Los Angeles Through a Chinese Lens: Part 2

Venice Canal Historic District | Photo courtesy of Kostya Danko, Flickr
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In Part 1 of our ongoing series, we first met Susanna Niu (牛承程), Patrick Shi (施沛洋), Maggie Hui (惠江雯), William Chen (陈振麟), and Jenny Xu (徐婧), five Mainland Chinese students currently enrolled at the University of Southern California (USC). In this second installment, Discover Los Angeles dives further into the lives and experiences of the students.

Read on to find out more about our subjects and their travels around L.A. And, as we continue to follow Susanna, Patrick, Maggie, William, and Jenny around Los Angeles, make sure to let us know whose stories interest you most and where in L.A. you’d like to see these students go.

SUSANNA NIU

Originally from Dandong, China, Susanna Niu (牛承程), 23, has had very little trouble adjusting to life in L.A. Having already lived in the United States for six years, Susanna made the move from New York City to Los Angeles in August 2014, when she enrolled as a graduate student at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Upon arriving in L.A., Susanna, headed east to the San Gabriel Valley, for the familiar tastes and flavors of her homeland. And after familiarizing herself with restaurants like Chengdu Taste, Jin Cheng Li, and Xiao Shenyang deep in the heart of the Chinese diaspora in Monterey Park, Alhambra and San Gabriel, Susanna began her exploration of the Westside.

“I like to go to the beach, Venice Beach, because of the canals,” offers Susanna. “There are a lot of coffee shops, and you can stay and rest and read books.”

Still, with school being her main priority, Susanna spends the majority of her time near USC’s Downtown campus, making regular trips to nearby Chinatown.

“The food in Chinatown is amazing. I think it’s better than the local Chinese food [at home] actually,” she adds.

The convenience of Chinatown is important for Susanna and her peers, who come to L.A. by the thousands every semester. And at no time was this more apparent than when she first came to visit L.A. as a prospective student.

Staying at the Radisson Hotel in Downtown, Susanna visited popular tourist destinations like Universal Studios Hollywood and Santa Monica Beach, even taking a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway, while her parents took advantage of the city’s many golf courses. And after enjoying the sights, she started to notice why L.A. is such an ideal spot for Chinese immigrants, imports and students.

“For Chinese, it is convenient to know a lot of Chinese people, and [here] there’s a huge Chinese society. [L.A.] is really good to find a job or internship, and also if you want to do some business, staying in L.A. is really an advantage,” she remarks. “I think that’s an advantage for Chinese students and for USC … I think it’s better for someone who’s not familiar with America, the first place they should come is L.A. They have the [chance] to meet Chinese friends who can tell them [about] America.”

Susanna’s transition to life in L.A. has been rather smooth. She has established an independent streak, taking advantage of the city and the beach, any time she isn’t studying. But during the recent Chinese New Year holiday, Susanna elected to spend the Spring Festival with her Chinese classmates.

“We [made] a dinner by ourselves: dumplings, fish, those kind of traditional things,” she explains. “We [watched] the Spring Festival show (联欢晚会).”

Patrick Shi

The experience of Patrick Shi (施沛洋), a native of Shanghai’s Chongming Island, is in stark contrast to Susanna’s seamless adjustment to life in L.A. 

Having never visited the U.S. prior to enrolling at USC in 2013, Patrick, 23, chose to study in Los Angeles after graduating from Jiaotong University with a degree in film editing. Eager to make a career in film and entertainment, Patrick saw L.A. as a logical choice due to the growing trend of film co-production between the US and China. Still, the adjustment has not been the easiest.

“Everything is quite new to me: the style of the buildings, the names of the streets, the cars, even the sky and trees,” offers Patrick. “I like to experience new things and I think it’s a good experience, but I also may meet many difficulties, like my English is not good and I have a different culture, so it may be difficult for me to make friends with American people and to communicate with them.”

Despite the initial language and cultural barriers he has encountered in L.A., Patrick remains committed to his studies, which conversely has limited his tourist pursuits to the occasional trip to Hollywood and Santa Monica Beach.

But there is another limiting factor that has prevented Patrick from fully embracing Los Angeles. It’s a set of culinary blinders that excludes the rich traditions of Mexican, American and Western fare.

“I like Chinese restaurants. I don’t like Western restaurants,” he explains. “I recommend MeiZhou DongPo.”

MAGGIE HUI

However, life in L.A. isn’t all bad for Patrick. While working towards his masters in strategic public relations, he met his girlfriend, Maggie Hui (惠江雯), who also hails from Shanghai.

A native of the Pudong District, home of Shanghai’s iconic skyline, Maggie, 23, is outgoing and eloquent in conversation, likely because this is her second stint in the U.S. Maggie previously studied English literature in Richmond, Kentucky for a semester while pursuing her undergraduate degree.

But for a city girl from one of the world’s most dynamic metropolitan areas, the confines of rural Kentucky were simply not big enough, prompting an interest in Los Angeles, where’s she taken full advantage of life on the West Coast.

“I love traveling: Santa Monica Beach, Griffith Observatory, The Grove. The Grove is one of my favorites, it’s beautiful at night,” explains Maggie. “And there’s the Original Farmer’s Market; this is the one I’d really recommend Chinese people to go to if they're not from here because I think it’s an American tradition.”

Maggie has thrived in L.A., taking an internship at the Beverly Hills Conference and Visitor’s Bureau.

She’s now in the final semester of her program at USC. While she’s put some thought into staying in L.A. after graduation, Maggie has a checklist of destinations she still wants to visit before she ultimately returns home to Shanghai, such as Downtown’s The Last Bookstore and popular sushi chain Sugarfish. She’s also squeezing in visits to her favorite restaurants like Daikoukuya in Little Tokyo and Bubba Gump at the Santa Monica Pier.

The last 18 months in L.A. have proven to be invaluable for Maggie’s growth and development. And while she’s accomplished a great deal academically and professionally, Maggie also notes that the adjustment has been aided by the presence of a local Chinese community.

“I feel like it’s a unique experience to be here … we’re foreigners, but actually in class we’re the majority,” she adds. “I don’t really feel like it’s a really exotic and foreign place because I can encounter Chinese culture in a lot of places we choose to hang out in Chinatown and [the] San Gabriel Valley.”

WILLIAM CHEN & JENNY XU

Much like Maggie and Patrick have shared their American journey, classmates William Chen (陈振麟) and Jenny Xu (徐婧) have shared a life in L.A., although they met back in China while studying at Sun Yat Sen University.

A native of Guangzhou in Guangdong Province, William, 23, previously studied at UCLA in 2012, while Jenny, 24, who hails from Taiyuan in Shanxi Province, spent three months at UC Santa Barbara during her undergraduate days.

Choosing USC over schools like Boston University, NYU and Syracuse was an easy choice for William and Jenny. In addition to their previous experience in Southern California, they also noted the ease of travel between L.A. and China. And there’s also the climate.

“I personally think the weather here is good, better than the East … L.A. is like a sunny place to me, lots of sunshine,” offers William, who first became enamored with the U.S. as a child when his father returned from a business trip and presented him with a guidebook full of vivid pictures and images.

William and Jenny have taken a genuine interest in American television, including programs like Friends, the Big Bang Theory and CSI, and they’re now at a crossroads, deciding where to go after graduation. Both are currently working in L.A., William for an entertainment marketing company called PMK-BNC, Jenny receiving an offer from FOX in their international television distribution department.

The couple have adapted well to life in L.A., even understanding the cultural significance of the Super Bowl (William mentions that it was a hot topic in PR classes). They have also noticed more striking cultural contrasts.

“I like the way [in the U.S.], if you have something in mind, you probably will say it out directly,” comments Jenny. “Everyone here basically obeys the rule of the society. But in China there are many ways to like bypass rules it’s more complex there for us.”

William is quick to interject that “sometimes in Chinese culture we may need to guess.”

Outside the classroom, William and Jenny enjoy trips to the Griffith Observatory. Jenny has also become accustomed to the culinary offerings of L.A.

“Another reason that I love L.A. is the food … my friends in other cities in the U.S. are jealous because they think in their place they don’t have many food choices,” states Jenny. “Usually we eat three kinds of food: American or Western-style food, Chinese food, and the third one would be Korean food because we’re really close to Koreatown.”

And while the food itself has become a staple of their life in L.A., it is also the act of dining that has had such an impact on their personal lives.

“Food … relates to many things. It relates to culture, it relates to your friend circle … it’s a Chinese thing. We bond through eating, so it’s a good place of forming relationship,” adds William, who recalls his finest Western meal, a steak dinner at The Ritz-Carlton in Downtown L.A. “My friend once took me to the Ritz, it was quite an expensive meal, but the taste was different … it’s hard to describe the difference … it’s more legit. It’s easy to tell the difference. It’s a feeling.”

William and Jenny do admit to missing home on occasion, especially during Chinese New Year. But after a Spring Festival gathering of Chinese friends, many of whom are also currently enrolled at USC, they realize how fortunate they are to have a significant other with whom to share their American journey.

Only time will tell if William and Jenny decide to continue to pursue a life in L.A. – she has already mentioned that the city “goes beyond expectation” – but William ultimately offers a few words of wisdom he picked up during a year and a half in Los Angeles, concluding that “opportunity lies with challenge.”