Shuqing Zhao is a Boston University broadcast journalism graduate student from northeast China. He majored in English in a Chinese University, and came to the States to pursue his graduate degree. This is the latest in our series of interviews with international students here in Boston.
Carolyn Bick: Could you tell me what it was like for you to … get off the plane?
Shuqing Zhao: It was … actually terrible, ‘cause, you know, everything was new. I’ve probably told this story a thousand times to people, but I didn’t really know how to cross the street when I first got here, so that’s what really made it terrible.
My language was very rusty, so I had to … pick it up. I had to start talking to people, and everything here is just so different from China. There’s this cart at the airport you can use to carry stuff around. It is free in China, but it is not free here, so when I first got off the plane, I was trying to get a cart out of the many carts, but I couldn’t. Then, somebody told me, ‘You have to pay for it,’ and I was totally embarrassed.
You’re new, so there’s always something to learn, something to be embarrassed about, I guess.
Another thing that I find really, really difficult for me is to talk to a group of people. When we’re doing this one-on-one thing, I am perfectly capable of steering the conversation. But when it’s a group of [Americans], it’s like you’re always talking about football, baseball, Boston sports. I have no idea how I should weigh in on all those subjects. So, the orientation thing, it was sort of hard, and sort of fun, at the same time, because I was trying to talk to my classmates one by one, instead of talking to them as a group of them, so I wouldn’t be left out of the conversations they were having. So, I guess that was what was difficult. It still is, but it’s getting better.
CB: So, have you tried to learn about sports, or no?
SZ: Actually, I’ve planned to learn a bit about Boston sports, since I got here, but I haven’t had the time … or you could just call me lazy. I’ve never been much of a sports guy. I exercise when I can, but I don’t really like any specific sport. I play a little bit of table tennis, which is not popular here.
I know a lot of friends of mine, they are already very familiar with Boston sports, and stuff. But, for me, I’m just not that interested. So, I guess, I should pick up on that subject real soon, because I need it to help me talk to people, and I guess that’s one of the many cultural elements you have to absorb in America, because everybody’s obsessed with sports. That’s just my opinion.
CB: When you say when you talk to us -- I am assuming Americans -- is it [your fellow] broadcast kids, or every single American you run into?
SZ: I talk to broadcast kids, of course, but I also try to talk to strangers on the street. And, actually, I don’t know why, I prefer talking to strangers over journalism kids. I have no idea why, but I feel like strangers are just so nice to people. You can strike up a conversation while you’re waiting for the T. I know this English teacher at [the language school in Boston University]. I met this woman while I was waiting for the T. I met her, and started this conversation a couple of times at the same stop, so now we’re actually … it’s sort of like we’re friends now! It’s actually surprising how nice people are here out on the street. It’s really weird that, sometimes, when I am talking to my classmates, to the journalism kids, we are running out of topics to talk about. So, sometimes, it can be really awkward for me. They are really nice people, and they talk to me, but, sometimes, I just feel like there’s nothing there to talk about. After a while, you’ve sort of exhausted all the topics you can talk about with strangers here in America. That’s why I’m trying to socialize as much as I can. [The American students] are throwing this Thanksgiving party Sunday, so I’m going to be there. I’m going to cook some Chinese food for them, and hopefully … some things, the effort I am putting into this socializing thing, will help bring me and my classmates together, at some point, on some level.
CB: Speaking of American classmates, you mentioned they’re really, really nice. Did you have trouble speaking to them, at first, or understanding … the way they were acting?
SZ: I guess. After all, they are from a different country. Since I’m the foreigner here, I should keep an open mind, and understand however they act, I’m not really in a position to judge, or think they are acting weirdly, because I think I am in a foreign country. It’s my job to acclimate, to understand the way they talk, and where language is concerned, I don’t really have a problem understanding what people are saying, but sometimes they throw these really, really cultural slangs at me, that’s when I’ll have a bit of a problem understanding. But I will ask, and they would be very willing to explain what they are talking about, so that’s not really a problem.
CB: I actually meant less about the language, since I think your English is great.
SZ: Well, as for the English language, I have pet peeves about the language. I really don’t like the word, ‘like’. It’s like, [Americans] are butchering the language with this word, ‘like’, and I try to refrain from using that word as humanly as possible, but only after, you know, you are really irritated by that word, you realize how much you actually say that word. I mean, I say it every day, but I just try to not use it that often, because, sometimes, it’s just not that necessary to put ‘like’ in every sentence … which I just did.
So, that’s, like, one of my pet peeves about the English language. ‘Cause I was studying English -- it was actually my major, in college. So, I guess, throughout the process, I just got attached, or something. I have this weird feeling toward this language, so I feel like people are not supposed to be butchering this language. I mean, I’m not really in a position to judge, ‘cause, after all, it’s a second language to me, personally. But I really don’t like that word. I hate that word.
CB: Was anything … difficult for you, or surprising, or unexpected?
SZ: I was just walking on the street some day, and some dude just came up to me, and said, ‘Good morning, how are you?’
I paused for a second. I was just processing all that information, because people never do that in China. And, after the brief pause, I came back to life, and I was like, ‘Good, how are you? And good morning,’ back to him. So, it was actually nice how people just talk to you on the street, without any specific reason. Sometimes, they just smile at you, and, I guess, that’s my best, my favorite [and] surprising part of Boston. Or they just say hi to you, out of nothing, which I like, ‘cause I … especially like talking to strangers. I have no idea why.
But I am surprisingly quiet … in classrooms, when everyone is just talking to each other, I’m just surprisingly quiet. I have no idea why. I just don’t know how to really be in that conversation. It’s really hard for me.
CB: Have you found anything else to be particularly difficult for you?
SZ: Difficult … does things being crazy-expensive here count as being difficult?
I think everything is crazy-expensive here. Let’s just say that everything in China’s just cheap. Incredibly cheap, compared to what you’re selling here in America. So, when I got here, this bottled water cost, like, a dollar or two. It’s around that price. So, it took me some time to come around. All those prices you put on the items you sell here. And I’m actually spending a lot of money here, every month. It’s nothing compared to the daily expenses you guys have in America, but it’s a lot compared to the money people are spending in China. So, that’s part of the difficult part, and I’m sort of ‘slumming it’ right now. That’s why I’m actually cooking all the time. I cook all the time, just to avoid eating in the restaurants, because, you know, restaurants can be really expensive and stuff. And, of course, you have to tip, which is another thing we don’t have in China. I hate tipping, but I understand how you guys, how waitresses, how waiting tables can be a little hard, so I understand the part of the culture, I guess, that’s part of the culture. I never cooked before I came to Boston. I only started cooking after I got here, which is like the end of August. And I can say, I’ve made, you know, a lot of progress where cooking’s concerned. I’m a good cook now. So, three months, that’s all it takes to be a good cook. Oh, three months and things being crazy-expensive. That’s what it takes to be a good cook.
CB: How does your daily experience differ here from a day in China? Just little things that you’ve noticed that are different.
SZ: I’ve found a lot of things are actually easier. You guys have these tanks that you can drink water out of. I don’t know what …
CB: Water fountains, yeah.
SZ: ‘Water fountain’, that’s a new word for me today! I just think it’s convenient … so you don’t have to carry a bottle with you everywhere you go. We don’t have that in China. So, that’s a good thing.
I’m going to talk a little bit about bathrooms. So, you guys have toilet papers, and you guys always have toilet papers in every bathroom in the US, and that’s a good thing, ‘cause that way, you don’t have to carry paper around wherever you go. We have to do that [in China], and, sometimes, the bathrooms, the toilet paper’s could get messy, for some reason. So, that was not good. I think you guys having all these toilet papers is really nice, it’s really personal.
How you are, when you are crossing the street, I think most of the drivers would stop the car, would let you pass, first, and then they drive through. And that’s sort of new. Because, in China, we have so many cars, so many buses. Everybody want to get through as fast as they could, so no one is willing to stop and let people go first. So, I think what you guys have here is really great.
Other than that … I didn’t know how to order in restaurants, in coffee shops. So, the first time I went to this Starbucks coffee house, I was just waiting in line, browsing through all the different things they had on the board. And I didn’t really know how to order, so I figured I could just say random stuff, just to see how it goes. And it turned out it went terribly. It was terrible.
Somehow, I said, ‘I want a single shot of espresso. And I got exactly what I ordered: a single shot of espresso in a tiny, tiny, teeny-tiny, super-tiny cup, which was really awkward for me, because when I grabbed the cup from the person who was handing it to me, she was like, ‘Are you sure this is what you ordered? Are you sure this is what you want? Because, you know, you only have this single shot in this tiny cup.’ And I nodded, slightly, and I walked away, with my face full of awkwardness. And I drank my solo shot of espresso, in sadness. And the next time, I actually asked one of my classmates how to get a cup of coffee -- how to get a normal cup of coffee -- from these coffee shops, so things went better from there!
CB: So, what other little things are different here, for you?
SZ: The subway in China would never run on the ground. You know, the first time I saw [the T], I thought it was a bus. I thought it was a long, long bus. Then, after I started taking the T for the first time, just it would go from Blandford Street down to Kenmore, that’s when I realized, ‘Wow! This is actually your subway. This is actually not a bus.’ That was actually weird, really, really weird, for somebody who hadn’t seen all these different cars, these trains, running on the ground.
Also, some of the drivers would let you in on different doors of the trains, which would never happen in China. You always have to pay, first, before you get on the train. This is one of the good things I like in Boston.
I honestly really don’t like the food here. It’s always too greasy, and unhealthy. I like unhealthy and greasy, but the food you have here, is just so … it’s too unhealthy, too greasy.
CB: What was the worst food you ever tried here? That was so greasy ... that you had to stop eating it?
SZ: I can’t really think of something that I hate that much.
I can think of something, but I forget the name of it. It’s some sort of spaghetti, I think. I actually had this in Cheesecake Factory. And there was just so much cheese in the dish that I ordered. I don’t really like cheese, so that’s probably why I hated that specific dish.
And, while speaking of Cheesecake Factory, I really, really like the cheesecake they have in there. Those are … my favorite thing about Boston.
I like sweet stuff. I know it’s not healthy, and it makes you fat. You have to exercise a lot, probably, afterwards. So, meat, and sweet stuff, those are my two favorite types of food.
But I also try not to eat that much sweet stuff, because, after all, it’s not healthy, and you have to exercise a lot afterward, which is exhausting.
CB: What kind of cheesecake?
SZ: Mango something. I have a very specific type, ‘cause mango is my favorite kind of fruit. It’s actually funny, because Big Bang Theory is very popular in China. Everybody watches it, and Penny, you know, the character? I’ll just walk you through it. There’s this waitress, Penny, the character in the show, she works in Cheesecake Factory. So, everybody who goes to America, we all have this general idea that, you know, I am going to try the cheesecakes there, and I was one of them. So, I tried one of the cakes they had in there, and it was great. I just couldn’t stop eating. So, I try not to go there as often. And it is sort of expensive. $8 for a small piece.
CB: Besides the Cheesecake Factory, what do you really like here?
SZ: I can think of a lot of things, but there’s this thing that’s on top of my mind.
So, I think we have a lot of great professors [at Boston University], and we have all these small classes, which you would never get in China, which, you understand why. We have so large a population, so it’s impossible to have classes that small. For that, we’d have to have, like, 10 billion teachers, which is impossible.
SZ: So, the classes here are, like, really, really small, and you get very personal attention from the professors, so that’s … you know, that’s just so nice! So swell, I guess.
Let’s talk about [a specific BU broadcast professor]. We have this broadcast class from broadcast kids, of course, and, you know, whenever, you know, [this professor]’s going to go with something he thinks I will have a problem understanding, he will explain that to me -- explain concepts, words to me, first -- before he goes on teaching. That is something I never had in China. It’s really, really personal. You feel like you’re important.
I didn’t really like my teachers in college. They just sucked at teaching. They were so bad at English! Even I was better. Honestly. In all honesty, they just sucked at speaking, listening -- everything! So, I was always wondering what made them, you know, teach, what made them teachers in a university. For me, it was unacceptable. I’ve always wanted great teachers, so they were sort of … they didn’t exactly live up to my expectations. That’s why I hated them. But I do like the professors here.
So, [this BU professor] would always explain stuff he thinks I wouldn’t understand, and [another BU broadcast journalism professor] would … he’s invited me to this -- ah, I don’t know what it is. It’s just him and Chinese students hanging out before Thanksgiving, because he thinks we are here, family-ness -- no, no! Family-less. See? I’m a foreigner after all. So, he has this really great idea of us getting together, so he is taking us out for drinks, I think.
CB: That’s so nice!
SZ: So, that’s another example of the personal attention I am getting. And, [another BU journalism professor], I was just using the microwave in another faculty lounge -- which I wasn’t supposed to be using, anyway -- and I ran into him. He came up to me, and he was like, ‘How are you doing? You know, it’s a big change for you, from China to America. I want to know how you’re doing in America.’ And it was so warm, to me, someone caring that actually cared about you. And he also said, ‘I admire you guys for what you’re doing, what you did. I would never be able to do that.’ And that made my day. ‘Cause, in China, no one would ever walk up to you, and tell you, ‘Well, you know, you’re great!’ and stuff. So, I felt really great that day. And I told him that, ‘Wow, a professor actually admires me for something! I should have this on record!’
CB: Are there any things … we talked about what you really like here. Are there things that you just … totally just dislike, and wish did not exist in America?
SZ: I am sure I can think of something.
CB: If you have nothing, that’s fine, too.
SZ: I have something … I think I am going to need your help describing it.
SZ: At some T stations, there are this type of doors that you can just walk in …
CB: Automatic doors?
SZ: No, not automatic. Just metal doors, black ones. You can walk in from there, but you cannot walk outside.
CB: Oh, I think I know what you’re talking about, but I don’t think there’s a specific door … I don’t think there’s a specific word for them, but I know exactly …
SZ: It’s sort of like the doors in jail. You know what I’m saying?
CB: You mean the revolving doors? That have the metal spokes, and you can go through them?
SZ: Yes, the very not-classy doors. I think they should not exist. Because you guys already have entrances and exits. I just don’t get why those doors exist. I mean, if you’re really, really big, or really, really fat, you can’t fit in through the door. You’re going to get stuck, which would be awkward for those people getting stuck there. Even though I don’t think they’re ever going to try walking through that door, I just don’t think there’s any reason for that type of doors to exist. Because you already have entrances for that, you already have exits for that. You already have automatic doors that just let you through once you are there. So, I really don’t understand why you guys have those bizarre, and not-classy, hideous things there.
To me, it’s just like a disgrace to the city as a whole, or to the MBTA station, whatever. We should totally demolish those doors, and have more beautiful, regular ones.
CB: Well, if somebody painted them, would they be better?
SZ: No. They wouldn’t be better. Because it just feels like you’re stepping into a prison, when you walk through those doors. So, I really, really hate them. They’re just plain, ugly things on earth.
CB: I appreciate your honesty. This is good!
SZ: Freedom of speech! Exactly. And I think you guys are not efficient enough. I mean, your government is not efficient enough. The government shutdown? Ugh, what was that? It’s like you guys are always debating. It’s like you guys are always discussing stuff, not getting stuff done. But in China, I think that’s one of the many benefits, one of the benefits, that comes with having only one party in control. Things get done in a minute. The minute you decide, the minute you start working on it. It’s very efficient. People get to see the results. But here, you’re deciding, you’re deciding, everybody’s saying, ‘Well, there are benefits, there are pros and cons, I just can’t decide.’
So, you know, you just can’t decide, and things just never get done. So, that’s the part I don’t like about democracy, about having two major parties, you know, talking to each other, having all these conflicts with each other. I think that’s one of the bad things, one of the things I don’t like in here.
But, also, it could be good, because you talk about all these pros and cons over with people with decision-makers, maybe you could make better decisions out of the debating process. I don’t know.
CB: Rather than just two parties?
SZ: Yeah. It’s just not efficient enough.