Last week, a good friend and constant collaborator of C3 and the CCCE office published a fantastic post about his experience as an international student. Please enjoy this piece by Rex Cao (’16) reflecting on his challenges, persistence, and new meanings in the five years of adventures that he’s had since coming to America (and you can check out the original post on his tumblr blog here).
My 5 Years of Abroad Experience – Living the Liminal
(Liminal: the space in between)
Tiredness is weighing down,
Lackadaisical efforts are seen on my footprints everywhere,
From the half-finished reading that I put down due to my temporarily-suspended ability for comprehension; from that half-hearted conversation I just had with a friend; from that lackluster basketball game I came back from; and from my long-suppressed feeling of home sickness…
Head is spinning, heart is aching, hand is shaking, and the “peace” that I so desperately wanted, is dangling. I need to elude, for a moment, from this tumultuous internal state that I am in.
What happened? What is wrong with me?
Imagine moments when things continuously fall short of your expectations one after another like the domino effect. How many times have we been in the cycle of gaining, losing and regaining the courage and confidence to tell ourselves “no stumbling-over-the-same-stone” ever again? Gradually, I find my fervor of turning over a new leaf wanes, and the feeling of defeat weighs just a little more each time I fall.
Maybe I shouldn’t have tried so hard to fit into American culture in the beginning by disassociating myself with my roots, my fellow Chinese peers;
Maybe I shouldn’t have felt obliged to help other Chinese international students with their cultural adaptation on my own terms – discounting my Chinese peers’ individualistic differences in priorities, preferences and ideologies;
Maybe I shouldn’t even have entertained the idea to explore what it means to be the bridge between two cultures, two distinct social groups with two sets of contradicting value systems and social norms…
I thought I had grown a lot since my first day in America. I thought I had gained enough language and cultural understanding of America throughout the two years at McNick (my high school in Cincinnati) to not end up exactly where I have been throughout my 3 years at Denison…
I thought I had gained enough confidence through successfully blending into American culture, befriending many non-Chinese students, and distinguishing myself from the Chinese community yet being able to remain as one of them.
And I thought the combination of all these things would have given me everything that’s needed to stop feeling alone, in-between, ambiguous, uncertain, and confused when being abroad.
In retrospect, the struggles, pains, discomforts, self-doubts, emotional breakdowns and confusions over my future… were the biggest obstacles I’ve ever encountered in my life thus far, but they are also the biggest blessings in disguise that predicated personal growth and a better future.
If there’s one thing that I did right throughout the course of 5 years in America, it would be RISK TAKING.
By taking risks, I don’t mean that every decision I made or everything I did involved absolute clarity, certainty and vengeance – but rather, it was my lasting commitment to continuous self-growth and the promise I made to myself about a better future self that, again and again, resuscitated me on this bewildering path of living the liminal.
I persisted to take small risks: from speaking up in classes, to befriending intimidating football players or attractive females, to joining a fraternity and holding leadership positions in campus organizations. Gradually and unintentionally, I was able to cultivate an intuition to trust in those first small baby-steps of risk taking to grow into the build-up of my courage and skills for greater risks, and ultimately lead me to finding my own path.
Walking the roads in-between two worlds; speaking the others-oriented rhetoric that permanently puts others’ needs above mine; listening and subscribing to the contradictory cultural appropriateness and social norms disseminated by both Chinese and non-Chinese peers, both my Chinese roots and American lived experiences.
This liminal path I am on is so confusing, yet the cumulative refreshing sense of gratification that comes with each challenge conquered, each risk taken and each goal accomplished keeps the abroad experience enchanting just enough for me to not give in to the peer pressure of comfort zone, nor to completely succumb to American assimilation, or Denison assimilation.
However, this statement by no means overshadows how much my abroad experience hurts, bites, twists, shatters, and wrecks my self-consciousness and self-esteem over and over.
Nevertheless, the beautiful and positive side of things do reveal themselves once enough time has passed, and enough risks have been taken: new meanings are constructed to replace the negativities of being away from friends, home, food, and everything that’ s familiar and comfortable; the birth of self-assertiveness and self-empowerment ultimately transpires with enough pain and difficulties endured;
and the long-craved joy, pride, confidence, certainty, clarity, hope for the future, in addition to the light-heartedness and playfulness that’s unique to American social expectation finally stop contradicting with my original attitude and outlook rooted in Chinese confuciunism and Maoist paranoia.
I became aware that I don’t have to fit into either categories, nor could either cultural standard police my identity and who I want to be.
I started to look at my life at Denison differently, and sometimes even grew to indulge in the ‘results’ I have gotten from the endured tough times: leadership skills, social skills, expanded open-mindedness; reservation of judgements of others; cultural adaptability, and multicultural competence…. Nonetheless, living the liminal and permanently being entrenched in in-betweeness is still a reality that I have to choose to embrace everyday.
I still encounter difficulties as the new ones and, of course, the old ones keep finding their way back: language barriers, lapses of cultural misunderstandings, pressure to live up to both cultural expectations. And this is where the importance of making the choice of approach comes into play; do I choose to succumb to pressures from expectations located on either side of the China-US spectrum, or do I choose to embrace the in-betweeness.
Living the liminal, then, is a beautiful thing. For the practice of familiarizing myself with discomforts, disorientations, confusions and ambiguities expands my comfort zone, and through which I learned to become resilient to external environments that impose on me meanings, ideas and interpretations of the reality. I also learned about the fluidity and continuation of self-evolvement and self-realization through being constantly denied by both cultures, both identities, while remains steadfast in finding the meaning in-between.
More importantly, I learned to embrace the contradictions that have resulted from influences of competing ideologies: extraversion vs. introversion; teeth-revealing laughs vs. shy and bashful beams; outgoing deemnor vs. reserved gentleness; self-sufficiency and competition vs. family-oriented harmony; individualism vs. collectivism; free speech vs. self-moderation of speech; instant gratification vs. abstemiousness…….. the list goes on and on.
Ultimately, I learned that living the liminal means seeking from within myself to not alter and bend what makes me me in order to compensate for the discrepancies between the asymmetrical US-China cultural expectations in the liminal space, but rather being clear and taking ownership of my intentions, my motives, my reasoning, my knowledge, my wisdom, my hopes and dreams that are constructed by my past, while knowing they remain open to changes in the future.
And I have to continue living the liminal by making the same decision everyday: to embrace the in-betweeness and OWN it.
So let’s take a break, recalibrate, meditate, recuperate, and rejuvenate my passions and re-sail from where I just debarked.
致与我同舟共济的 Denison 中国学生以及更多的遍布于美国各地的你们：
二是期望通过我的声音，我的故事来鼓励和我一同在 liminality 中挣扎的同学，