International Student Profile: George Chen (Zhi Qiao)


It seems as though every incoming year has at least one international student for the 3 different years represented currently at the Columbia photography program.  Elina Ruka, Latvian, graduates this upcoming spring.  Her work interrogates interesting relationships between water and the image, rooted in her own incredible fear of it (water).  Anahid Ghorbani, Iranian, is in her first year in the program and is looking at which relates to her identity as Iranian by (so far) playing with projected images of ancient ruins from her country on walls and on her body.  And then there is George Chen.

George is in my year, and from the first day has been one of the easiest people for me to connect with in my program.  He’s impressively positive, and has a very kind way about him that makes him instantly appreciated in every social circle he finds himself in.  George’s aspirations are not simply photographic, but also looking towards curatorial, with a strong interest in continuing the work of running a gallery – something which his family in Beijing already does.


His work, however is some of my favorite that is being made in the program, in part because George just makes the work!  He just has an idea, and then makes it.  Currently, he has been looking at the relationship that the official Chinese red has to China, as in China “…red means power, but here red means China.”  I interviewed George about what being an international student at Columbia was like for him:

So what’s it like being an international student at Columbia College?

Of course it’s a lot of pressure.  But the local kids like you, but also there’s so much fun that you can do something different, totally.  For me most of the way I conceive of my work is a process.  For example, the idea map?  You guys know that thing.  I don’t know that at all.  And our way is like make a list, like a word list, I showed you guys the first day, the ten words that really mean something to me.  That is my way to think, but the map is your way to think and view those links.  I’m not saying I’m the typical Chinese person, but there are differences like that.  

Do you feel like there are a lot of cultural differences?  (I know, I know, obviously, but I’m not the world’s best interviewer)

I can tell you that the Eastern and Western people are totally 2 different creatures, just so different.  Like from different planets, just the thinking way and the ways to deal with things is so different!  I’m still learning but it’s a process to really get to know, and it’s hard to change when you have grown up in a particular environment.  It’s just so different.

Sometimes it’s easy to get you guys and understand, and sometimes I just don’t care.  I mean, you get it, great, you don’t get it….(shrugs).  Chinese normally care a lot about other people’s opinion.  A lot.  But actually I don’t know if I’m right, but while I’m here with you guys….you guys get respect, but you don’t really care about what other people think about you.  But Chinese people really care about like….”you think I’m a good guy, and that means a lot to me.”  


But I don’t think if I say “Whit I think you’re really bad” you would think “I should change.”  It’s just your opinion, I don’t care.


I am feeling really american right now.

That is super different, but that’s real.  And I am learning your way….sort of, you can already see me, I have shifted in alot of ways.  Keep it a secret!  But that’s the truth.


And maybe that’s healthier too.  Sometimes other peoples opinion is poison.

It’s true.  And you don’t know it until you’ve already acquiesced.

Yes.  You’ve already lost yourself to them.

It’s interesting though, because it’s also something that I’ve noticed with you.  Is that you seem to be a genuinely nice person, and you actually mean it.  Whereas with alot of mainstream American culture there seems to be less of that.  It’s totally fine to be petty.  There seems to be less….I don’t know, just kindness.  Do you know what I mean?  

These days I am really drawn to the sentence “I am smiling because I don’t know what’s going on.”  I really like that, I think that will be my like, sentence.  All the time.  That’s why I’m always laughing, because sometimes it’s because I really don’t know what’s going on, I don’t want to know what’s going on, so that’s just working, to ignore some things that you can’t understand at all.  Sometimes it’s frustrating that I can’t get your culture, or like, what you’re talking about or something.  Really important, but I just can’t get it.  But you can’t really let those things bother you as an international student.  I like America, and I want to be here, but I also want to keep my way.  If you want to go to the bar, go there, and if you don’t then reject it.  You don’t need to like, force yourself to change a lot.  Or you don’t need to totally like, say no.  


To like, get the middle.  That’s really important for the international student I think, how to get the middle.  Because I know a lot of my peers don’t connect it with American students at all.  They play with themselves.  Or they totally shift their minds, and think “I am American.  I have nothing to do with China.”

And I want to learn everything from you guys!  And enjoy everything, but actually that’s not healthy too, it’s sooooo tired.  Both sides make you too tired.  So I’m trying to fix my way to in the middle.  Care about what I want to care about, and ignore the others.  You know.


What advice would you give to others who are trying to find the middle way?

To find the middle way?


Just to, and maybe this is silly, but be yourself.  It’s really important because you guys “be yourself” all the time.  I don’t wanna use the word selfish, but most American people I feel really will put themselves in the first, if there is a list.  And I really do think that’s a good thing.  It’s not a bad thing at all.  If you don’t care for yourself how can you care for others?  You know?  But most people don’t get it.  They feel that I should…  You know in China we all say that the Nation is the first priority and the family second, then you may be the last.


But that’s totally wrong, I wanna take myself first and be stronger, be confident, about myself so that I will not care about other’s opinion.  Because that’s the point.  You guys know that.  I know you guys also like to hear that achievement thing.  If I don’t like it, are you going to go kill yourself?  I don’t think so, because you guys know how to get yourself.  That is a big difference between Asian people and Westerners, a totally big difference.

Well and the negative side of being so selfish….

For us we need to begin to care for our self, and for you guys, maybe, you need to care about others more, but that’s not rigid.  It’s not a line there.  You can figure it out by yourself.

Is that good?