I moved to Houston in August, 2009. Before I came to the United States, I learned that Chinese students have a nomadic moving routine during their time at the University of Houston. Initially they move into Beall Village, at the end of their first year of study they usually move to a nearly house on Wheeler Street. Eventually most Chinese students move to Lantern Village on the west side Houston. During the time that they live in Houston and they learn a lot from the American life and somehow change themselves as well.
A wooden “Beall Village” sign on the green island was surrounded by a “U”-shaped drive way welcomed visitors to the two “H”-shaped buildings. Colorful flags fluttered in the wind in front of the green and white building facade. In the lobby, two or three seniors sat around a fire place on comfortable old sofas with checked cloth coverings. Five yellow sparrows were singing in a cage. A couple of potted plants were growing in the corner. This is what I saw on my first day at Beall Village.
Many Chinese students at the University of Houston choose to live in this neighborhood for their first year in Houston. It is convenient in located and not too expensive. At first, I did not like it at all. The outside of the building seemed clean and new. But inside the building, I felt like I was living in a dormitory building in China. The interior seemed cramped and not well maintained. In the lobby, there was a strong almond cookie smell all the time. The paint in the hallway was half faded and dark. New Chinese students choose this building as a temporary living space before they find something more satisfying.
Most Chinese students lived in a high-rise before coming to United States. The high-rise I lived in is made of reinforced concrete. There are 10 apartments on every floor. My apartment is a 500-square-foot apartment of one bedroom and one living room on 14th floor facing east. The grey painted walls give the rooms the only color they have. There is other decoration. In summer, every morning I can see the Oriental Pearl Television Tower which is the symbol of Shanghai. The orange sun rises behind the high-rise complex beside the Yangzi River which divides Shanghai into two parts. Every night I can open the door of the balcony and enjoy the wind. Crowded and multicolored night scenes are the most memorable features of Shanghai although it is the evening breeze that I miss the most.
For most Chinese students living in Beall Village is their first time to live in such a low building, which in China always stands for an old building with a dirty interior. But when Chinese students open their apartment door in Beall Village, they are surprised to find a decent interior and a view into a green landscape. Other surprises await them outside. The Bayou comes by the Beall Village. Beside it there is bicycle path, with team cycling events when the weather is good. The riders fly through the space between the trees. Then they disappear into the woods. People take their dogs for a walk along the bayou. It is a huge surprise to Chinese students that such a soft landscape is such a dominant feature of Houston.
After one year of study, Chinese students want to widen their social circle. They want to make friends with more people. Hence, some choose to move to the University Oaks neighborhood which is adjacent to the university and not far from Beall Village.
My friend, Fang and I were invited once to the home of an old couple who live in University Oaks. The place matched exactly what I expected for the traditional American house. The living room was connected with the dining room, with a fireplace in the center. A chandelier hung from the ceiling. A typical open western kitchen was next to the dining room. Two ovens warmed soup and rice. The owner welcomed us. We felt a softness when we stepped on the wood floor without shoes. We talked about American life and American values.
“What is most important for an American?”
“Time?” “Religion?” Fang and I began to guess.
“Yes. But it is not the whole answer. For Americans, time, competition and the individual are the most important things. Americans do not like to be late. For them, time is money. They will go to a party ten minutes early. If you can be thirty minutes early and help host, they think you should. Chinese will arrive five minutes late and the host will not let guests help them at all. Americans like to compete, which matches our passions of sports. Because of the importance of competition, Americans adore their success in sports and business. They even judge the quality of a film or book according to its sales. But the most important thing for an American is the individual. This may be the most important difference between China and the United States. It is even expressed in difference between the way people are named in each society. Americans put the first name in front of the family name because they think the individual is more important than the whole family. Easterners put their family name first name because they think of themselves as members of a community first. It takes a long time but after moving to Houston foreign students begin to understand the differences between their home country and their new home.
After living in Houston for six months, one begins to find that there are surprising differences between things that one imagines would be similar, for example buildings with similar functions have vastly different identities in China and the United States. Normally a house with backyard and a swimming-pool communicates luxury in China. Mention the word “house” and the first impression of Chinese people is the Baroque-style house with a gabled roof and closed fencing. They always think of housing for very wealthy people.
My friend Ray lives in a two-story house on Fiesta Street, which is two blocks away from Beall Village. I went to her house with several friends to celebrate the Chinese New Year. We began by putting some firewood into the fireplace and building a fire. It was 12:30 p.m. Yao took out the Hong Kong flour and water. We stirred and mixed it with yeast. Dough rose from palm size to basin size through Yao’s kneading. Andy minced the pork, cabbage and green onion. They were marinated for the whole morning in a source made from salt, Chinese pepper, mashed garlic, pepper, sesame-seed oil, chili oil, soy source and ginger juice when all these were ready. We began to make dumplings together. Such an occasion with a sense of family and community is popular among Chinese students. Walking inside this neighborhood, people can feel its kindness. Such houses in the United States which can offer a gathering space for Chinese students are nicer and make them to feel like their home, and they are not only for the very wealthy but also for middle class people.
Another example: in China, thousands of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants line the streets. Some people consider them a classic case of foreign cultural influence and homogenizing globalization. Yet these buildings and the presence of their façades on the street are different in different places. In Houston, a KFC is a real fast-food restaurant. The bread and meat are ready and employees just heat them in the microwave. The Drive-thru in KFCs is common but staying for a meal and a relaxing conversation is not. In contrast, KFCs in China are comfortable locations to relax and take your time while dining. The seats beside shop windows are full of people all the time. Most people eat and chat in an easy way. Because of the huge population of China, it is not normally easy to build a big restaurant. But many students choose KFC as the location of a party or discussion group in Shanghai. No doubt KFCs in China use the same logo and typical colors but they are not the same. The real fast-food restaurant in China is a narrow space without seats sometimes, selling dumplings. It is hot at summer night. Friends go to food stalls near the street for an icy beer. Such food stalls work like an outside bar with simply chairs and tables.
Driving on Bellaire Boulevard is a collage-like experience. Bellaire is the main street of Houston’s Asian district and Asian stores abound. Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese stores define the street. The street names on road sign changes from English into Chinese. Parking in one supermarket, there are three or four languages surrounding me. None of them is English. Many Asian dialects are spoken here. In the Dunhuang Supermarket I even heard of the Shanghai dialect, my own way of speaking with family. This supermarket is a place to meet friends. I met Yao and Andy in the supermarket. We are all students at the University of Houston. I went there after the Chinese New Year, which is on Feb. 14th. Dragon decorations were hung on the top of the supermarket. Daffodils, the traditional Chinese flower, were used inside. Lantern Village is next to Bellaire Street. Chinese students regard it as one of their final destinations for moving after obtaining their own cars.
Lantern Village is in a district where all the apartment buildings are exactly the same. The buildings are rigid boxes. The streets are narrow and gridded like military buildings. Compared with other parts of Houston, this residential area feels harsh and anonymous. However, there are a lot of amenities including swimming pool and casino game room. After a few semesters, in the United States Chinese students begin to think about things other than study and friends. They start to care about entertainment, convenient shopping and so on.
Lantern Village is designed for young wording men who are not interested in social interaction. After work they retreat into their apartments. I prefer an architecture which provides more successful places to gather and talk.
Next year I am going to stay in Beall Village or a house near Wheeler Street, where there is a possibility of getting together with other people. The gathering space for the University of Houston is the University center. A simple space with several chairs and a swing is the gathering space for Beall Village. A big tree surrounded with lawn chairs stretches itself in the backyard. In fall, one can sit under the tree, talk with neighbors and watch the sunset. At this time of year the flowers on the trees are in bloom filling the air with their perfume.
During the time I lived in Beall Village I began to see how people are nice there. After I finished signing a contract with the apartment manager, everybody present welcomed me. “Welcome to Beall Village!” A skinny, freckled old lady, Maria, took her cart and showed me around the building and my room as well. “You can get a clean towel in the laundry room next to the stair well. If you have questions or want to chat, I always stay in the lobby downstairs.” At the same time, I found that strong almond cookie smell is because Maria always puts cookie in the lobby to share. Whenever I get to the lobby, I can find cookies and candy.
Every morning when I leave this building and pass by the gate, the older residents greet me sweetly. At night, I leave the commuter bus and say goodnight to the uniformed driver with saggy stomach. He replies to me in a shrill but kind voice. As the iron gate of the parking lot moves slowly, an old man in a white T-shirt turns to me and waves his hand. I can see his grin though only three or four street lamps are flickering. There are always families gathering in the backyards between parking lots and buildings. Sometimes they do not really say anything. They just look at me and use eye contact to say hello. After I leave, they usually go back to their conversations again. It is my neighbors who make me feel that living in the Beall Village is similar to living at home. Although it is not usual, some Chinese students stay at Beal Village even four or five years after they graduate. Now I am wondering if I will be one of them someday.