About: Li Qianyi (Ashley) is a 2nd year master’s student in Oral Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who moved from her hometown of Shenzhen, China in September 2018 to start graduate school. Currently, she is writing her master’s thesis, titled “Peripherally restricted cannabinoids in the relief of chronic migraine ,” and is actively applying to dental schools. She was kind enough to speak candidly with me about her experience as an international graduate student at UCLA.
Q: How does being an international student shape your interactions with others in an academic setting?
Qianyi (Ashley) brought up that she spent quite a long time learning first, then adjusting to, the etiquette expected of students in academia.
“I once sent an email to the professor of my cancer immunology class. Back then, I thought he appeared to be very friendly, and I thought people would think I was friendly if I called people by their first name. Other professors told students to call them by their first names, so I thought that was maybe what we were supposed to do. However, he responded by saying that I ought to call him Dr. or Professor. As a result, I felt embarrassed. Later on, whenever I sent an email, I would always carefully look at every word I wrote to make sure that it sounded polite. Sometimes, I feel like my emails are over-polite, more polite than the emails from other graduate students.”
“Do you think it’s more polite to assume the gender and write Ms. or Mr. Last Name, or is it more polite to refer to people by their full name?” she asked me worriedly, only further illustrating the struggles of navigating the nuances of American culture. She now has a friend screen all of her emails prior to sending them, to ensure that the tone of her emails is conveyed as intended- something she still has difficulty with.
Qianyi also came up with the name “Ashley”, out of necessity. She noticed that professors seemed to be better able to recognize her in class with this name.“People have a hard time linking the emails I’ve sent using my real name to me in person.”
In another scenario, she reflected on her frustrations with communication. “A lot of times, when I say something, sometimes I forget how to say a particular term, and I try to recall it, and that results in some impatience from the other person. I get interrupted. Some people will start to talk about their own ideas, and some people will interrupt by asking “What are you trying to say?” “What do you mean?” And I start to think that my ideas are not that valuable, just because I’m not confident at speaking English. Is it because I’m not that good at expressing my idea, or is it because my idea is bad?
Q: What were the primary struggles you faced when you first started graduate school?
“The main struggle was loneliness. Especially as graduate students are not connected as undergrads. You are in your own lab, and you only meet other people in class, which lasts one or two hours. After that, you go separate ways, to your own labs. Your colleagues are the only people that you can communicate with during the entire day.
So you have to [socialize in] other groups, like social groups, clubs, events, and activities. I think that’s why a lot of Chinese students tend to gather together. One of the problems with seeking for connections in those social groups is often that the connections are very shallow and broken easily. People graduate. People move on. Even if you make friends in class, later you take different classes and you lose those connections. That was very frustrating, that I would make connections and then they would break. It was difficult to make and keep a deep, long-lasting friendship.”
“I also really miss the part of my personality that is Chinese…Once, after talking for three hours with my Chinese friends, I suddenly realized that I forgot how [witty] I am in Chinese. When I’m speaking Chinese with other people, I can be really funny, I can make jokes, I can sound really witty. When I first came here, my English was like [that of a] 3-year old child. Now, it’s like a 7- or 8- year old child, but the English personality is still developing. I have this dilemma: I wanted to study abroad, to study the culture and meet new people. So I am trying my best to make friends with people of different nationalities, but at the same time, I don’t have the chance to show my entire personality because part of my personality is in Chinese.”
Q: What helped you adjust to being an international student in graduate school?
“I joined a lot of clubs, I joined Japanese club, judo club, I tried apps and websites like meetup.com where people socialize, I searched for volunteering opportunities, I tried to talk to people in class, and I even set a reminder for myself that I needed to talk to at least one person in English every day. I also emailed questions, [albeit in] incorrect grammar to professors, and I set up times to talk to professors about things I didn’t understand in class. The people I met and interacted with gradually accumulated. Also, I gradually made friends and formed deep bonds with people who helped me a lot, in terms of maintaining a stable psychological state. These people were not just other Chinese students but people of all different [ethnic] backgrounds – like my language partners from the Dashew Center’s language exchange program, who listened to me and tried to understand my background. Though we are from different backgrounds, we also recognize each others’ similarities. I’m more used to the culture here, what graduate school is like, what graduate students are like. Specifically, how to survive in classes. I was struggling [in the] first quarter, all the exams were really hard.”
Q: What do you hope other people will take away from your personal journey as an international graduate student?
“For other international students, I completely understand the difficulties you may feel. Though it may sound cliche, meet more people, and keep trying. Take it slowly and make sure you maintain a good mental state, and try not to give yourself too much pressure. It took me eight months to adjust.”
After I spoke with Qianyi (Ashley), it was both saddening and enlightening to realize that interrupting someone, no matter how benign the intention, can result in not just minor irritation but also in negatively impacting that person’s self-esteem. We must recognize that tone is often lost in translation. We must remember that when someone is struggling to find words, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have words. We must strive to have more patience and understanding with each other, not in spite of our different backgrounds, but especially because we come from different backgrounds.
As always, thank you for reading.
You can continue to follow Qianyi (Ashley)’s journey on her LinkedIn here.