STORY BY STELLA JIANG & DESIGN BY ASHLEY ANDERSON
When I was growing up in China, whenever someone mentioned the American South, I would think of its history that I had learned in my high school textbook — that slavery in the South led to the Civil War.
I had been taught that after the Civil War, black slaves were emancipated and continued to fight for their rights and equality. The American South, in my mind, was a region where there were few people on the streets and few houses within dozens of miles. It was a place where middle-age men with beer bellies enjoyed chatting with passers-by in the gas station as they finished eating their hamburgers and drinking their Cokes.
I had a lot to learn, and my education started on August 10, 2014, when my flight landed at RaleighDurham International Airport in North Carolina. When I stepped out of the cabin, the South embraced me with its hot and humid weather, similar to that of my hometown, Sichuan, China. But aside from the climate, many things were different.
While I was in college in Beijing, China, I dreamed of studying in America because it has the best education in the world. I envisioned studying in Los Angeles, New York City or Boston. But it was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that sent me a graduate school admission letter in March 2014. I could not believe that one of the best journalism schools anywhere had admitted me. After careful deliberation, I decided to overcome my worries about the South and head to North Carolina for the next step in my education.
In some ways, Chapel Hill lived up to my expectations. There seemed to be endless forests and, compared to what I was used to in China, fewer people on the streets.
A Swiss friend once told me, “Everything is bigger in the U.S.” That’s true — roads are wider, trees are taller, the portions of food served in restaurants are larger, and Southerners are much bigger than Asians. In spring semester of 2015, I took a bus tour of nearby Durham, N.C., with a professor and classmates. When arranging the seats, the driver said: “We need the tiny Asian girl sitting here,” and he looked at me. Well, I am above the average height of Chinese females, and I would never be called tiny in China. But I was truly the tiniest person among the Americans accompanying me that day.
Life in the American South is different from that in South China. It is much less crowded, and rather than skyscrapers, I see houses and apartments sporadically dotting the great expanse of forests. Unlike New York City and big cities in China such as Shanghai, shopping areas in the South seem to spread horizontally rather than vertically.
Deer come to the front door of the apartments where I live to eat berries. Squirrels are everywhere on the campus, running for nuts. Life in the American South is closely related to nature.
But at the very beginning, being so close to nature didn’t give me a sense of safety. Even in the small towns of China, most of the households install thick, burglar-proof doors and burglar-proof windows made from stainless steel. My wooden apartment door and easily opened lock made me think of horrible intrusions I had seen in movies. I couldn’t sleep well for the first several nights in Chapel Hill. Another thing that surprised me was that the traffic lights hang on ropes; it’s rare to see such a primitive way to hang traffic lights in China. I am always worried that strong winds will blow the traffic lights down to the ground. However, I am adapting to the new environment and gradually feel that living in Chapel Hill is simple and safe.
When Americans asked me what is my biggest challenge as I study in the U.S., I say it’s the language. In order to get admitted by American graduate schools, I took the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) to make sure that my English was good enough to understand professors in the class. But unfortunately it didn’t help me prepare for how to chat with Americans, especially with how Southerners talk to each other, or what a Southern accent sounds like.
Last semester I took a class with a Southern professor. She was nice and talkative, but the first class I had with her, I barely understood what she said because I was not familiar with her accent at all. I thought to myself: Was she really speaking English? That was not the English accent that I had learned about in China. After class I complained to a classmate from Denmark about the professor’s accent. She said she only understood 50 percent of what the professor said. I was frustrated. China has thousands of dialects, but professors use Mandarin when teaching in universities. No one ever told me that another important skill I needed to learn before coming to the South was to adapt to the Southern accent. But, I gradually learned the accent of the Southern professor and had a lot of fun in the class.
People are so welcoming that they often greet me on the streets. A woman working in a parking lot in Chapel Hill asked me to teach her how to write Chinese characters and sign my name in Chinese on the bill every time I pay.
It’s not easy to adapt to a new environment with a different language from my mother tongue, different food from what I had in China and different races of people. But I gradually have become accustomed to the life in the South. Despite the hard times, I see the beauty of the South — not only the natural beauty, but beauty within the people here and the culture they have cultivated.