7,136 miles from home

Facing culture and language barriers, international students come to an institution that struggles to prepare them for life in American campus culture.

The first time she felt it, Su Li was stepping out of the recycled air of the Chicago commuter plane and into the fluorescent lights of Concourse B.

She’d been in the air for more than sixteen hours, had turned back the clock twelve time zones to get here.

The sky was black now, and the floor-to-ceiling windows of Indianapolis International Airport revealed nothing more than reflections: images of closed kiosks and tourist shops, rows of empty gray chairs, late-night travelers shuffling toward the baggage claim.

“Empty,” she’d later call the feeling. Lonely. America felt unfamiliar, foreign, uncomfortable. Her friends weren’t by her side. Her parents were more than 7,000 miles and an ocean away from her.

Su pulled 150 pounds of her belongings — three suitcases — off of the carousel, then waited for a one-way shuttle to take her somewhere she’d never been before.

Until today, IU had only been a number on a list, pictures on a website, endless application papers and visa forms.

It was 2 a.m. She was alone.



Other international students like Su took the same lonely journey across the world, the same dark shuttle ride to the same unknown town in the middle of Indiana.

These students are thrust into an environment completely foreign to them, and, arriving on campus weeks earlier than domestic students, gravitate toward familiar faces and languages for comfort.

What this fosters, though, isn’t a diverse yet unified IU campus. Chinese students still get sidelong looks from local students on buses when they speak Mandarin to one another. People stare when girls hold hands walking down the street — an everyday symbol of friendship in their home country.

The first time Su stepped on a Bloomington bus, she didn’t know how to get off at her stop until someone else pulled the cord.

Out of 3,574 undergraduate international students at IU-Bloomington, 2,084 are Chinese . They come from all over the 3.7 million square milecountry, but they have one thing in common: before they enrolled as freshmen at the Bloomington campus, they’d never lived in the United States before.

While a dissonance continues between Chinese and domestic students, campus keeps quiet about discrimination and the tension that cultivates between cultural groups.

While American students go to football games, look forward to seeing their families on the weekends and engage in the culture of drunken Friday nights, international students are trying to FaceTime with their parents in spite of a 14-hourtime difference. They’re figuring out where to go when they’re kicked out of the dorms for school breaks. They’re quiet, too unsure of their English skills to speak up in class.

But quiet doesn’t mean invisible.

Su hardly speaks English outside of class, but she plays with the cultural line that many international students struggle to cross. She makes an effort to improve her English, and to become a part of IU culture, but still prefers card games with her Chinese friends to fraternity parties on the weekends.

Their first week together, Su convinced her American roommate to join her in an IU-sponsored foam party outside McNutt. It sounded like people were having fun, so why not?

It was new to Su, this environment. Why did strangers keep trying to dance with her? Why were people she’d never met acting like they knew her?

“They’re just drunk,” Yanni Stagg , her American roommate, explained.

“I was thinking, ‘American girls are so open,’” Su said, laughing.

Su grew up in Suqian, China, just outside Shanghai, an only child to two parents. She knew 14-hour school days, large lectures where she wasn’t permitted to speak and two hours of piano practice from ages six to 12 . She reached the highest possible skill level for the piano in her school by the time she was in fifth grade.

She told her parents she wanted to be a musician; they told her it wasn’t a lucrative job. She’s settled for a major in media, where she hopes to produce reality shows or something of the like.

Applying to American schools was what all of her classmates did to ensure better futures. When it was time to pick universities to apply to her senior year, she ran through a school-generated list of colleges that were a likely match for her based on her SAT and TOEFL — Test of English as a Foreign Language. Her eyes wandered, passing Syracuse University and other East Coast schools.

She stopped on Indiana University.

Su Li walks alone on the Indiana University campus in between classes. Since she is in her first semester at IU, she is taking an array of 100-level courses, many involving music.

When Su moved into Foster Quad the night of Aug. 6, 2015, nobody was there to help. It was quiet, and the quad was dark.


Suddenly there was nobody nearby whom Su could go to for comfort. She would only see her family through screens for a year, unable to fly to China for short vacations. She was displaced: for Thanksgiving , for spring break. Her family tried to figure out if they could afford a ticket home for the winter holiday. She ended up going on a vacation to California instead.

She opened the door to her empty room. Nobody else was on her floor. It was just Su, and 150 poundsof the life she’d brought from China.

She hadn’t had room to bring sheets or pillows, and it was too late for buses to be running or stores to be open.

On her first night in Bloomington, Su slept on her bare mattress, under her warmest winter coat.


IU’s integration problem starts before Chinese students even set foot in Bloomington — Jeff Holdeman is sure of it.

Routine admittance emails the University sends out are uniform across the board, and there isn’t any room for change, Holdeman, the director of the Global Village Living-Learning Center at Foster Quad, said.

He’s tried to pitch the idea of sending an additional email to international students following their admittance to IU to detail international housing options and other opportunities that could facilitate integration into American culture.

But it was shut down by the administration, Holdeman said. They insisted IU needed to stay with its brand: the same emails go to everyone.

While Su chose Foster Shea because it was a half-international, half-American dorm, not all Chinese students realize there are housing options that cater specifically to them until further along in the housing process, Holdeman said, at which point it may be too late to join those communities.

International students also often have to wait several months for their student visas to arrive, and many aren’t willing to put down the $100 enrollment deposit without the confirmation that they can study stateside, Holdeman said. Because of this, many students aren’t able to complete the housing process until June or July, and get stuck in leftover spots, including overflow housing.

Their first impression of IU might be living in a cramped converted lounge area with three other people.

Melanie Payne, senior associate director at First Year Experiences, said she knows the introduction of international students to IU’s campus isn’t perfect.

Payne recognizes international orientation, which takes place weeks before domestic students move into their dorms, isn’t ideal in many ways.

While IU does a lot right, including a new online component that prepares students paperwork-wise and with cultural tips prior to their arrival, much of the process is tedious.

The legal forms and visa paperwork, the new phone cards and work permit policies, they drag throughout the typical four days of orientation.

Lectures on acclimation and culture are also drawn-out: how to stay in good status to remain in the U.S., what to expect in an American college classroom, whether or not their visas allow them to work overseas.

Campus events are planned for every night of the week, but no one is coming, Holdeman said. The lack of local students on campus creates an automatic barrier between the groups, since the international students’ first friends are other international students.

Su said she wishes more domestic students had been involved in her transition from the start. Maybe with some more interaction, she wouldn’t still be struggling as much with English.

She might be speaking the language outside of her classes, or her English conversation group on Fridays through Cru, a religious organization whose IU chapter includes a program called “Bridges,” which welcomes and attempts to integrate international students.

But she’s already found comfort in her cultural cluster.

“In America, when I see Chinese people, we’ve already become friends,” she said.

Still, orientation is always evolving to become more painless for these new students, Payne said.

Discussion groups and panels at the Office of International Services are constantly trying to smooth the process of acclimation for international students, she said.

But right now, there’s only so much they can do.

International students move straight into their dorm assignments when they arrive for orientation in late summer, unlike domestic students who spend the night in a Union Street apartment.

For weeks, they are isolated in hollow, uninhabited buildings across campus.

A student in the Global Village approached Holdeman one day, visibly shaking.

“It’s scary here at night,” she confessed to him.

For weeks, Su said, it was so quiet in her hallway, she could hear her own footsteps against the carpet.

Su Li talks with other students during a Bridges International Cafe meeting at Reid Hall on Oct. 16. The meeting was held to bridge the gap between domestic students and Asian international students.

Su awoke Aug. 22, 2015, to voices — voices that were too close, too loud — and strangers in her bedroom. Students had begun filtering into the dorms, and suddenly, she had a roommate.

Ayana, or Yanni, came from New Albany, Indiana, with her dad, who helped unload a car full of college essentials into her room. It took the pair just half an hour.

Su’s half of the room is blank. The white walls are untouched, her wooden desktop is sparsely decorated. Next to her bed is a short bookshelf that doubles as a nightstand, where she keeps her stash of traditional Chinese milk tea and a glass jar of dried flowers.

The only material object, other than clothing, that Li brought from home was a comb that she gifted to Yanni Stagg, her American roommate.
Chinese flower tea and milk tea sits on the Su's nightstand. She didn't bring any objects with her from home, but buys Chinese tea to remind herself from home. The teas are the only Chinese brand product in her room.

Soon after her first day of classes — she was late for calculus, but liked music theory — Su missed the first holiday back home: China’s mid-autumn festival.

She was hit hard with homesickness when she FaceTimed her parents, who were sitting around a table with family. She eyed the spread of bouilli, a kind of stew, and mooncakes with envy.

It was almost impossible to think about missing Chinese New Year.



Su is almost late.

She eases open the heavy door of room 294 of the Simon Music Center seconds before the clock reads 10:10 a.m., and she’s the last one in on time. She’s often like that, just on time.

She slips into a chair between two other international students in the class. Her purple mechanical pencil is the only one that moves across her notebook during the music theory lecture. She is the only one to follow along in her course packet, which she pulls from her bag a few minutes into the professor’s spiel on C major.

She understands maybe 80 percent of the English she hears, she said, but when someone is speaking quickly, it’s easy to get lost. Lecture halls can be a nightmare for learning. Teachers don’t always understand that it’s difficult to be learning English and their course subject at the same time.

To write a three-page paper on Macbeth for a performance arts class, Su had to go see the IU production twice to understand the play through the language barrier.

Su studied English for about three years at her school in China, but she studied to take written exams, not oral ones. They practiced grammar instead of pronunciation and spelling instead of conversation.

“When I speak a lot of English, I start to get a little dizzy,” she said.

The constant mental translations are exhausting.

The language barrier is a commonly stated issue for Chinese students trying to integrate into American culture. Even with passing TOEFL scores and American classmates and roommates, there is still a gap in understanding.

That’s when it’s an obvious problem, Holdeman said. There are language learning groups available through Second Language Studies, and an English conversation partner program that runs through the Office of International Services. Domestic students even volunteer their time to help international students through University clubs and support systems.

But, he said, international students aren’t showing up.

Indiana University students walk on campus in-between classes. While IU has a heavy majority of white students at 67.7 percent Chinese international students lead national and racial minority groups at 5.9 percent, compared to 4.9 percent for Hispanic/Latino, and 4.1 percent for African-American students out of 42,588 total students according to the 2015-16 first semester enrollment.

Su’s experience at IU hasn’t involved plain, outright discrimination to this point. Lai Jiangas — ‘Lillian,’ in America — is a different case.

“When I came here, I’m afraid people thought I was rude,” Lillian, a sophomore, said.

She got used to more thank-yous and excuse mes and pleases — uncommon pleasantries in China.

It’s year two for Lillian on the Global Village Living-Learning Center floor, because here, people will talk to her, she said. They’re open, interested in her culture, and teach her things about theirs. They didn’t judge her for using the communal rice cooker almost every night, didn’t make comments or faces about what she liked to eat and stayed up with her to watch Marvel movies. She found her niche for living, but classes aren’t as easy.

An accounting major, Lillian is in and out of the Kelley School of Business daily. Group members ignore her, she said, laughing weakly about the difficulty. In group projects she would be ignored, yet take the brunt of the workload, while American students presented more comfortably and received higher grades.

Emily Parrish is a senior who came to IU with no interest in international advocacy, but who ended up studying abroad in China.

She said she understands the American perception of Chinese students, though it’s hard to justify.

“I think the easy thing is to believe the stereotypes are true,” she said.

Coming from a small town, like many domestic students do, she hadn’t even interacted with someone from a different country before college. Now, she works with Cru and is in the same conversation group as Su.

It’s easier to talk to international students, Parrish said. There’s less judgement. Nobody is looking her up and down, studying her outfit choice. She started to learn Mandarin and experience the difficulty of approaching native speakers the same way they approach her.

Diversifying your friend group is one of the most important lessons you can learn at college, she said.

She emphasizes each word of what she says next.

“America is not the only place on Earth.”

Su Li sings karaoke below Lotus Garden in Bloomington, Ind. on Oct. 17. Su, along with her friends Wenzhou "Jody" Jiang and Xu "Anna" Pan, were practicing for a Chinese singing competition hosted by IUCSSA that would take place the next day.

What IU needs is to get more serious about ethnic shaming, Holdeman said.

There’s a lot the University does right, and the administrative movements — the external factors to international students’ moves — can only reach so far. The resources are one thing, the social aspects another completely.

Holdeman has tried to create a handbook for resident assistants to guide them in their interactions with different cultures, but Residential Programs and Services didn’t allow it.

IU’s multicultural campus does help, he said. It’s the diverse students and faculty, the kids who come from big cities and know what it’s like to be around people who are different from themselves.

“When you walk on campus and see other people like you, that creates a welcoming environment,” he said.

“You think, ‘Maybe I can pass here.’”


Su’s actions are routine as she packs for Thanksgiving break.

Out comes her big, blue suitcase. In go the most important fragments of her life.

She wheels her possessions across the street to McNutt Quad at 7 p.m. the Friday before her week off, to wait for the airport shuttle with other students.

A cluster of people await the same GO Express Travel bus, a handful of them internationals like herself. Their parents wouldn’t be waiting outside their dorms Saturday morning to take them home, like the parents of Su’s floormates would be.

Daylight savings meant the evening sky was already dark and the Bloomington air cool. Su reviews her journey: shuttle to Indianapolis, Greyhound to Chicago, plane to Orlando.

When the bus pulls up at 7:15, its glass windows are glossy.

There’s Su in the reflection, holding her suitcase.

Leaving again.