“I didn’t even know it snows like this,” said Wuming (Chris) Yang, a student from Chengdu, Sichuan in China.
A summer trip to America after his freshman year of high school sparked the idea of studying abroad for Chris, who fell in love with the learning culture, immersive environment and architecture of college campuses. He imagined having complete freedom here to pursue his passions, though he didn’t know what may be at the time. Chris is now a junior studying economics at Syracuse University.
His parents were surprised when he first thought of studying abroad. “At that time they could afford at most a year of tuition,” Chris said. Somehow, they agreed and he said that he feels extremely lucky that everything worked out and that they even support his decision to pursue graduate school.
After two years of international high school in his hometown, he embarked on the journey to the country he knew mostly through movies and popular culture.
He dived into the unknown starting from his first year at SU, assembling his own band and joining Orange Music Group (OMG), an on-campus booking label. It was Chris’s first time participating in bands and jam sessions despite having practiced seven years of classical piano prior.
“I’ve never imagined that a group of strangers could play impromptu together within just minutes of meeting each other,” he said. Improvisation was something he thought only professionals or masters could do.
He learned how to organize an event, set up lighting and equipment, how to contact musicians and do promotion, and how to build his own band. But the learning process was a slow and difficult one, and not without its awkward moments mostly rising from his lack of fluency in English.
“To chat with an American student for over 10 minutes is an extreme,” said Chris, who recalled being nervous just to walk on streets and be greeted with a “How are you?”
“I was having a hard time. My English was so bad.” He said he would go to Subway and order a sandwich knowing nothing about what kind of bread to choose, about the names of lettuce and pickles and sauces or what they were. He would simply point with his fingers.
Chris wanted to learn from American students, but he knew couldn’t do that without grasping English better. “I would join student clubs, go to their weekly meetings, and just listen. Sometimes I’ll understand 20% of what they’re saying, sometimes nothing at all.”
It was completely different from listening to lectures. The meetings were conversational, and he would pick up words that he’s never heard of, like blues or funk music.
After two years of barely speaking in meetings and being like an “invisible person,” he said that this was the first semester he truly participated as a member of OMG.
It was personally a very painful process for Chris overcoming the lack of power or right to speak in a group because of language barriers. Occasionally he might find an opportunity to add to the conversation, but only after he had thought out the ideas and could phrase them in English—a long internal process.
Many international students from China experience this difficulty of adapting to the different culture and language, he said, and that’s the reason some students give up and “choose to only hang out with Chinese from then on.”
Chris also discovered his passion for film photography and filmmaking this year, taking a photography class and joining Delta Kappa Alpha (DKA), the co-ed cinematic professional fraternity at SU.
“I would rush to the streets of Syracuse downtown and ask strangers if they are willing to be photographed,” he said, “You know the area near Funk ‘n Waffles? I’ve been there at least a dozen times.”
He said he simply wanted to see how the photos would look from his new film camera. “I was only thinking, ‘I bought my new camera, I chose the lens and I chose the film, I want to know how the pictures turn out.’”
The dark rooms at SU only processed films in black and white, so he bought solutions online, a budget scanner and learned to develop films in color. “Actually it’s not bad,” speaking of results from his DIY process.
He’s currently also preparing to make a short film next semester as part of the portfolio he will use to apply for graduate school.
From music to photography to film, Chris has been most proud of the friendships he’s made during his college career and how bold he’s become, constantly stepping out his comfort zones to try new things and meet new people.
“Some foreign students, even in their junior and senior years, are still intimidated to talk to American students or unable to communicate normally,” he said, “and SU is not a very friendly environment.”
He said he couldn’t pinpoint the reason for it. Part of that is attributed to the sheer number of international students enrolled at SU, part of it due to individual and environmental factors, but he has also observed that “many Americans students have never even tried to talk to international students.”
“It’s a very real problem.” Reflecting on those experiences, Chris said that the ability to communicate is crucial, whether it’s joining a community like DKA and OMG, or talking to his subjects when they’re photographed.
The growing pains have been palpable, but through it all, Chris is making his passions a reality.
Editor’s note: The interview was done bilingually, so parts of the article were translated from Mandarin.
There is an entire world of stories on the Syracuse University campus just waiting to be explored. In “Eye on ‘Cuse,” sophomore Jiaman (Maggie) Peng captures a new narrative every week.