I did a double take; I'd left Hong Kong and arrived at the University of Maryland and everywhere I turned there were Chinese and the familiar sounds of Putonghua being spoken. I had expected to be one of a few Chinese here or maybe even one of a few Asians, but I was anything but.
Why the surprise? The campus is located in College Park, a suburban city about 25 minutes outside Washington DC. I grew up in the suburbs of New York, about 40 minutes north of the city, and was used to being one of the few Asians in my community. My friends were mostly second-generation Italians and Irish. To them, China might as well be Mars. Little wonder, then, that being a child of suburbia ignited images of being the lone Asian.
But, since arriving on campus, I've swiftly learned that the number of Chinese students is substantial; nearly 2,000 out of some 25,000. The majority are from the mainland. The Chinese Students and Scholars Association is a large and active organisation on campus. The university is also home to the Confucius Institute, one of some 80 such institutes across the US that aim to promote Chinese culture and language.
So why is Maryland such a "hot spot"? One reason is geography: Maryland isn't as cold as New York in winter, and it is fairly close to Washington.
Still, when I first arrived, I reacted to the demographics with a sigh. As a recent resident of Hong Kong, I'd become accustomed to and somewhat exhausted by the growing frustrations of Hongkongers who seemed to blame mainlanders for most of the city's woes. On reflection, the hostility stems from both reality and perception, and unfortunately perception is reality for some.
In truth, the Chinese students and scholars I've met in Maryland are a delightful, inspirational bunch. They are eager to learn about American culture and assimilate. They show up at the casual Friday conversation hour at the Confucius Institute ready to practise their English, and speak Chinese with those who want to learn. Many left behind family and friends to strike out in a new land; they are hungry for opportunities and a better life.
And they are open to new experiences. I recently attended the Chinese church in the neighbourhood, and found that a good number of the congregation were Chinese students. Admittedly, the Friday Bible study sessions were more of a social platform, but those who attended were open to discussing Christianity and respectful of ideas that were new to them.
The Chinese students and scholars I've met are not prone to complaining or fearful of hard work. In fact, I am inspired.
I remember sitting next to a young man from Chongqing on the marathon 15-hour plane ride from Hong Kong to the US. He said matter-of-factly that, after landing in New York, he'd pick up a rental car and drive the three hours or so to Penn State, where he was studying.
"Wow, that's rough," I said, trying to imagine myself doing the same. "Well, I don't mind, it's a really good opportunity," he said. "I like it here." In other words, he sees the glass as half full. That's something I hope to do during my time on campus.
Amy Wu is an American-born Chinese writer and commentator