China Personified: The Zeroth Generation

I first realized how different I was from my classmates at Harvard when I moved into my freshman dorm in August 2013. My roommate from New York, whose parents helped her with moving in, brought many times the things I did, including two lamps and a printer. It then occurred to me, for the first time, that many of my American classmates in fact live only a couple dozens of miles away from Harvard, and it is the norm for parents to drive students here with their bountiful possessions.

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I, on the other hand, had come 6,393 miles punctuated by two layovers, and was still suffering from the jet lag caused by the 12-hour time difference. All I was able to bring on this parentless, trans-Atlantic journey were two suitcases. It was my first time stepping foot on not only Harvard campus, but also American soil.

I later found out that both of my roommate’s parents graduated from Harvard College. So did her grandparents. My roommate could call her father, who also graduated from Harvard Business School, for help on an Economics essay. My own parents do not speak English, have never been to America, and my grandparents were illiterate.

A few days after move-in, my roommate was already busy making plans to go out with her group of friends from New York that she has known for years. I had only briefly met four of my classmates at a gathering for admitted Chinese students in Beijing, and was just slowly beginning to grasp the concept of “going out”—there was no such thing in China or in my Singapore high school where all we knew was “mugging” (Singlish for “studying”).

Slowly, I came to appreciate the extent of diversity that a Harvard class represents. Students whose last names are etched on building signs sit side by side with students on full financial aid who are the first generation in their families to attend college.


Most people in the world don’t have a chance to meet people who are significantly different from themselves their whole lives, and it is a unique privilege to be able to learn with and learn from such a diverse group of peers. But when placed at such a kaleidoscopic environment, everyone is, to various degrees, out of their comfort zone.

College is a place where no two persons set off at the exact same starting line, but everyone is free to determine where they finish. There are those of us who started several generations ago, who grew up knowing that one day they would end up at this place that educated their forebears. There are others who started as the first generation: many of them are children of immigrants who completed their families’ American Dream by being admitted to a place that they never imagined they could get into. Then there are those of us who are the zeroth generation: we are the immigrants themselves, starting a new life in a new country, adapting to its culture and people every day (It gives me comfort to think that at least my children will not be the zeroth generation).

Every one of the above groups has their own privileges and disadvantages, but it is important to put things into perspective when trying to understand and evaluate our own college experiences. Many of us (especially those from Asia) grew up with a habit of comparing ourselves to others. Such comparison may be valid in elementary or middle school, when most of our classmates were from the same city or neighborhood. But it is definitely not valid, and not recommended, for a place as diverse as an American college. “Adjustment” is not the same concept for someone who grew up attending New England private schools and someone who only learned of the differences between public and private schools after coming to America for the first time.

Throughout my life, there have been many times when I was uprooted from my comfort zone into an unfamiliar environment, and these phases of adjustment often lead to lots of self-questioning and self-doubt. Why is everyone so different? Why is it so hard to get close to anyone? Is there something wrong with me?

Slowly, I have learned that the trick of maintaining confidence is in believing that there’s nothing wrong with me. No one is born at the “right” place or from the “right” background. As long as I’m trying my best to maintain a positive outlook and a friendly disposition, then there is something wrong with the people who refuse to be my friends.

Being the zeroth generation has its perks: I can look at American society and culture from a fresh perspective, and every day I’m learning new words, new ideas, new rules of American humor. When life gives me new situations, I savor the challenge of adapting to them: it’s something I’ve been doing all my life.

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