Mianmian Fei, ’19,
College of Arts and Science
I learned a lot during my first month at Vanderbilt: Pancake Pantry is the best place to get breakfast, oceanography class is about currents and sediments and not fish, and grins is pronounced “greens.” Most of all, though, I learned I should keep my mouth shut.
Before coming to the States, English was a language I had only seen in textbooks, rarely used in everyday life. Once at Vanderbilt, I didn’t know how to reply when someone said, “What’s up?” in the elevator or how to join in conversations with the girls on my floor because I knew little of the slang they used. (What does “meme” mean anyway?) I stuttered when I answered questions in classes, ashamed of my Chinese accent. Gradually, I learned to be quiet in classes, to stay in my room alone while others hung out, and to keep my head down and avoid any eye contact in the elevator. I was even afraid of being asked about my name, because the exotic pronunciation exposed my identity as a Chinese, as someone different from the American mainstream.
Luckily, the Vanderbilt Multicultural Leadership Council provided me an opportunity to speak up without fear. With nine other international peers, I shared my struggles as an international student in a campus-wide event. I talked about feeling disheartened when few people could pronounce my name, feeling marginalized while everyone in my classes chatted about a TV series I’d never heard of, and trying so hard to step out of my comfort zone, but finding it difficult. Speaking in front of so many people in English made me extremely nervous, but I wanted to share my story, to come out of the shadows and join in the Vanderbilt community, and to start having such conversions on a daily basis. When we finished, the audience applauded and hugged us, some saying our experiences made them aware of the challenges and incorrect assumptions minorities face on campus. Others came and shared that they had experienced similar struggles, but no longer felt so alone.
Taking the opportunity to speak out, when normally I would have kept quiet, I realized my voice is as important as others’, even though my accent is different. I’ve started to socialize with people from various backgrounds, to be open to things I’ve never heard of before, and to learn about variations among different cultures. I went to Interfaith Spring Break and gained new insights into different religions; I went camping for the first time with my fellow Commodore Orchestra members and spent a whole night learning to play Mafia; I celebrated my Chinese culture by participating in the Asian New Year Festival and also learned about Hindi and Latin American cultures at Diwali and Cafe con Leche.
Although I sometimes still stutter, I know there is always someone who is willing to listen. Indeed, Vanderbilt provides a space where every idea is valued and every opinion is treasured, regardless of your background. Meeting new people and gradually building my own community at Vanderbilt, I came to realize that rather than a hindrance, my accent is a valuable reminder of my unique background – my Chinese heritage – and the struggles I have overcome as an international student. In the coming years at Vanderbilt I will continue to celebrate both the accent and the stories that make me the Kelly Perryperson I am.