Rediscovering Home

"Now that I've done this, I can say that I have a new appreciation for Canada and China."

Makda Mulatu - 13 February 2020

When most of us travel, we usually don't stray far from home for very long. We might spend a couple of days in Vancouver over reading week or backpack around Europe for a summer but, eventually, we always come back to who and what we know.

For international students, however, going home isn't quite so simple. Expensive flights and visa restrictions aside, the physical and cultural distance between the U of A campus and the places they call home can leave them feeling displaced when they do eventually return. Xiaoyu Jin and Joy Zou, two international students hailing from China, experienced this tension firsthand when they participated in the TusStar Internship Program last year.

(Pictured Joy (right) and a friend)

Founded in 2018, the TusStar Internship Program is the result of a joint collaboration between TusStar - China's leading business incubator - and the University of Alberta. Designed specifically for Chinese citizens, the program arranges a multitude of summer internship placements in various locations throughout China.

Xiaoyu spent four months in Shenzhen working for TusStar itself. As an incubator, TusStar functions as the bridge between companies and the resources they needed to improve and expand upon their business. Capitalizing on Shenzhen's reputation as 'China's Silicon Valley,' TusStar connects a variety of start-ups to necessary capital, talent and technologies.

"A typical day for me was full of client meetings," Xiaoyu says. "I'd find out their needs, let them know what we provide and see if and where we could collaborate." She was also given the freedom to expand her portfolio beyond client engagement to include things like event planning, which allowed her to facilitate conferences and workshops.

Joy, on the other hand, worked for Alajia. Based out of the bustling international metropolis of Shanghai, the company crafts games and other digital educational programming for children. "My main job was to engage with the programmers and art designers," she says. "As a team, we'd look at what we needed to change to fix the flaws in our system."

Although they remained busy during the workweek , Xiaoyu and Joy took full advantage of the free time they had on weekends. For Xiaoyu, that meant tasting the best of China's culinary offerings.

"Shenzhen is located in the Guangdong province, which is famous for its food," she explains. "I spent most weekends travelling to different cities and trying their local dishes." On a trip to Shunde, the birthplace of Cantonese cuisine, she sampled dim sum. In Shantou, she and her Airbnb host - whom she has remained friends with since returning to Edmonton - visited a local hotpot restaurant to observe how their traditional beef balls were made.

Joy, on the other hand, got her fill of Shanghai's music scene. "I went to see lots of different concerts by my favourite singers," she says. "Shanghai's public transportation is so convenient, so they were all easy to get to."

When she wasn't going to shows, Joy indulged in being able to spend time with friends and family that she hadn't seen since moving away. "Some of my friends from primary school and middle school that I still kept in touch with came to visit me," she says with a smile. "My Mom came to stay for a couple of days as well."

While many elements of their home country had been left unchanged, others were totally foreign, contributing to their sense of what Xiaoyu described as 're-entry shock.' One such difference that became immediately apparent upon their arrival was the prevalence of 'smart payment,' the electronic alternative to carrying cash or cards.

"Being able to just scan a code and pay for something saves time," Joy says. "When I was still using cash to buy things, the cashiers would ask me to go faster!"

Given China's immense population, Xiaoyu understood the necessity of using apps such as WeChat Pay or Alipay for efficiency purposes, but still struggled to incorporate it into her daily life. "My parents had to teach me how to use it," she exclaims. "I felt like an idiot!"

As they move into the last stretch of their respective degrees (a BSc in Food Science and Technology for Xiaoyu and a BSc in Math and Economics for Joy), both students struggle to determine where they'd like to build a home after graduating from university: Canada or China.

"Maybe in Canada, you'd have more freedom and flexibility, but in China you'd have your culture and your language," Joy reflects. "It depends on what you want."

Xiaoyu expresses a similar sentiment, emphasizing that an international student's decision to either leave or remain in Canada is deeply personal and will depend on each person's unique needs and values. "No place is perfect; there are always pros and cons," she remarks. "But now that I've done this, I can say that I have a new appreciation for [both] Canada and China."