Finding My Place in America as an International Student

Yichen Zhang, Emerson Preparatory School
Photography by Lara Bedwi, Stoneridge High School

Adapting to a new country under a different sky.

(Published: 2019)

Often times, as I look up to the dark and starry sky in the middle of the night, I start wondering whether my family is looking at the same landscape on the other side of the planet. However, it is virtually impossible for my family and I to look at the sun or the moon at the same time.

Despite the sense of novelty that came with this sudden realization of such a dramatic time difference, it is also a reminder of how far I am from my family with whom I have spent almost sixteen years.

When I finish all my school work and am ready to end an exhausting day with a shower, on the other side of the world, my mom has probably just woken up or is already on the way to her company. The moment I stepped into this “upside down” place I should have anticipated loneliness would follow.

I still remember when I said goodbye to my parents and sister at the airport in a suburb of Beijing. Behind the thin, yellowish and somewhat shabby security check line separating passengers from the rest of the visitors are eight consecutive years of studying abroad, and being seven thousand miles from home.

I patiently listened to what I would consider to be a cliché prior to the day I made the decision to study in a foreign country. Surprisingly, I had a thorough appreciation of every single word in the conversation to a level that never appeared to me before.

However, as sentimental as it was, I had to try my best to hide my emotions because I knew if I opened up about my fears and concerns, my family would worry about me on a daily basis. As they walked away, I stared at their backs — my little sister holding hands with my dad and my mom, ambling toward the parking lot — until they disappeared with the sunset. It was from that exact point that I realized: I am on my own from now on.

It is not easy to blend into a brand new society when I am from a different country located in a different hemisphere, speaking a different language, and having a completely different culture. From the very first day of school at Emerson Prep, I found myself incapable of interpreting almost all the jokes and expressions from the local students and teachers. It was not easy for me to take classes in my second language.

The literature class, from the beginning, was potentially the first real academic struggle that I have ever confronted in my life. Even though I had been studying English for almost ten years before I came to America, there is still a slight language barrier between other American classmates and me, concerning both casual and academic communication. This small obstacle made it unexpectedly difficult for me to build new relationships with the people around me, which also took me months to break through.

With great efforts to find my position in this "unknown land," I fell into an outsider mentality in this community. Two years ago, when I was an exchange student in a Catholic high school in New Jersey, the teachers would invite me to their family meal during Thanksgiving. It was really kind of them to send out this excellent invitation, but I still felt like a stranger awkwardly trying too hard to be part of a big community, to which I did not belong.

Fortunately, things eventually came to a happy ending. As time goes by, I find myself being more comfortable communicating with people and being around all the new customs and traditions. Furthermore, I am really grateful to have the privilege to live with a lovely local family.

They bring me to a wide variety of restaurants in DC and show me interesting places. They even took me on a driving tour to Orlando, Florida where we spent some quality time in Universal Studios for an entire week during Thanksgiving vacation. Gradually, I started to make friendships and interact more with teachers. I would even have occasional chats with my neighbors.

That nostalgia has faded away to the point where I can hardly feel it. I still very much miss my family; however, they have become my primary source of motivation instead of a branch on which I refuse to loosen my grip.

I will forever appreciate all the support and love that the students, teachers, and staff at Emerson, as well as the Sturm family, offered me during the hardest time of my life — settling in an unacquainted environment.

And who knows? Sooner or later I may once again be able to enjoy the view of the galaxy with my family sitting under the same sky. Whether it is where I’m from, or somewhere else.