Meet Xie Xin, Project Pengyou Summer Intern


Hi, I’m Xie Xin (谢欣), Project Pengyou 2016 Summer Intern. I study language and literacy education as well as education statistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Here’s the story of how I discovered we aren’t so different after all.


An Evil Empire

Oops. My first impression of the United States started in elementary school, and it was not so good. Prior to that, I wasn’t sure how the U.S. and Britain were different countries…after all, they spoke the same language! Like most of my generation, I was an only child and after school I spent most of my time reading children’s books and watching cartoons. I read stories about the Statue of Liberty, George Washington’s cherry tree and ancient Chinese poems and folklore; I watched Tom and Jerry and Mickey Mouse while still enjoying Sailor Moon and Black Cat Detective. All the books and cartoons I watched and read were in Chinese, so while I could tell the difference in writing and drawing styles, I loved them all. I did not appreciate the English language, mainly because I only knew basic words like “hello”, “apple”, and “run”.

A poster opposing the U.S. during the Korean war.

When I started going to elementary school, my neutral attitude towards the U.S. gradually turned negative from the news and textbooks. In the year that I started elementary school, NATO bombed the embassy of China in Yugoslavia, causing grief and outrage throughout the country. I remember watching news about the bombed office building, the dead reporters, their devastated parents, and the angry crowds demonstrating in front of the U.S. embassy. As children, we were influenced by all of this anger. Our textbooks, which included many stories of events during the colonial period to the cold war period only helped cement my image of the U.S. as an evil empire that would do anything to stop China’s development. The fact that my grandfather fought in the Korean War added to this belief, making it feel more personal.

Nonetheless, while my dislike for the U.S. was genuine at that time, it did not stop me from appreciating the cartoons and books from or about the country. I drew a mental line between serious, political conflicts and fascinating culture.

An Episode of Community

I felt my perception change after I started learning English at EF (English First). Even though the American teachers were not the most professional or experienced, they were really encouraging and kind, listening carefully to what we said before giving meaningful feedbacks, quite different from the classic Chinese teachers who were really strict and dominated the classroom. I started to grow fondness towards these representatives of the American people, who made me feel more “equal” and respected than I had ever felt at school or home.

us image
The U.S.A. of my imagination

I started to excel in my English class. My mother did not let me watch Chinese TV shows which she thought would influence my study, but she was very supportive when I watched TV shows in English, so I started watching Hannah Montana. Even though the plot could be quite naive at times, I marveled at how fun Hannah’s life seemed, and kept watching as an escape from the pressure and competition of my own school life.

Although I outgrew Hannah Montana and animation, in college I watched many more American TV shows including Friends, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, The Vampire Diaries, Elementary, Grey’s Anatomy, New Girl, and Community. After getting accepted to the Graduate School of Education at University of Pennsylvania, I was really looking forward to a Community-esque life as my first experience on U.S. soil.

Something in Between

Unfortunately, grad school was not like Community. In fact, I almost feel like grad school life is not that different from my undergrad, because in the English department at Peking University, most professors got their PhD degrees in literature from top universities in the States and taught all the courses in English. Because of this, I skipped the phase of getting used to the language like most Chinese students studying in the U.S.

But life outside the classroom was not so smooth. I froze during small talk, unsure how to have conversations with strangers. In restaurants, there was always a danger of ordering something unappetizing because I could not picture the food just from reading menus. My allergy to alcohol prevented me from attending parties with classmates. A few times, I was shouted at, called derogatory names and even chased by strangers while volunteering and conducting research in poor neighborhoods.

us life
My life in the States with friends

Despite those difficulties, I was warmly received by many American and international friends at my school and student organizations I joined, who were both patient and supportive. They would answer my (sometimes stupid) questions about everything, invite me to study sessions or fun activities like baking and shopping, prepare non-alcoholic options at parties, and go with me to places I felt uncomfortable going alone.

Also, once I adjusted to all the surface level differences, like bigger cars, English-dominated environment, and a multi-racial environment, I was struck by how many similarities I found. For example, I was under the impression that American students would not have such an intense focus on grades. However, I quickly realized that many of my American classmates cared so much that they got really upset when getting an A-.

I have gradually developed a new “family” far away from home, and I greatly appreciate everyone that have been there for me during the past two years. In the end, the US was not the ‘evil empire’ of my childhood imagination or an episode of community, but something in-between.

Perspective of a Pengyou

So why am I here at Project Pengyou?

There are easy and obvious reasons that I have given when people expect short and direct answers from me: Because my grandfather passed away this spring and I wanted to go back home to spend some quality time with my family. Because my interest in education policy made me want to gain some first-hand experience in a non-profit project setting. Because I badly wanted to eat authentic Chinese food so bad.

But I know these are only part of the whole story.

It’s also because in my very first research project at US public high schools, a Korean PhD student, who always generously gave me a ride, told me that several students called her names and said mean things to her because they thought she was Chinese. Because in a public middle school where I did fieldwork, China had been reduced to three political incidents in the student’s  eyes: the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square Incident. Because the 5th graders I taught Chinese at a school in Chinatown, who were all Chinese Americans, didn’t want to study Chinese, claiming “We are Americans! We don’t need Chinese.” Because a really cute little girl I tutored showed me beautifully-written Chinese characters she copied and told me that she really wanted to learn Chinese and go to China one day, but her literacy teacher told me she was a “problem student” who couldn’t focus in class.

Looking back at my life, I have held prejudices and misunderstandings towards US, but I gradually became more objective and and gained nuanced experiences through learning the language and living in the States. I have seen people going through similar processes like mine. But there are many more who don’t.

And it is up to us Pengyous to change that.

Sources: first image (, wikipedia