A Tale of Two Cities, and Cultures

The boy in the center of the room wears a pastel pink shirt and sits in a bright green bean bag chair, nearly casting him as an extra in That 70’s Show. Three empty Starbucks cups sit on his desk, encircling his economics homework and his iPhone. A handheld vacuum rests on the edge of the desk, mostly hidden by the student’s ultimate frisbee jersey, No. 34, that hangs from his unmade, lofted bed.

The Massachusetts sun sets behind cars running along Massachusetts Avenue

The setting sun’s rays reflect off cars on the Massachusetts Turnpike below through the room’s lone window, casting a glare on the right half of the boy’s face, forcing him to squint as he examines the Boston skyline.

He shares the Boston University dorm room with two other students. One is on a Skype call with his girlfriend. The other yells loudly while playing an online video game.

Everything in the scene is utterly American.

Everything, except the boy in the center of the room.

The name tag on the door reads, “Juming Zhang,” but you can call him James.

Zhang’s family – himself, his parents and two younger brothers – emigrated from Shanghai, China in the summer of 2011. They lived in Edison, NJ for two years before settling more permanently in Princeton, a few towns over.

Now a freshman, Zhang has lived more than half of his life in Shanghai, but as he spends more time in America, he feels a growing tension between the two competing cultures that form his identity.

“If you’re looking at my friend group as a whole, I think I’m slowly leaning towards, like, the American side,” Zhang said. “I’m a little… I’m a bit… I wouldn’t say disappointed is the right word, but I’m a little sad that I’m not making friends or hanging out with the FOB’s [fresh off the boat] or people from my country.”

According to Zhang, his assimilation into American culture has created a palpable difference between the 12-year-old boy he was when he first immigrated to America and the 19-year-old (on May 6) young adult he is now.

“I don’t look like I just got here yesterday, and the FOB’s kind of reject that,” Zhang posits. “If you’re American, they don’t want to reach out to you because they don’t see any similarities. Americans see more similarities with me than the FOB’s do, so I think sometimes I have no choice.”

This transition began with Zhang’s schooling in Edison, which he described as “Heaven” compared to his former school in Shanghai. In America, students have more freedom to choose their class schedules and can be much less formal during class time.

Zhang described his first time witnessing a student not stand up to address a teacher in class as a “shock” to his view of education.

That shock prompted Zhang to get more involved in extracurricular activities in an attempt to better fit in with American culture. At Princeton High School, Zhang swam competitively for four years, played on the ultimate frisbee team for three years and captained the ultimate team for two years.

“Playing sports or [extracurricular] activities is the best way to get involved and, really, to assimilate into a culture,” Zhang said. “Once your on a team and have that common interest, people see that, ‘Oh, he’s one of us now,’ and they look past all of the other differences.”

Through, Zhang, in his eyes, successfully assimilated into American culture. In just a few years, he adopted everything from American mannerisms to an American style of dress. This “Americanization,” as Zhang puts it, was so complete that his Chinese roots were nearly undetectable by those who met him in high school.

“He’s certainly been pretty Americanized,” Zhang’s high school friend Nick Smith said. “He’s adopted the American culture pretty well into his life. I definitely would think that he is completely American. You can clearly see the effects of living in the United States when you look at him.”

Zhang recognizes that he’s been nearly fully integrated into American culture, and he credits his parents’ open-mindedness for the fusion of cultures.

“There are different kinds of Chinese parents,” Zhang explains. “There are the ones who want their kids to be as American as possible, and on the opposite end, there are the ones who want you to be as traditional as possible. I think my parents are pretty progressive. They’re not those strict, old-school types. They’ve moved past that, and that’s why they brought us to America. They thought it was our best option.”

For Zhang, the move has proved to be rewarding, though while he has had a fairly easy time assimilating in his educational and social lives, things are very different in his home. Smith, who lived in Singapore for seven years before his family settled in Princeton, has observed these differences from a third-person perspective in the time that he and Zhang have been friends.

“When I go to James’ house, I see the traditional [Eastern Asian] mannerisms and behavior from his parents because I don’t think they want to integrate into the American culture,” Smith said. “I think they stay on their side, while James, going to an American high school, had to integrate completely. It’s interesting seeing how James’ family is different from himself.”

Zhang confirms this difference between how he acts and carries himself when he is with his friends versus his time with his parents and immediate family. He says that he speaks exclusively Mandarin with his parents.

They will yell at him if he uses English.

“They say, ‘Don’t speak that stuff to me,’” Zhang said. “They brought me here, and I’m disrespecting them by using a language that they don’t understand as well as I do.”

Zhang’s 16-year-old brother, Juhao (he goes by Jerry), experiences a similar divide between his American friends and his familial obligations.

“My parents have different behavior expectations,” Jerry said. “They try to be really forgiving about that kind of stuff, but there was definitely a difference between how I acted with my friends versus how I was at home. I thought, ‘I’m here, so I’ll at least try to assimilate into the culture.’”

Though Jerry describes himself as “less social,” the two Zhangs’ adoptions of American culture occurred in similar fashions. As Jerry says, “It comes down to imitation. I just tried to follow along with what other people were doing.”

The Citgo Sign serves as Boston University’s “North Star” – visible from most anywhere around BU and useful in guiding lost students back to campus

The older Zhang’s college friend, Will Simpson, had a comparable experience in childhood. The son of an American father and an Indian mother, Simpson’s ties to multiple cultures led him to feel confused about his cultural identity. Finding common ground amidst these differences was his method of making friends and “fitting in” in his school.

“When they’re making friends, people look for similarities in others,” Simpson said. “Growing up, I had a lot of friends who were Asian or Indian, but they were born here too. We could relate with how our parents were strict on us or how we had ties to other places, but we’re all born here, and we’re all from here. We may look different, but we’re all American on the inside.”

The shelf above Simpson’s desk supports a small figurine of the Buddha and the ceramic likeness of Ganesha flanking a stuffed panda wearing a sweatshirt with “Washington D.C.” emblazoned on the front. He glanced to the statuettes periodically as he compared his upbringing to James’.

“A lot of children who are born from parents who aren’t from here can relate in some ways,” Simpson said. “[James and I] have compared what it’s like with him being from China and my mom’s family being from India. We get what it’s like having cultural ties from another country.”

These cultural ties provided both barriers and doors to socialization in a new country for the Zhang brothers. While their children were concerned with learning the nuances of their new culture, especially in the unforgiving environment of American middle and high schools, Zuofeng (Michael) and Xuemie (Amy) Zhang worried over their status in the United States.

The family immigrated to America in the summer of 2011 because they had secured J-1 and J-2 visas that allow for one to receive private education and for one’s immediate family to join them, respectively, in the United States.

In the next two years, the Zhangs transitioned to hinge their stay in America on Michael’s L-1 working visa, while the rest of the family obtained L-2 visas. This change allowed James and Jerry to attend American public schools for the first time.

The youngest Zhang, Raymond, was born in 2014, while James and Jerry were in high school. Following James’ graduation, the five members of the family returned to Shanghai to visit family and to renew their visas. Only two of them returned to America.

“There’s the joke around the floor that they’ve been deported,” James said with a slight smile.

In reality, Michael, Amy and Raymond are stuck in Shanghai while they wait for their visas to be reviewed and renewed. James and Jerry were able to return to the U.S. on the easier-to-obtain J-1 student visa.

“It’s been really hard for me,” Jerry said. “Last year, I had two brothers and my parents with me. Now, all of the sudden, they’re gone. At the beginning, I couldn’t really deal with it. I just was really struggling with the situation. I think it’s kind of unfair, but I have to accept it because that’s just how it is.”

Not only has this situation created a physical separation between parents and their children, but is has further separated the America-bound Zhangs from their Chinese roots.

“Being in a country for 12 years, that’s more than half my life,” James said. “It’s a big part of me still, and it’s easy to remember my culture. Maybe as time goes on, it gets harder and harder to do that. The opportunities are getting narrower and narrower, especially with college in America, to express my Chinese side.”

While they are apart, the family is only left to speculate as to why they renewal process is taking so long. They had renewed their visas three times prior, and each renewal took just a few weeks to be approved.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ website states that the current average processing time for renewing an L-1 visa is 2.5-4.5 months.

June marks one year since their most recent renewal attempt, and their visa’s status is still listed as “Your application is on hold.”

“It’s frustrating,” James said. The handful of grey hairs interspersed within his black coiffure seemed to multiply. “Right now, we’re just trying everything we can to get them back to America.We’re looking for any loophole or solution that’ll work.”

From using travel visas to applying for a P-1 celebrity visa, the Zhangs have come up with a wide range of ideas for reuniting their family. For now, though, their lives and cultures are kept apart by global bureaucracy, only accessible through video chats two or three times per week.

Remnants of both American and Chinese culture persist across the 12-hour time difference. In America, James considers making a conscious effort to express his Chinese culture so it doesn’t get “lost or buried under the Western side.” In China, three-year-old Raymond has fallen in love with the Star Wars franchise, thanks to his older brother’s help introducing him to the characters.

James’ eyes light up as he talks about having to hold up his phone to the video chat’s camera so Raymond could watch Star Wars clips on YouTube, a banned platform in China.

For that one moment, the distance doesn’t feel as large. Parents and brothers laugh together as James gets ready for bed and his parents finish breakfast. James could almost forget that he’s more than 7,000 from his birthplace or that there’s an empty house sitting in Princeton waiting on the Zhangs to return.

In that moment, he leaps over all of the physical hurdles and cultural tensions in his life in order to spend time with those who are the most important to him.