you’ll never see the world, you’ll never see the people.”
Xiaolin Su is a senior financial economics major at UMBC. Su now comfortably calls the UMBC campus home. When she left China and entered the United States for the first time, however, she was met with an intimidating new country.
“As a non-native speaker, all of the things here make me nervous,” said Su. “I don’t want people looking at me thinking ‘she can’t even speak English and she looks weird, dresses weird.’ [I don’t want people looking at me] like I [don’t] belong to here.”
The difficulty of Su’s transition was stressed by her limited resources in China. Due to internet censorship, she did not have access to the same websites Americans do. This limitation impeded her ability to learn about the United States before coming. She could not even find pictures of UMBC.
The welcoming atmosphere at UMBC, however, helped her adapt to a new country. Su recalls how when she was first at orientation, she did not know how to find the correct building. Thankfully, a student helped her with directions and walked her to the classroom. “It’s [a] small thing, but it [felt] really nice,” Su recalls.
Su believes that such events demonstrate that Americans are friendly. According to Su, Americans are more likely to greet and smile at strangers. Su also delights in the cultural diversity she found in the United States. Her interest in different cultures began with an upbringing different from that of most young girls in China.
Su was raised in Dalian, a northern Chinese city which was under Japanese and then Russian control during the late 19th and through the mid-20th centuries. Su therefore grew up surrounded by Russian castles and European architecture.
She also had numerous Korean classmates. They all spoke in Chinese, but they exposed Su to another culture in a country that is 91 percent Han Chinese. “Perhaps that is why I like Korean food so much,” Su said.
Su was acclimated with cultural diversity, but when she arrived in the United States, she found an ethnic landscape that was differently diverse from that of her home.
“Here there are white people and black people,” Su says, “It’s totally different. There are so many cultures.”
When Su first came to UMBC, she took English classes for a year to prepare for her coursework in economics. One of her favorite topics of discussion in class was American and Chinese culture. She also enjoyed writing and speaking assignments because they helped improve her English.
Speaking English with non-native speakers, however, had unique challenges. Su says, “Because we are not native speakers, it can be stressful. I might not understand [what one of my classmates] is talking about, and he doesn’t understand what I’m [talking] about.”
Despite the stresses of living abroad, Su enjoys the freedom of expression she has at UMBC. A lesbian and self-described tomboy, Su believes the representation for LGBTQIA+ individuals in the United States is starkly different from that in China.
“In China they reject [LGBTQIA+],” Su says. “They don’t put [LGBTQIA+ individuals in the news. They ban [LGBTQIA+] movie stars [and] singers.” She believes that despite the persistence of homophobia, LGBTQIA+ individuals in America are freer to express their identities.
Though it has not been without hardships, Su is happy with her decision to earn her degree in the U.S. because it has allowed her to experience a lifestyle that is unimaginable in China. She says her journey to improve her English also improved her confidence and made her want to improve herself. Truly full of grit, Su is a proud member of our diverse UMBC community.