A real conversation with my Chinese roommate

Why This Matters | Ally Barbaro | April 6, 2016

  • Copied

For The Rival’s profiling week, I asked to interview one of my Thurston roommates, Jessica Wang. Jessica is from Dongguan, China. She’s in the business school and is a very pleasant person to live with. I wanted to interview Jessica, who preferred to use her American name over her Chinese name, because even though I have now lived with her for eight months, I know very little about the life and culture of China – and I’d guess most American GW students don’t either. Some of my friends may be thinking, “Ally aren’t you an international affairs major? How do you not know anything about China?” Well, while I wouldn’t have picked international affairs if I already knew everything about the world, there’s also a difference between what I can learn from a textbook about China and what I can learn from an honest conversation with my roommate from abroad – a conversation American GW students living with international students may never think, or bother, to have.

Ally Barbaro: To start, what’s your favorite thing about GW?

Jessica Wang: Professors…I like them as people. They are very passionate about what they do, and [they] are very into teaching. They care about what they are doing. My favorite is Joseph Bonin [who teaches] Calculus I.

A: Least favorite thing about GW?

J: The food. Tuition. GW is pretty boring for me. It’s too small for an American university. This kind of construction style and size is like our high school and junior high. When I watched movies that showed college in America the [colleges] are very large and have different looking buildings and lots of grass areas. For Thanksgiving, I went to New Jersey. I went to Princeton and that was more like what I expected. It had football fields, pretty buildings and green spaces. People rode bikes and it was nicer than GW; it was more like what I thought college in America would be.


Jessica told me that GW feels small compared to her high school. “The streets and set up of it make it feel that way,” she said, “It’s really just not as big as what I imagined.”

In southern China, students dorm at their high school, she said, unless they live really close to campus. She said she liked living there, but it was hard to study.

A: You said you hate the food – what food don’t you like? Do you just generally miss food from home?

J: Restaurants other than J Street are acceptable. J Street is terrible. I don’t understand why we have to spend so much money there. I suppose if they didn’t make us, nobody would eat there.

I asked her what food from home she missed the most. She couldn’t decide, but she had to tell me, “McDonald’s in China is very different from here. It has different products. It tastes different and better. Like we have chicken thigh hamburger instead of chicken breast. That is much better.”

A: Is Dongguan [her “home town”] close to any major cities in China?

J: Dongguan is closest to Guangzhou. It is also close to Hong Kong.

A: Do you go to those cities often?

J: To go to Hong Kong you need a type of passport, so I would say I go four or five times a year. Usually, I go to Guangzhou for shopping.

Q: Does most of your family live in the same city as you?

A: Most of my relatives live in same city, but in more remote part. There are many factories where they live. In Dongguan, there are several big shopping malls that are four or five floors tall. There are a lot of clothing stores and restaurants. It is much more fun than here.

Q: Does your specific city or province have any special traditions?

A: Very special festivals are exclusive to small towns in our province. In more developed cities, they don’t really have any. Some small towns keep their traditions from very old times.

Q: Have you traveled at all throughout China or the rest of Asia?

A: I’ve traveled throughout China. There are many provinces and different areas have different habits and traditions and even different climates because China is so big.

A: Did you have any specific expectations coming here?

J: I had no expectations. I had a negative attitude for going somewhere this far away from home, and I don’t really believe in myself.

A: Has it gotten better? Do you believe in yourself more now after being here for almost a year?

J: I think it’s gotten better. Now, when I mess up speaking English – like sometimes I’ll mix up  “he” and “she” – I don’t feel bad anymore. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. I don’t care.

Q: Do you feel that the competition in school here is the same or different in China?

A:  The competition here is just me against myself. If I get an A-, next time I will push myself to get an A. In China, within your class, you will know everyone’s grades, so there is more competition between classmates.

She wanted to discuss the difference between China and the US in how classes are structured. “In China, you just sit there and be awake,” she said, “Here, participation is very important. I hate classes that have a lot of participation because I’m not used to it. That’s why I like economics and calculus – because it’s all lecture. The professor talks, and you just sit there and do your notes…that’s more like classes in China. That is why French class is a huge step for me.”

A: Did any of your family or friends give you advice before coming to the United States for the first time?

J: I have an uncle that lived here for most of his life and he told me what to take with me, but not much more.

A: Do people back home have specific opinions on Americans?

J: At home, people think American students don’t study a lot and spend most of their time partying and doing other activities. Some of my friends still ask why I’m studying all of the time. They say, “You should be out partying having fun.” I basically say bad words to them and tell them that [they] aren’t here. [They] shouldn’t be judging me if [they] don’t know what it’s like here. [They can] talk to me after [they] come here and experience it. True friends don’t really care about that though.

She also told me that some of her former classmates want to travel to the U.S. during their vacations. Some want to go to Washington because they know she’s studying here. When they ask her what is fun about D.C., the tells them they can go to museums, but she said they think that’s boring and prefer New York or California. They want beautiful views or beautiful streets, she said. “DC is a little boring for me. Like, who wants to spend most of their time in museums?”

Q: After [graduating from] GW, do you think you want to stay in the U.S. or go back and work in China?

A: I want to go back and work in China after school. Probably in Hong Kong. The city I live in is not very developed, not like Beijing and Shanghai. I don’t see many opportunities there because it is so small.

At the end of the interview, Jessica wanted to share this story with me:

Some American people are very caring because once I shopped in Sephora with a friend. I was very tired and my friend was spending a lot of time choosing masks, so I looked through other stuff. A salesperson came up to me and asked, “Why are you being unhappy?” I got nervous because that was just the way my face was. Nobody in China would ask something like that. I have never encountered that before in China.

Nobody asks about [the] expression on your face. I panicked and told her, “Oh no, it’s just my face.” She told me – not exactly this but like this, “When you are alive for one day, it’s something that you should be happy about.” I was embarrassed and didn’t know how to deal with it, so I was like, “OK bye,” and she said, “I just want you to be happy!”

Note from the director of content: Jessica preferred not to have her photo included in this article. The order in which the questions were asked have been rearranged for clarity and a more cohesive narrative.