An exchange student program, a hobby and a chance – that’s what it took for junior Erqing Xu to find where she really fit in.
Born in China, Xu did what every other child did. She found a hobby. If you didn’t have a hobby, your parents found one for you, she said.
“Basically, when you grow up you need to find a hobby. Most of the kids will go to drawing classes, karate classes, chess classes, whatever,” Xu said. “I never liked anything else but art.”
Her hobby turned out to be more than just a something to do on the side. Xu found she had a real passion, and a real talent, for art. Unfortunately, art isn’t considered a money-making career choice in China.
“Before reality hit, I always thought I could just draw anime. I got really into packaging — I just think those chocolate boxes and soda boxes are so cool,” she said. “In China, if you do art, people are like, ‘oh, you’re not going to make a lot of money.’”
Art was viewed differently in China than it is in America, Xu said. In China, creativity was often stifled in order for students to paint or create something in the view of the teacher. In America, different viewpoints are cherished and explored, she said.
“You can’t just change the way I see things to your way of seeing things. I was more free-minded. Whenever I got into graphic design, I just knew I didn’t want to do the same thing everyone else was doing,” Xu said.
By chance, though, she took a test to see if she was eligible to take part in an exchange student program. Out of the many children who took the test, she was selected and able to participate in the exchange.
That’s how she ended up on a plane with hundreds of other high school students en route to Los Angeles.
“We met with the agency there, and they sent us apart to every single different state,” Xu said.
Xu’s transcontinental journey ended in Michigan, where she moved in with a host family and started public high school. There was only one problem.
Xu barely knew any English.
“It’s really tough. I think the toughest part is I always feel self-conscious. People sometimes try to be nice and make some jokes, but I don’t understand the jokes. I can’t understand class. I was in American history, and I couldn’t understand anything. I could barely read the book. It took me so long,” she said.
With no teacher or class to teach her English, Xu was left to immerse herself in the American culture in order to learn the language. Movies ended up being her teacher on more than one occasion.
“I just talked to people. Just starting from scratch. I knew the basics,” she said. “I even joke about that one time I dreamed with subtitles.”
But no amount of pop culture could make learning English easy. Her shyness became a hurdle as Xu struggled to speak up for fear of being wrong and being made fun of.
“I was so shy at first. I really didn’t understand a lot of things, and it was just intimidating. I failed at communication because I couldn’t tell them I didn’t mean to do anything I just said,” she said. “I had to not be scared of making mistakes.”
It took a year and a half before Xu considered herself fluent in the language. Even then, there were some aspects she had trouble grasping.
“I had no idea what sarcasm was. I don’t get sarcasm,” she said.
After her leaving her first host family due to a slew of miscommunications and misunderstandings and leaving her second host family because their grandmother fell ill, Xu finally found a home with her third host family.
“They’re basically my family now. They take care of me. I call them ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad,” she said.
It was there she first heard about Belmont. Wanting to become a graphic design artist, Xu agreed to visit Nashville after her father’s suggestion.
She fell in love right away.
“I came here for campus visiting during my spring break in senior year, and I was just like, ‘I love it,” Xu said.
Surrounded by students who were artists in some way, shape or form made Xu feel like she belonged.
“It feels so great. You finally get appreciated for something you truly love. Here, people appreciate your stuff. It gave me a lot of confidence,” she said. “People appreciate creativity. Belmont’s literally filled with creative people.”
After spending time at Belmont, Xu has realized just how much of a job opportunity being around musicians is for a graphic designer, so she’s been busy making her name and her work known.
“I love it here. I fit in here. My future plan? Definitely still do art. Definitely stay here longer,” she said. “If I can’t find a job that’s perfect, I will.”
Photo courtesy of Erqing Xu.