Penn State

Chinese students adjust to life in State College

Ruoyi Li wakes up every Monday at 8:30 a.m. in her quiet downtown apartment scattered with music equipment.

She dresses, packs her bag and goes straight to her first class, “Basic Research Methods in Psychology.”

Li, a tiny fireball of energy who considers herself a typical international student at Penn State, is from Beijing. She is just one of the 2,400 Chinese students at University Park this academic year, a group that is by far the largest from any foreign country and that makes up 5 percent of the student population.

At 9:55, class over, Li heads to the HUB.

“On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I come to Burger King,” she says after ordering a smoothie, hash browns and a breakfast sandwich. “On Tuesdays and Thursdays I cook for myself because I have more time and later classes.”

Li volunteers at the Young Scholars of Central PA Charter School on Tuesdays and Thursdays, teaching Chinese to elementary and middle school students.

On this Monday, Li’s class on news media ethics at 11:15 a.m. has been canceled. The break allows her more time to get back into the swing of things because it’s the first day back from spring break.

“I went to Jamaica with my band and it was great,” Li says.

She shares an apartment with three male roommates, including Tianze Jiang, her boyfriend. They are all from Beijing and are all members of the pop-rock band Elmsley, which has performed several times at the HUB and the Carnegie Building. She is a self-taught bass player and was a keyboard player in high school.

It runs in the family for Li, who says her father played bass guitar when he was a college student. He is a businessman; her mother was a high school teacher but stays home to care for her 4-year-old brother.

Although China still has its one-child policy, an exception put into effect a few years ago allows families to pay a fee to have a second child, which is what Li’s family did.

Li drives an Audi Q3 at the suggestion of her father because, she said, he thinks an SUV is the safest mode of transportation for her. The car costs about $33,000 but is not considered extravagant by Chinese students’ standards.

Students who drive around campus in really expensive cars are “breaking from the social norm,” Li says. “People in China do not appreciate showing off.”

The junior is majoring in psychology and journalism, but her minor is classic and ancient Mediterranean studies.

“I just love it,” says Li, who took up the minor for fun and does not intend to pursue a career in the field.

She usually returns to China in the summers but will go to Egypt this year to participate in an archaeological dig.

She says she makes a lot of friends through her classes, especially multicultural psychology in America, because there are many group discussions. She has no problem communicating with Americans, having learned English at a young age and having parents who speak it.

At lunch time, Li meets her boyfriend in the HUB. He has already purchased her a meal of salad and fruit. Jiang, whom she has been dating since 2013, transferred from a Chinese university.

“We met here, but then when we got back to China I was like, ‘Wow, we live so close,’ because Beijing is a big city,” Li says. “If I drive, it only takes me five to 10 minutes to get to him. It’s really lucky we live so close together.”

Jiang says they met while playing the popular Chinese card game Sanguosha. Chinese students often play the game in the HUB. It’s based on the semi-fictional novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and the period of the Three Kingdoms in China.

“He has a lot more Chinese friends because of his major,” Li says. Jiang is majoring in math and electrical engineering, which are popular among Chinese students.

“For me, a journalism major, there are not a lot of Chinese students,” Li says.

Li’s passion is photography and her ideal job would be as a photographer for National Geographic.

“I love photography and I wanted to choose photography as my major, but my dad said that it would be very hard to find a job with that,” she says. “As a journalism major I can follow my interests and still find a job.”

Jiang, who towers over Li, studied computer engineering at the Beijing University of Technology for one semester before coming to Penn State. He says he chose the school because he wrongly thought the weather in Happy Valley would be comparable to Beijing’s. But he says he has learned more here than in China and is happy he came.

Li came to Penn State after learning about it from her father and enjoys it — except for the weather.

After lunch, she heads for an afternoon class and a two-hour lab. When those end she only has an hour to eat dinner before she goes to work at 7 p.m.

Li usually goes to the West Wing in Waring Commons with friends on Mondays because it is fast. She orders a cheesesteak. But she prefers the days when she has time to cook — usually a vegetable stir-fry — or go to non-American style restaurants such as India Pavilion, Say Sushi and Cozy Thai.

“Having burgers and fries every day makes me feel sick,” Li says. “I miss China because of this. Although I have been in the United States for three years, I am still not used to the food here.”

After dinner, Li goes to the Carnegie Building photo lab. She is there four days a week from 7 to10 p.m. After she took a class on photojournalism, her professor encouraged her to apply for the position.

“It’s usually students who take intro to photojournalism classes, so many students have never touched a DSLR camera,” Li says. “I’m here to help them if they don’t understand it.”

Her time in Carnegie is usually slow enough that she can get her homework done, but when Li heads home exhausted she doesn’t watch TV or browse the Internet. Instead, she straightens up her room and falls asleep so she can make the most of the day to come.

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