In high school, Stephen Zhang knew he was ready for something new. He wondered what it would be like to start a new life beyond the comforts of his routine in China. So, he decided to study abroad in the U.S. In a time before Skype or FaceTime, he spoke to his family back home once a month. Stephen believes this was critical to his full immersion into Minnesotan life.
After ten months in the U.S., Stephen returned home, like thousands of other AFSers.Except then he came back, and not just for a reunion with his host family. A year later, he returned to the U.S. to attend Grinnell College, and most recently, he completed his PHD in Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. While he’s accomplished so much, our favorite part of his story is that he’ll be a groomsman in his host sister’s wedding next October. We may be a little biased.
Stephen is not only an incredible example of the #AFSEffect, he’s a testament to the enduring power of curiosity, hard-work, and ambition. We interviewed him about all the ways he continues to challenge himself, and the importance of embracing cultural differences.
How did you find out about AFS?
My high school in Nanjing, China specialized in foreign languages and they had a lot of people who ended up going abroad. So AFS was spread around my high school probably more than other places. It was a word of mouth thing.
Why did you decide to become an exchange student?
Curiosity – trying to figure out if switching to a new environment would be a good thing for myself. I was curious about what was going on outside my high school. I started to wonder what it would be like to switch to a new environment and start a new life.
Did you have any hesitations about being an exchange student?
I didn’t as much. My parents certainly did, especially my dad. I think he was worried because going abroad at sixteen or seventeen seemed unimaginable at the time. I remember thinking, “Am I going to be able to call home?” Back then, it was expensive to make long distance phone calls. That was also my dad’s concern. My teachers felt it would be a good opportunity.
What were your expectations?
Mostly I wanted to figure out the day-to-day life of being in America. For the most part, it was very different. For example, I was not prepared for the fact that American schools get out so early at 3pm, verses China at 5pm, where you go home and get dinner and go back to school again. In America, there’s different expectations, where you take a small number of classes every day and are expected to do activities after school.
I remember my first weekend in the U.S., my host mom, who was very sports-oriented, took me to three major professional sporting events over the course of one weekend. Which, I now understand wasn’t normal even for the average American but back then, I had no idea. It was my first weekend! [laughs]
Sports are so injected into everyone’s lives here. It’s so hard to walk around and not hear how the Red Sox did during last night’s game. Looking for differences like this was what I was aiming for during my exchange.
What were you hoping to gain from the experience?
When I came [to the U.S.], I didn’t know much about the structure of daily life, so I kept mostly an open mind. It became very clear everyone was way better at sports than I was. So instead, I participated in a lot of math and science competitions after school. That wasn’t necessarily my goal at first, but I found out they were recruiting at the beginning of the year and I just took the chance.
Did you have any other surprises as an exchange student?
I was surprised by the fact that there’s people with such different points of view. I remember speaking with this guy who was talking about doing business in China. He described himself as a “foodie.” In China, a lot of business is done over the dinner table. And he said when he would do business there, the host would welcome him into the restaurant, show him to tanks of live fish, and say “Please, pick your fish.”
From a Chinese perspective, this is completely normal. This is the host being very gracious by letting the guest pick his fish and showing him the food is fresh. However, the guy was horrified: “Why do I have to pick an animal to kill? Can’t you take care of that in the back?”
There are people out there who hold very different views from each other and they don’t even know it until things like that happen! A lot of my learning experiences in the end come from moments like that.
Can you discuss any differences you discovered in yourself by the end of your exchange year?
For me, one of the most important things I gained from my exchange year was the importance of looking at things from a different perspective. It’s always important for me to consider why a person is thinking the way they are.
During my exchange, the expectation was, “This is what Americans eat for breakfast,” “This is what Chinese people eat for breakfast.” These were low level differences you learn at first, but in the end the things that stuck with me are much deeper.
The same guy I mentioned before, he was talking to his Chinese counterpart doing business. The guy was describing something and saying, “This is amazing, this is wonderful” and his Chinese translator translated it to “Not bad.” The guy was like, “No no, that’s not what I mean. It’s wonderful! More than just not bad!”
The thing is, the scaling of adjectives like “wonderful” and “not bad” are different from the U.S. and China. In the Chinese language, “not bad” means “pretty damn good.” It’s not something you can learn in school, it’s the kind of thing you have to actually witness.
What are some fun memories you made with your host family during your exchange?
One of the things I did with my host family was visit my host sister in college in Denver. I slept on a bean bag in her friend’s dorm. My first experience was, “Wow, this is what it’s like to go to college in America!” [laughs] It was quite fun. Students were creating a space for themselves, decorating their dorm, showing who they are, being with their friends, going out to get pizza at midnight. Obviously, that’s a very small part of going to college in America, but it was a good step for me and played an important part in the reason why I came back to America for college. It was where I wanted to find myself.
We’re all still in touch. As a host family, we went to Keystone Colorado, they helped me move to college and to graduate school at Harvard. My American mom is coming to my graduation this month.
A lot of hosted students talk about the little things being the best parts of hosting an exchange student—like sharing breakfast together or playing board games. Did you have any family traditions like this? If so, what were they?
Being in the car with my host dad Ralph was pretty fun. He’d be blasting Phil Collins and Phil would be singing about a highway while we’d be actually driving down a highway in the middle of nowhere in Iowa. It was quite an experience!
Ultimately, what made you decide to come back to the U.S. to study at Grinnell College and eventually Harvard?
Comparing my college experience in the U.S. verses my friend’s college experiences in China, mine was more intense. It was normal at my college to study until midnight and from what I hear, it’s a common experience at a lot of American colleges.
I wanted to challenge myself and be exposed to opportunities I wouldn’t have in China, like being able to conduct life science research with one of my professors. Knowing it was an option was quite nice. It was also a bonus that Grinnell was so close to my host family.
We heard you will be a groomsman in your AFS Sister’s wedding next October, which seems like an intimate honor. Can you share your feelings on that?
I was surprised and obviously very happy to know that. When I heard the news, it was fantastic!
Why do you think students should study abroad?
I think it depends how comfortable people are with their familial support. A lot of people like having their parents twenty minutes away. You can really gain a lot of independence by being an exchange student. The ability to take care of yourself when your parents are way more than twenty minutes away.
It’s important to challenge yourself with a different environment. Some of us are quite used to the way we live. My grandparents would make my breakfast everyday in China and it was certainly an adjustment to leave. At the same time, you get to practice a new language that you’d only use in a class setting.
Getting a new perspective is also very important. There are things that happen in your country that aren’t as normal as you might think it is. How important it is that you can protest, vote, voice your opinion. You don’t know how the rest of the world is until you go visit. There’s no better learning experience.
What are your plans post-graduation?
In the next four to five years, I will be a post-doctoral fellow in a research laboratory in Boston at Beth Israel Medical Center. After that, ideally, I will be looking for or receiving an academic job somewhere in the U.S.
For students who are considering doing an exchange, do you have any advice?
My big advice is something that was forced upon me at first [laughs], which is to not speak to your family back at home as much as they’d like you to. Back then, making phone calls long distance was not cheap. I called home about every month. I was here ten months, so I called home maybe ten times. That winds up being very good, in a way.
The thing is, if your parents are in a different country and you call them with a problem, they can’t really help you that much [laughs]. They might sympathize with you, but in the end it’s not that useful and it makes them worry about you. It’s really hard to grow new roots and a new support system, get along with your host family and new friends, and adjust to a new program when you’re still in contact with your family back home.
Getting support from your new environment and more importantly, knowing how to get support from your new environment is very important. It trains yourself to become an independent person. My advice to exchange students would be to build an environment for themselves!
Stephen’s story is an inspiration to so many exchange students wondering if they can make their second home into a more permanent one. His decision to continue his education in the U.S. is a testament to the power of intercultural exchange and the unbreakable bonds between host students and their host families. If you’re interested in hosting an international exchange student this fall, meet students coming to your area: