Ye Du and Cecilia Miao arrived in Madison four years ago feeling alone and anxious, knowing almost no one, not trusting their English and lacking basic knowledge of their new home.
“I wondered why everyone was wearing red,” said Du, a native of Shandong Province, China — Confucius’ birthplace — of her first glimpse of UW-Madison. “I didn’t know anything about Wisconsin. I didn’t even know it was a cheese state.”
“Or a beer state,” said Miao, who grew up in the sprawling metropolis of Guangzhou just north of Hong Kong.
Four years later, the journalism majors are channeling those feelings of isolation, which for many Chinese students never go away, to tell the story of the university’s largest foreign contingent in a series of YouTube videos.
Called Channel C, the videos call to mind an old Woody Allen movie but on a different topic: everything you ever wanted to know about Chinese students but were afraid to ask.
They feature both Chinese and American students speaking English with subtitles in Chinese. They carry a candid but fun-loving tone, with slangy thought bubbles often appearing next to speakers. And they rarely miss an opportunity to fit in a pop culture reference: their promo video is set to the “Mission Impossible” theme song.
“We’re not this alien ‘other’ group,” Miao said. “We should try to celebrate differences, not ignore it.”
The tone ranges from solemn and serious, as when they discussed the Chinese student killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, to the lighthearted: an episode in which Chinese and American male students are shown a series of photos of Asian women, whom they rate basically as hot or not. The point: Beauty standards are much different here than in their homeland.
What began as a hobby project has now attracted about 690 subscribers. Their third episode, “Why Chinese Students Don’t Speak English?”, has received more than 32,000 views. The episode is bookended by two scenes in which a group of Chinese students and a group of American students share an elevator.
In the first elevator scene, the Chinese students speak Chinese, leaving the American students bewildered. The final scene imagines them in China. The American students start speaking Chinese but realize it’s hard to do and they sound clunky. They revert to slang-heavy English, leaving their Chinese peers bewildered.
In between, the show’s founders — Muge Niu, Fangdi Pan and Miao — explain the awkwardness they feel trying to speak English with native speakers. Chinese students often come to campus having learned only academic English. Miao mentioned American slang — “peeps,” “chillax,” “fo real,” “fo sho” — that can confuse them.
“They’re so easy for native speakers but it’s hard for us,” Miao said.
The most recent episode — “Why Chinese Students Don’t Party” — will be followed by another on the theme of “Teach Me How to Bucky,” “Jump Around” and other game-day traditions through Chinese eyes.
“These are the things we talk about with each other,” Miao said.
They hope the short videos will open conversations with the broader Badger community, encouraging American-born students to venture a bit out of their comfort zone as the Chinese students have by coming here.
“It puts a more human face on the Chinese students,” said Luke Povolny, a senior economics major from Appleton.
Povolny, a friend of one of Channel C’s founders, said he hadn’t thought much about China before transferring to UW-Madison last January but has since learned a lot. He was recruited to play one of the American students in the elevator for the language episode.
“I could imagine being in their shoes,” he said, “if I was in a different country and didn’t know the language as well.”
Although the Chinese student population has exploded both nationally and at UW-Madison, in the last decade, progress in mixing with American-born students on campus has come more slowly.
A survey of Chinese students at Indiana University last summer found that many Chinese students reported having no or few American friends. They tended not to participate in big social events or go to games. They didn’t attend parties and spent most of their free time with other Chinese students.
At the University of Iowa, the health service center last year started training nine Chinese-speaking students as crisis chatline counselors after noticing the group was using mental health services more often than other groups on campus.
Nearly 2,500 Chinese students enrolled at UW-Madison this fall, including 288 freshmen. Enrollment has grown 356 percent from 2003. But similar feelings of isolation from the mainstream culture persist.
“No one has ever said I’m the shy girl in China,” Du said. “But here I became the shy girl. It changes your personality.”
They launched the video series last spring partly out of frustration. Miao said they attended a campus forum in March about UW-Madison’s involvement with China. Miao said it was well attended by faculty and older community members, but few students were there.
“We had this question,” Miao said. “We wondered why people aren’t interested in these conversations when we have so many Chinese here?”
Miao, Niu and Pan sat down and talked about how to bridge the gap. Nicole Huang, director of the Wisconsin China Initiative, recommended a “bottom up” approach. While the students had little experience in video, they decided it was the best way to communicate.
“Videos can talk to many people at one time and stay there,” Miao said. Using their own basic cameras and editing software, they sat down on a couch to film their first episode about why Chinese students choose UW-Madison.
Unlike some of their American peers, they choose the school with little thought of the campus culture of football games and parties. Many arrived as she did, knowing not much beyond the college’s rankings in U.S. News and World Reports.
In the first episode, Niu said she visited campus from Connecticut, where she went to high school, and fell in love with it. Miao, who chose the school sight unseen and had never been here before heading off to college, took a different route.
“It was the only place that accepted me,” she said.
She arrived in Madison, the first time she’d left China, for fall classes in 2010. For the first time in her life most people looked different than her and spoke a different native language. At first she tried hard to make American friends and fit into campus life. But language hangups among other factors eventually drove her back to the safety of other Chinese students.
Follow-up years brought much more interaction with students from all groups on campus but she still understands why some Chinese stick together.
“It’s your own people,” she explained. “They don’t judge you.”