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To Find My Voice

By: Cameron Li

July 1, 2022

I received a call from the Washington Post one afternoon. A gentle female voice from the other end said she wanted to ask me some questions regarding my satisfaction with DC in general. I realized this might be a method for polling for elections. I hesitated: Am I really qualified to answer as an international student studying here? But I was also curious about the questions that she would ask me, so I said “yes.” I was asked general questions like my view of DC public schools, public transportation in the DMV, and more “political” questions such as my rating of how the mayor was doing her job. I was also asked about my religion, and it reminded me of my Quantitative Research Methods class, during which we had some assignments on the relationship between one’s religious affiliation and partisanship. I genuinely enjoyed answering these questions, as they encouraged me to think about my life in the United States in ways I hadn’t before. How much did I really know about the city I now live in? I was also impressed by how much effort these institutions are willing to put into valid data. After all, it must be costly to interview people one by one, especially when the interviews are so long and detailed.

After the conversation, I remembered my hesitation and wondered to myself: was I eligible, legally or morally, and should I have taken that survey? As an international student studying international relations, I’ve found myself in weird positions like this since coming to the United States. I remember feeling slightly uncomfortable in an international relations class when the professor and my fellow students used the pronoun “we” to represent America’s collective viewpoint. Another situation that makes me uncomfortable is when the focus turns to U.S. relations with my home country, China. When the discussion gets heated, I cannot help but feel a little bit of hostility, even though my conscience tells me that the conversation is strictly academic. 

On other occasions, I saw my friends and people on the news post political slogans on Instagram to get people to join protests. While I shared similar beliefs as my peers, I would wonder if I should be involved in American politics. It’s definitely fine to have my own opinions about things, but should I be expressing them in a foreign country?

In DC, I felt very aware of who I am as a person. I felt that there was a certain way I needed to act: I’d go out of my way to be funny and laugh along, even though sometimes I didn’t get the joke, and I’d pretend to not study as much to avoid being seen as a nerd. I stopped wearing almost all my clothes from China and traded them for popular U.S. brands like Zara and Hollister. I have constant internal struggles: I want to blend in with the American students, but I still want to keep my Chinese identity without being stereotyped. 

However, sometimes I forget that things don’t have to be so complicated. Beyond the descriptors of “Chinese,” “Asian,” and “international relations student,” I am a unique 19-year-old individual. I’m not expected to represent China in the United States, nor am I required to act in ways that may seem more “American.” I started joining debates in class more casually, speaking my true opinions, not as a Chinese citizen, but as a global citizen who is willing to discuss her ideas of justice. I also started sharing posts on Instagram that I agreed with, but decided not to attend protests or offline events. I believe that I have the right to speak up, but I shouldn’t get too involved as it is American citizens who have political rights in this nation. I stopped going to parties I didn’t want to go to. I became more open about talking about my study habits. I realized that as a foreigner who wanted to make friends and have a good time in a strange country, it may be slightly more complicated, but the principle of making friends never truly changes: people will like you for who you really are. 

Things like cultures, religions, politics, and symbols make up much of our world. But in the end, we love specific people, not abstract ones, as Dostoevsky said. In this past academic year, I’ve tried many things like not speaking up and faking a different voice. But in the end, what worked out was to speak up in my own voice. And I’m glad to have found it again in the United States.

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