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Digging into de facto racial segregation

BY CHRIS STEINKE | FEBRUARY 28, 2012 6:30 AM

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It was 1:30 p.m., otherwise known as Burge rush half-hour. The line to the dining hall stretched as far as the eye could see looking up from a text message.

The huddled masses of dorm-freshmen flooded from all doors. Most were red-blooded Americans, with soft tacos in the back of their minds and weekend memories on the tip of their tongues.

But some were not red-blooded Americans. Some were dark-haired and colorfully clothed international students from Asia. They didn't stick out. Rather, they didn't blend in. Americans grouped together and Asians grouped together, with no discernible exceptions.

One Asian — I will not claim the ability to distinguish among nationalities, as I am not able to do so in regard to any continent — stepped outside the line and waved. Two friends came over, both Asian. They spoke, shared a laugh or two, and got in line. Some 20 white kids followed behind them.

Following the some-20 white kids were a pair of Asians, a guy and a girl. They both had figurines jingling on their backpacks. The guy had a little dog-keychain and the girl had a SpongeBob of equal size. The guy stroked the girl's hair and kissed her on the temple as they moved in line.

There were no American-Asian couples in sight. There were no American-Asian conversations in site. I doubt there was even American-Asian eye-contact.

(So much culture here at the University of Iowa. That's the argument for international recruitment, right? Cross-cultural something or rather?)

Meanwhile, China-U.S. relations are going great, especially in Iowa — what with a $14 billion Iowa soybean contract and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping's trip to the bright lights of Muscatine.

But you wouldn't be able to tell at the UI, where nearly 2,000 Chinese students live and learn.

The reason I was able to observe the comings and goings of the Burge dining-hall line was because I was wounded emotionally. I had tried and failed to speak with five Asian students, all turning me down. One couple told me they did not want to be quoted in the paper, and the rest were busy beavers. I asked one kid studying in the lounge if he was busy, and he said yes. I asked if he had just five minutes, and he said no. I walked away, holding back tears, and sat down next to the moving line.

After the line died down and my confidence grew back, I saw a Burge worker leave the dining hall and sit down in the lobby, messing with his phone. I took a deep breath and walked over.

His name was Yungpeng Wu and hailed from Shan Dong, China. He did not speak very good English, and I told him that was OK.

I asked him how he found out about Iowa. "Good," he said, chuckling.

This kind of exchange was typical throughout the interview, so I'll give you the straight answers.

He found out about Iowa through the Internet. He came here to study. When he hangs out, he does so with other Chinese students — only Chinese students, none from Korea or anywhere else. He's young, just 19, likes to hang out at the gym, studies business, and plans to move back to China after he graduates. That was all we talked about.

Though I don't have an incredible amount of evidence, it's safe to say the language barrier is making it difficult for Yungpeng to expand his social circle. The best way to hurdle the language barrier is to immerse yourself in the culture (so I hear, anyway), so why isn't Yungpeng trying?

Why should he? American kids at Iowa are pretty damn racist. I have no statistics to back this up, only what I hear on the streets and read on the UI Memes Facebook page.

But I don't think racism is the main issue. It's where the student see themselves in five years, and how much that student is involved on campus. I came to this scholarly conclusion after speaking with Tiantian Sun, a UI senior from Tsingtao, China.

(Yes, like the beer. That's where it's brewed.)

I knew Tiantian from class. She's a very affable girl. We have a few friends in common, and I see her around downtown some nights.

Tiantian found out about Iowa the same way Yungpeng did — through the Internet.

"There were good sports team, the pictures looked pretty, it's where the Field of Dreams is." She laughed. Tiantian said she could speak English "pretty well" by the time she came to the UI.

When asked if the social transition was hard when she first came, Tiantian said no. "Not at all. I started out living on the international floor in Mayflower. There were kids from all around the world, and I got to know a lot of different people. I joined a lot of student-organizations, got really involved on campus. It wasn't hard at all."

Today, Tiantian says she spends a lot of her spare time with her sorority sisters. Most of her friends are American, but she still stays in contact with her Chinese friends. She said the UI made it easy for her to make the social jump.

"Our school has a lot of international events that give students an opportunity to know each other; it allows different cultures allowed to collaborate. There are a lot of opportunities to hang out with different students around here."

Tiantian said she plans to move to Los Angeles after she graduates, but that wasn't always her first choice,

"I always thought of moving to Chicago, but I don't like the weather."

It's clear that dorm-placement helped Tiantian. She was with a lot of different people from all over the globe, all eager to get to know the world around them. I didn't think to ask where Yungpeng lived during his first year at Iowa, but I think that has much to do with his relative isolation, as is the case with many other Asian students. From what I hear, international students often have a hard time securing spots in the dorms after late registration.

Take a look around yourself, UI. Are you the mecca of global diversity you claim to be? Or are you, in effect, a segregated community? If the UI wishes to transform from the latter to the former, officials need to learn from students like Tiantian.

Expand the international floors and encourage international students to get involved. Point them toward a career on U.S. soil. Report the UI Memes Facebook page. Something, everything, anything.

These students have a lot to teach us, and we have a little bit to teach them, too. Make it easier for us to learn from one another — because as it is right now, we're too scared to talk to even talk with one another.


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