The Wall Street Journal-featured pilot episode of youtube series ‘My Foreign Roommate’ has hit 16,000 views, the subject matter of which is none other than the biggest overseas student body in the world: the Chinese US college students. Cecilia, a co-founder of Channel C, which produced this enjoyable yet issue-hitting video, generously spared her time to share her story and answer a few questions about the international student life and social journalism scene, among other topics.

Byunghun: Would you like to briefly introduce yourself to our readers?

  • Cecilia: Sure. My name is Cecilia Miao. I was born in Guangzhou, and I attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where I graduated in 2013. I’m currently back in China to work with a start up company developing and operating a mobile Chinese-learning app called ChineseSkill.

B: What a coincidence! I graduated the University of Virginia, as a class of 2013 as well. I’m happy to talk with a fellow Asian repatriate from the US.

  • C: Are you having mild readjustment issues too? (laughs) But I am not exactly back at home home, since I relocated to Beijing for this marketing job.

 

How Channel C Began

You launched Channel C with the hope of closing the cultural gap between the Chinese and American college students. Was there a personal turning point, maybe a significant incident of a sort, which triggered that idea to you?

Muge, Fangdi, and Cecilia

  • Yes. Back in Madison, there was a forum to promote better engagements at the university level with growing number of Chinese students. Fang De, Muge, and Iㅡfriends and later co-founders of Channel Cㅡwent there together, only to find it quite disappointing. There were not that many undergraduate students and faculties attending, nor were the discussions really directed to the school life and how to better accommodate the very group of people the forum should have been about. It was all up in the air, and we wanted to challenge that by somehow raising awareness and voicing out our concerns and needs as foreign students.

And of course, youtube was an excellent way to draw the most attention. Just recall how many hours these college folks, including myself, would waste time watching all those silly videos! (laughs)

  • Exactly! it was only natural because everyone has laptops and smartphones these days. We thought the core problem lay in the chronic lack of interest in the Chinese students by the general student body. We have been conveniently objectified as those odd bunch who, having come from so far away, might appreciate some hospitality out of good will, but that’s as far as it could get. The majority students do not really identify themselves with their Chinese peers as the same 20-something-year-old college kids who just want to make friends, get connected, and have a memorable time on the campus, just like everyone else. 

And that’s where you figured you could make some changeㅡfacilitating that process of empathy, correct?

  • Yes, and it was unprecedented in that it was an initiative by a group of foreign students targeting the American students, not the usual other way around. The similar attempts by this side of the river had always been trimmed for the Chinese audiences in the Chinese language, whereas Channel C is a bilingual channel delivering our own voice to the English audience.

I can definitely see some parallel in that with Bilingual Asia Watchㅡdelivering the most local thoughts in the most international language. And frankly, I enjoyed ‘My Foreign Roommate’ regardless of this larger motives. It was simply a well-made video. I could also easily connect myself to Muge because I must have been somebody’s weird foreign roommate too not so long ago! When will the next episode come out?

  • I am glad you liked it! Unfortunately, the filming has been suspended because, well, the producers including myself have all graduated out. It is hard to continue filming when we are not physically together on the ground, not to mention we no longer enjoy the free access to the college setting and campus-casted actors.

That’s rather a bummer…but please do upload more episodes when they are ready sometime. C: Will do!

 

The internationals

I am curious, how prioritized was the promotion of diversity/accommodation of Asian international students in your school, both from the school administration and student body? At UVa, for instance, the international studies office would organize shuttle bus rides to Dulles airport in D.C. every end of semester; student-led organizations for newcomers from abroad such as Peer Advising Family Network(PAFN) were pretty active. For China specifically, I know they recently opened the UVa admissions office branch in Shanghai.

  • Well, UW also runs a general operation office in Shanghai. We did have this new thing called the Bridge program, which couples international students with US students on a one-to-one basis. But that was like the only program particularly designed to serve non-American student population.

So you did feel it was not enough.

  • It is not so much about being enough or not quantitatively, but about how our customized need is not met or cared. Take the example of those endowment request letters sent out to all the alumni. Do you get those from UVa?

Oh yes. I get those every now and then, and I have absolutely no intention to drop a penny (laughs)

  • Exactly, and why is that? because simply being a foreigner, our annual tuition rate had been already twice the amount an American in-state would pay; the law also forbid us from working to make some side cash to help out our budget, except under special circumstances. If our alma mater STILL want our moneyㅡand it’s not like we are making banks freshly out of collegeㅡshouldn’t there be at least a well thought-out, target specific strategy for the overseas alumni, rather than a blanket donation drive?

(laughs) Amen to that. Bad marketing indeed.

  • I believe students like us(well, former) can do a lot about such lack of institutional support. Since the internationals tended to put up with these issues, this was never up on the surface till now. But ultimately, the actual execution is in the hands of faculties and those who run the school. Both sides need to work on it and meet each other half way. One-sided good intentions are not good enough.

 

The thin line between the majority and minority

This is slightly off-topic, but have you or your friends ever personally experienced racism at UW? I have once: a group of friends and I were shut out at this Friday night frat house party for being Asians. One of us even knew the DJ inside, but clearly that did not qualify us to pass.

  • Thankfully no, as far as I can remember. Oh, but there was one time I was walking down the road with my friend speaking in Mandarin, and a strange on the other side mockingly mimicked us. You know, “ching chong ling dong” and all…but I guess his contempt was against our language and resulting alienness, not necessarily my race. Those are two different problems.

“Integration is a two-way street”

Right. It’s rather one of those tribulations from the classic majority-turns-minority scenario. You used to live in a world where it was perfectly normal to speak in your mother tongue, and suddenly you find yourself in a new place where that leads to ostracism or worse, jeering eyes and mouths from a complete stranger.

  • Yes. Nobody likes to feel marginalized, right. The roles switch when you look at the American and other English-speaking expats in China. There are plenty of them who came to China for varying lengths of stay and purposes. Many of them speak mediocre Chinese, or can’t even mutter a word in itㅡif not they just don’t bother to communicate with the locals whom they live among. These self-entitled expats tend to snuggle into the bubbles consist of other expats, which are no less exclusive than those Chinese groups notorious of being self-segregating; yet we do not hear as much criticism over these reverse-bubbles in China. That is a bit unfair, don’t you think?

I cannot possibly agree with you more. Those foreigner bubbles definitely exist in Korea as well, and frankly, as a bilingual person who spent significant amount of my 20s abroad consciously trying to socialize and integrate better, I am not very fond of their existence.
What troubles me even further is the fact that those expat communities are often in the center of shallow and biased, if not outright hateful, discourses on anything unfamiliar to them about the Korean society, from which many English language media find their sources.

  • I dislike them just as much as you do. There are many who rather enjoy the position of judging their host country instead of wholeheartedly trying to understand it and immerse. But unfortunately, they’ve got the Internet; they speak and write English; and the whole English-speaking world listens to them. Consequently, the opinions of these wanna-be journalists are easily empowered and instantly distributed. Remember that news about the Chinese students cheating on SATs and what not, which has effectively made all of us dirty little cheaters, just like that!

In a way, our online projects can be characterized as the native counter-movement against this lopsided information flow in the English-speaking part of the web,  which probably takes up the most data space worldwide anyway.  continue to next page

Byunghun

Byunghun

Founder, editor-in-chief