Elle & I: The Undoing of Expectations

A story of unexpected friendship

I like making friends. I try to remember I’m not the only person with hopes, disappointments and all the other complications that come along with being human. Friends help with that reminder. I didn’t know I’d find a friend when I decided to write. So in the spirit of full disclosure, I set out to document the life of an international student who had an entirely different upbringing than I did. I figured college would be hard enough living four hours from home so I wondered what living multiple planes from home looked like.

Armed with grand ideas of vast cultural differences I thought I’d find, I set out to discover the mysterious person whom I’d somehow “figure out” by asking systematic questions flavored with just the right amount of compassion and empathy. I ran through potential scenarios and reactions I thought might come from a first year international student:

“It’s so difficult here. I wish people just understood where I’m coming from!”
“I cannot tell you enough how thankful I am to be in such a great country like America!”
“Honestly it’s hard to make friends. American students are too into their own lives.”
“I love everything about this school and this country!”

As it turned out, none of those phrases crossed my path.

After texting eight Chinese freshman girls and hoping I spelled their names correctly, I waited for my prime character to appear. Only three girls responded. Decently happy with the turnout and fumbling to find a meeting time suited for each girl, I walked the fifteen minutes to the library café armed with a decidedly open mind and equally open-ended questions.

When I was halfway to the library, the first girl I planned on meeting with texted me asking if her friend could join. The more the merrier! I thought. Maybe her friend would be that magical person with an incredible story of triumph in coming to the States for an education. This golden ticket mentality, I discovered later, would play out in an entirely different way.

Arriving early, I sat down at a table among students studying or chatting about the weekend. As I waited, I became a little too aware of the soft hum of conversation dimming into lone studiers quietly sitting in front of their laptops. I was unnecessarily paranoid that everyone in the vicinity would hear our conversation, perhaps because of how unusual it is to see American and Chinese students as anything more than fellow group project members.

The thought came and went quickly just as two Chinese girls scanned the area looking for a curly haired stranger who just “wanted to know their stories.” Their willingness to meet me based of a vague text was kind and impressive. I waved vigorously, hoping they were the girls I had texted earlier.

“Hi, are you Sue?” I asked one of the girls.

“Yes, and this is my friend Elle!” She gestured at her smiling friend. Both girls seemed eager to meet a new friend after only being in the country for a month.

We chatted about what their homes were like, they showed me pictures of their dogs and I asked them genuinely about their time in America thus far. Sue is a quiet person, hesitant about her rough English and giggling whenever she can’t remember a word. With its tiny handwritten reminders and a carefully cut out variety of stickers, her planner reflects who she is: tidy, organized and whimsical.

Our conversation floated around the usual topics surrounding freshman college girls. Did they like their roommates? Were classes difficult? Do they miss home?

Elle seemed to dominate any questions I’d ask simply because she understood me better and picked up on my nuanced English. She chose the name Elle since her given Chinese name, Luyuan Li, has two L’s in it. I became more intrigued by Elle as the conversation went on. She’d interrupt me, explain a story with charismatic hand gestures and laugh at when I attempted to ask more serious questions.

I was shocked and impressed that Elle had never been outside of China until she moved to Miami.

Coming from a bustling city filled with skyscrapers and efficient public transportation to a small town surrounded by corn fields and confusing bus schedules had to be an interesting transition. When I asked her about it, her only initial observations were that she over-packed for freezing weather and how happy she was that everything was within walking distance.

“I’m surprised I can’t find any postcards to send to my friends!” Elle pouted slightly.

I was pleasantly surprised at her likable sense of humor.

Remembering my first car ride down to Oxford, loaded with piles of unnecessary items that would litter my freshman dorm room, I wondered what Elle’s trip to Miami looked like.

As her plane landed in Washington D.C., marking her first time on American soil, she was full of emotion: excitement of new opportunity and new friends, fear of a new course load and the tiniest bit of sadness leaving behind her best friends.

Waiting for a connecting flight, Elle watched the news flashing on the TV screens. No amount of giving answers for english tests prepared her for how fast people spoke here.

“It was not like in my classes from high school,” Elle said.

Thinking Ohio would be unbearably cold, she had stuffed her suitcases with puffy coats and cozy sweaters. Lugging the next four years in two suitcases, a backpack and a carry-on with a broken wheel proved a challenging task.

After Elle and the other newcomers piled on the designated Miami van and drove the hour north from Cincinnati, finally arriving in Oxford elicited one singular response.


She had never been to such a small place or even comprehended there were such places. Growing up in one of China’s major cities her family always lived in high rise apartment buildings. Being able to walk everywhere you need to go was as foreign as the quickly spoken english on the television.

Little confusions and differences speckled her first few days in Oxford. Finding postcards for friends back home and finding a decent Chinese meal proved difficult. But those were all minor things.

“I’m excited to do my own thing and not feel guilty for doing what I want,” Elle said as her face lit up.

Golden ticket?

The next week, the three of us met at a vaguely themed Asian dining hall for chat over stir fry. We just so happened to be meeting on the Chinese New Year.

Since I had never been to this dining hall — it was built after I moved off campus — I followed suit and ordered what Elle bought. She graciously used her meal plan to pay for my dinner. Freshman meal plan felt like abundant monopoly money until I realized my junior year that campus food is actually quite expensive.

We sat at a booth in the corner talking about nothing in particular.

Sue expressed some homesickness in wishing she could be celebrating with her friends back home. Since she couldn’t find the right English words to express how much she missed her friends, she handed me a few pieces of white rabbit candies with a smile.

“Elle, do you wish you were home celebrating as well?” I asked.

“Umm… not really. I mean I can see how it’s going online anyways,” said Elle as she dug into her noodles with a spoon.

Again, her honesty shocked me a bit and I enjoyed sitting back listening to her recount minor details of life back home and in her Miami classrooms. She explained how odd it was to be in a group text with friends 13 hours ahead and how her dog sang along with her at the piano.

As school progressed, she hoped the work would become easier. Her intro English class was easy for her but following along in the discussion based classes brought confusion. College in America lived up to its reputation with complete freedom to study hard or not study at all.

“We have a saying about college in China: college is the place where you change from your genius in high school to an idiot,” Elle said with a laugh.

She then asked me if I read every page of assigned reading for when I was in the geology class she’s currently in. I confessed that I skimmed the pages just looking for bold words.

“I’m afraid I don’t know how to ‘skim’ properly in english to understand!” she sighed and continued reading every word.

All the while, the three of us didn’t realize the workers’ subtle attempts at getting us to leave since we were eating after hours. When we didn’t take the hint from their sweeping under our table and congregating in a nearby whispering circle, one of them finally came over to tell us we were the last people in the hall and essentially kicked us out.

After this entertaining and enjoyable shared meal, I decided I wanted to know more about Elle.

When I ask Elle about high school, she wears a cloudy expression textured with dread, reluctance and frustration.

“It’s way better to be here. I was always waiting for Friday in high school,” she remembers.

Though she ranked in the top percentile of her thousand plus classmates, she doesn’t want to remember the high pressure and stress from classes. She also doesn’t want to remember how her father was a perfect student, top in his field and all around excelled despite the high demands of the Chinese education system.

This last part doesn’t bother her too much, though. Most days, she takes pride in her father’s intelligence. She was always a bit rebellious. When her mother took a year off of work to be more involved in her only child’s life, more conflict ensued. Third grade wasn’t the best year for criticism.

Elle still remembers her mother’s voice from those early years in school.

“No more TV, Elle.”
“Let me see your grades, Elle.”
“Oh, Elle, your handwriting is not good!”
“Time for piano practice, Elle.”
“Time for table tennis, Elle.”

Between her mother’s urging to play more piano and perfect her table tennis, Elle grew irritable. When her mother returned to work the following year, the two became closer. Middle school was their most special time together.

“I think I surprised her a lot,” Elle remembers proudly. After a fight with her dad, Elle spoke with her mother about her feelings. Following the interaction, Elle’s mother wrote her a kind note.

“I am so thankful to have you,” it read.

Despite the strong work ethic woven into her Chinese DNA and instilled by her parents, she hoped to take a different path when coming into an American college. Physics was her best subject in high school but she’d often forego stacks of homework to pick up a novel.

Though many of Miami’s Chinese students study in the business school per their parents’ prodding, Elle wants a different path. Still in her first semester, she’s eager to figure out a major. Her process began with eliminating what she absolutely doesn’t want to do. Physics and finance are out. Philosophy is too deep, biology isn’t interesting enough and what even is kinesiology?

For the first time in her life she’s undecided about something — and loving it. Able to take the power of deciding into her own hands makes Elle a bit giddy about her options. She knows she can excel in any subject as evidenced by her high class rank in high school, but what will she enjoy the most?

After her mother passed away from leukemia when Elle was 16, she wrapped herself in her studies. Her classmates and course load frustrated her but she knew passing the Entrance Examination of College, more commonly the gaokao, would be her ticket to something new, something fresh.

High school in China is three years. However, most of the work is condensed into the first two for the sake of dedicating a year to studying for the gaokao, the most important test high school students take in China.

The reputation for the test could be akin to passing the bar or MCAT. It’s a caliber double the ACT and SAT. Students spend countless hours studying and lose sleep over wondering if their scores are high enough. Some cities have built expansive high rise buildings dedicated exclusively to studying for it. For some, the gaokao determines whether a student can redeem a family’s economic situation. Students from less fortunate families rely heavily on passing with a good score to improve the family’s hopes and reputation.

A boy in Elle’s class stopped eating for a while when he received a ‘B’ on a test. Another classmate dedicated every aspect of his life to earning a top score on the gaokao.

Like her other classmates, Elle studied instead of pursuing fun activities. She cared about her progress. She wanted to do well. But she didn’t stake her whole life’s work on the gaokao. The strict regimented schedule of high school is unrivaled in any other phase of education in China. Elle shakes her head when thinking about this pressure.

Her days at boarding school consisted of classes and, well, that’s mostly all.

“I don’t want to recall it,” Elle says about her high school workload and all her hours upon hours of hard work. I drop the subject, again.

For our next rendezvous, I suggested we grab food before our more in depth interview. Wanting to give her the opportunity to try something new since she had only been in town for two months, I asked where she preferred to go.

“I have not eaten anywhere Uptown yet so you choose!” Elle responded.

“How about Chipotle? Do you like Mexican food?” I asked.

“I have never had Mexican food but I’d like to try it!” Elle said.

What! Never had Mexican food? That is a staple in my college diet!

Her brief confession opened my mind to other things she may not have tried. Riding the coat tails of my last semester in college, anything new in town was a strange thought. There isn’t much in Oxford I haven’t experienced. Walking alongside a freshman experiencing everything for the first time seemed like a cathartic, full-circle, even sentimental idea.

As we waited in the busy lunch rush line at Chipotle, Elle and I traded stories about traveling and fast food chains. I was again aware that the two boys in front of us were listening to my questions for Elle. The more time I spent with Elle, the more I realized how unusual this kind of relationship was for Miami students. Her blissful unawareness put me at ease and again I swiftly forgot about them.

“It seems that Americans really like this ‘make-your-own’ way of eating,” Elle said absentmindedly as she studied the menu. She proceeded to mumble something about how make-your-own options weren’t very common, eyes still on the menu.

Nearing the front, she whispered,

“You go first. I don’t know what to say.”

I ordered my burrito bowl and Elle confidently followed suit.

As we began walking the few blocks to my house, Elle continued chatting on about how she had never tried Mexican food and I tried my best to explain what an avocado is and how delicious hot sauce tastes on a burrito, hoping I wasn’t overselling this genre of food.

We arrived home and walked upstairs to enjoy our spicy food on my roof. Sitting on a rooftop overlooking other old homes and the few traffic lights in our small town always feels exceptionally “college.”

Through and through, Elle defies many of the stereotypes Americans have about Chinese students. Though her clothing gently reflects the eccentric Chinese style of graphic tees and cats, she remains fiercely her own with a teenager’s ownership over her style. When her signature red floral patterned boots arrived in the mail after weeks of waiting, she rejoiced and wears them whenever possible.

Elle’s first chipotle

Frills aside, one of her main goals for living in the states is to speak and understand English as fluently and quickly as possible. She studied english growing up and quickly gained a reputation for having the strongest grasp on the language in her high school. When fellow classmates would have grammar questions, even if she didn’t know the answer Elle would confidently give her best guess and move on.

Not all Chinese students studying at Miami share this same goal. Elle knows about older boys who only really know how to order food. They’ve survived four years at university by creating a taxi service for picking up Chinese students at nearby airports.

“They don’t even have to work on campus to get money. It’s like they replace everything they need to speak english,” Elle suggests.

Many relationships between American and Chinese students at Miami fail to pass the classmate status simply because of the strong language barrier. Simple conversation subtleties like humor and empathy rarely make it past asking questions about assignments.

I ask if it bothers her if this could play into the continuing stereotype of a disparity between Chinese and American students becoming friends. Elle just laughs at the attempt to create bigger meanings out of the choices of others and we move on to talking about family.

Her father, Zhiwei, could be considered a celebrity in Elle’s social circle. Even beginning early in primary school teachers and friends of Elle would whisper about how handsome and accomplished her father was when he dropped off her clarinet.

“He’s really welcomed by elderly ladies and younger girls,” Elle explained in between bites. He was even the favorite of her great grandmother who thought he was the most beautiful in all her family.

“Can I see the rest of your house?” Elle asked. We climbed back through my bedroom window and wandered through different parts of my college home as I uttered apologies for the mess.

Thinking of what to do with Elle, I texted her asking if she wanted to go to Hueston Woods, a nearby state park. Per usual, I couldn’t help but smile at her excitement filled response: “The state park? omg are you are serious? I always wanted to go there!!!!!”

As we drove through the winding road that wraps around the lake, I asked Elle some other questions to gauge her interests. This wasn’t the best strategy, as I realized a few answers later.

“Have you ever hiked to a waterfall?”

“No, I have not done that,” Elle said with a laugh.

“Have you ever gone hammocking?”

“Hmm, no. What is that?”

“Have you ever — “

“Maybe you shouldn’t ask because the answer will be no,” Elle joked.

Her grasp of the english language is impressive and succinct. Her answers to questions at face value may come across as blunt or in need of softening but her playful smile and curiosity temper the initial candor of her english.

Every now and then her comic honesty will slip into conversation. Sometimes Elle prefers to eat alone, not just for the ability to process thoughts but also to just get away.

“Sometimes friends just aren’t interesting so I fake listening. When I eat alone, I don’t have to fake anything!”

Sounds a lot like freshman year — a time filled with faux conversations and often desperate attempts at forming new friendships. Granted, these times can also provide incredibly rich soil for building long time friends, like the kind of friends you remember fondly when you’re married with kids reminiscing over the glory days of college. Both exist.

I remember four years ago trying to collect friends by adding an extra measure outgoing to my first few weeks on campus. I’d latch on to even the tiniest similarity and hope some sort of long term bond would form.

“Hi! I see you have a lacrosse stick. Let’s play sometime!” I’d say to a group of boys, collecting their numbers then walking away forgetting their names. In some ways I wish I retained this social boldness but know that friendships take more than bonding over mutual interests.

Elle is still on the front end of the inevitable waves of group work and projects, having time for taking naps and willing to meet with anyone who asks.

“College is like this Jason Mraz quote that I really like: ‘You don’t need a vacation when there’s nothing to escape from,’” Elle says happily. I found the song on Spotify and we listened to it as Elle continued explaining the joys of her new experiences.

The few miles on the country roads out to Hueston Woods were filled with talk of spring break the week before and how it can be difficult for Elle to keep up conversation in large groups of native english speakers. In the same vein, I asked her who she thought her closest friend at Miami is, expecting her to mention a fellow Chinese student or perhaps a friend from a class.

“Well, I’d say I actually talk to you the most. I love going on adventures with you!”

A bit taken aback by such a casual confession, I maintained my composure and continue conversation but inwardly the seed of a nagging thought weighed on me.

How is it that people become friends? Could it be that I’m completely unaware of the impact of my life?

Not that I quite reached the level of the classic realization of George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, but something new sprouted in my “I’m outta here, ready to graduate” heart.

We pulled into a lot where a nature center sits adjacent to an expansive lake. Parked sailboats littered the other half of the lot hoping for the fickle temperatures of spring in Ohio to continue warming. The nature center is home to a mountain lion named Timber and a few large birds including an eagle and some owls. Wide-eyed and in awe of the large animal leaping behind bars, Elle and I watched as a little boy taunted the mountain lion.

I’d have my moments of attempting to be profound or attaching meaning to things to prove “how great America is.” I fully support that citizens should champion their own country. However, it can be easy to be buried in our own sentiments and forget to look around at the other beautiful things different places bring to the table. As we stood watching the majestic bald eagle, I mentioned how it’s the symbol of America.

“What would you say the symbol of China is?” I asked Elle, hoping to prompt some deep discussion based in symbols.

“Probably a panda!” Elle responded, then promptly began talking about how cute the owl was.

Well, I tried.

We ventured past the caged animals, across the unkempt parking lot to the lake.

“I’ve never seen so many wild animals!”

Elle happily squealed as I inwardly mocked the phrase ‘wild animals.’ Squirrels and geese are wild? I’m so accustomed to them as part of life in Ohio I’ve never thought twice about their presence.

We walked back to the car and set out to hike to the waterfall. After a wrong turn and Elle joking about her lack of direction skills, we parked among scattered campers and RVs at the head of a trail.

“What’s that called?” Elle asked, pointing.

“Oh, that’s an RV. It’s like a mini house on wheels,” I said.

“What does RV stand for?”

I actually didn’t know. It’s “Recreational Vehicle” if you’re wondering.

Elle and I walked to an unmarked, steep trail nearly slipping the whole way down. At last we reached the little waterfall, fresh and excited after a few days’ rain.

Elle explores Hueston Woods

After our few moments of being bedazzled by the sun hitting the water, we tip toed along the narrow rocky shoreline to find the best stones for skipping rocks.

Growing up with three competitive younger brothers, skipping rocks became an art and almost always the first thing we did anytime we were at a body of water. This specific category of outdoor entertainment is more or less an art and I wanted Elle to enjoy it as well.

When skipping rocks, three important ingredients must be present for the perfect glide: a flat and smooth rock, a quick flick of the wrist and smooth waters.

We chose rocks and skipped them for a while, losing track of time. Something about the sparkly water and the rhythmic possibilities of skipping flat stones made time seem irrelevant.

After we broke our reverie, we wandered back to the waterfall for one last look at the dazzling, rushing water. Elle picked up a stick and drew a Chinese character on the stone.

“This means sunshine, like how pretty it is right now!” she exclaimed.

I asked what ‘moon’ looked like and she drew that as well. I say draw because written Chinese looks like art to me rather than actual language. Even Elle admits to how complicated the characters can be and rarely anyone masters the entire language. This boggles my mind coming from a language with 26 characters. I watched as Elle tossed the stick into the water and poked around at the rocks on the bank.

Slowly but surely, Elle was showing me the simple joys of friendship.

I had to get back to town to pick up my cap and gown and other graduation necessities so we headed back up the trail. We hiked up the steps and laughed at how out of breath we were. Elle asked if she could come with me to get my supplies but I tried to politely explain it would take a while and had to pick up my housemates along the way.

“Okay! Just promise to send me a picture when you get them!” Elle said as we piled back into the car, panting from the steep uphill we had just conquered.

On our drive back we listened to Jason Mraz again, her favorite American musician, and decided to get sweet tea from McDonald’s before I went to pick up my cap and gown. After I finished ordering in the drive-through line, Elle gasped suddenly and said, “Oh! What is this? You just pick up your food?”

I was confused by what she meant then realized she hadn’t ever ordered at a drive-through. Again I laughed at this common, everyday difference of American conveniences.

We sipped our tea as the sunshine poured through the windows just before I dropped her off at her dorm.

“Thank you so much again! This was one of my favorite things to do so far and made me realize how much I don’t know about Miami and Oxford!” Elle hugged me, left the car and waved as I drove off.

A few hours later I texted her a picture of me in my graduation garb. She told me she was so excited for me and when I ran into her later that week reaffirmed how excited she was about my graduation.

It seemed fitting to have such a representation of beginnings and endings wrapped into a few weeks of friendship. Maybe these sentiments seem simplistic or borderline cinematic. But unexpected friendships have the power to prompt depth, appreciation and some self-reflection. I found myself wondering over those weeks, What would happen if I made more of an effort to notice friendship opportunities in my everyday life?

There’s incredible potential in the simple opportunities of observation. It gives chances to ponder new realizations, notice important qualities in friends and even better understand the world. Instead of tramping forward with head down and plan in hand, observation prompts looking up and around. Being observant allows for unexpected friendships to happen.

As I continued getting to know Elle, I noticed a subtle shift in my approach of friendships. Elle showed me how to take little moments as impactful gifts that strengthen relationships. Rather than contriving a list of expectations for a friend to meet, Elle showed me how to celebrate the unexpected.

With little moments of simplicity sprinkled through our time together, I learned how observation and friendship walk hand in hand. For example, some of the most meaningful conversations began with “I noticed that you…” or “I remember you saying…” Observation makes people feel cared for and valued.

Having a friend during a time of transition, especially international transition, fills the little hole of stability and friendship.

In a note for my last week of college, Elle wrote:

Thank you for showing me all the fun places and doing goofy things with me. Thank you for always being such a good friend. Hanging out with you is probably my favorite moment in Oxford and I really appreciate the almost three months we knew each other.

That, decidedly, proved the impact of being observant and acting on it. Initially with Elle, I was only hoping to capture an interesting story as a worthwhile read. Instead, I found out how people never fit neatly into a tidy package. Being observant can always open opportunities for new friendships.

Elle & I: The Undoing of Expectations was the culmination of three months of interviews and story exploration for the senior Journalism capstone, Long-form Nonfiction Narrative, at Miami University. This project was also completed in compliment to the Interactive Media senior thesis and you can find the illustrated iPad version here. Story, photos and design all by Erica Griffith.

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