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My life as a foreign exchange student 

New kid in the country

click to enlarge Like all international students, Peixi Jiang had to work hard to adjust to a life in America. - COURTESY PEIXI JIANG
  • Courtesy Peixi Jiang
  • Like all international students, Peixi Jiang had to work hard to adjust to a life in America.

It was around 7 p.m. when I arrived in Denver from China.

I was standing outside the airport, with two big pieces of luggage, waiting for a shuttle to pick me up. It started to rain, more and more heavily. The shuttle still didn’t arrive. 

I went back inside the airport and felt uneasy. People were exiting and entering the airport, and the sky changed its color from bright orange to dark black.

Lost, afraid, confused and only 14 years old, I filled my mind with unsure thoughts. Finally, the shuttle came. I entered the van and looked out the window. It was dark outside, and I could not see the city clearly. 

I felt it was unbelievable: “Am I really in America?” 

Like foreign exchange students all around the world, my journey as an international student started here. What would happen? 

In the past five to 10 years, it has been a trend for some families, especially from Asia and Europe, to send their children to study abroad. I’m an only child, and was the first in my family to be an exchange student.

That first trip I took to America in 2016, when I was just 14, was the farthest away I had ever been from my family in Guiyang. I’m 18 now, but I can still vividly remember how hard it was to say goodbye to my parents in the airport: I tried to leave them with a big smile on my face, but I quickly turned around and walked to security with tears on my cheeks. 

Although scared and feeling all alone, I was about to face the very same challenges that other foreign students encounter when they first move abroad.

Language was absolutely the first hurdle. At my small, private school, the Colorado Springs School, I took World Literature in my first year. Sitting in the class, surrounded by American peers, I was nervous. Why was the English teacher talking so fast? How did everybody else come up with answers so quickly? I tried to get involved in class discussions, but I was so anxious about organizing the words in my brain before getting up the courage to raise my hand to share my opinion. On top of that, it was frustrating when others always answered the question I was going to answer.

I made myself talk, even though I was afraid my answer was inappropriate since I was so far from home. I even counted how many times I talked in each class and tried to talk just one more time the next day.

At the beginning of my first year, when classmates talked with me, I was extra careful to pay attention because I was afraid of missing even a single word people said. Sometimes, I felt embarrassed when other students could not understand what I was talking about or when I could not respond to what others asked. However, I did not give up; instead, I encouraged myself to speak out one time, two times… until others understood.

Due to my bravery and hard work, I gradually felt more confident and comfortable talking in classes and communicating. Even though this took much self-motivation and time, I never gave up and improved step by step.

Also, like many foreign students, I took a while to get used to American cuisine. Even now, years later, I still remember the first time I had macaroni and cheese for dinner. It was sort of like Chinese rice noodles mixed with melted cheese. When I took the first bite, it felt slimy and squishy in my mouth and tasted like nothing I’d had before. It was so terrible, but I could not spit it out; instead, I kept drinking water while eating the food.

My host mother looked at me with a friendly smile and asked me if I liked it. I forced a smile, tried to be nice, and said, “It tastes good! I like your cooking.”

A similar experience happened with a tortilla. It was my first time trying tortillas, which looked similar to my favorite snack, potato chips. However, the actual taste was far different than I expected: It was dry like pieces of warm cardboard. 

American food made me feel far from China. One weekend, my host family took me to a Chinese restaurant downtown. Looking at the menu and talking with the restaurant owner in Chinese gave me a sense of safety and belonging. Eating familiar food and speaking my native tongue filled me with a sense of home.

Even though I felt comfortable for a moment, I was determined to learn the culture of my new host country. With this in mind, I started to eat more American food. Over time, I found out that our taste buds can change and with this change, feelings of comfort and familiarity can change, too. To my surprise, with more exposure to American food, I even started to like macaroni and cheese and tortillas!

I know from the news that the president of the United States has made some negative statements about China in recent years, and I have noticed that there has been a significant decline in Chinese students coming to the U.S. lately. I do not feel scared since my host family, school and community are always here for me and are extremely supportive.

At my school, where I’m a junior now, students all know each other, and the teachers have been supportive of me. Teachers here gave me the courage to step outside of my comfort zone, and my peers on campus have helped me in class discussions. The other students have been patient with me, and haven’t laughed at my accent or innocence about American culture. 

Both of my host families have treated me well, and I have grown to love my two current host brothers, Noah, 7, and Liam, 4. And of course I still fly home to see my family every summer and winter break. 

Growing from this secure and supportive environment, I have made connections with others and have established my unique identity as a Chinese international student. We all have our own challenges and struggles in life. However, as long as we keep trying, keep an open mind, and know there is always someone supporting us, who knows what’s possible? 

Peixi Jiang is an international student from China who has been in the U.S. for three years. She is currently a junior at The Colorado Springs School and an aspiring writer.

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