This February Roberts Dining Hall was transformed for a special celebration, Lunar New Year, and as one student said, waiting in a line extending down the hall and around the corner, the place was “popping.”

Coming Together

Inside, the first to arrive were already filling up their plates with signature Chinese dishes: vegetable egg rolls with plum sauce, sweet rice dumplings with red bean paste, and Sichuan spicy boiled fish. White and red parasols hung above the food. Red lanterns and fu (福) signs livened up the walls for good fortune, luck, and happiness. Chinese flags proudly stretched from one column to another.

For some, it was a piece of home. For others, it was a cultural journey. Beijing native Erica Lei ’20, for instance, brought along her friends to the celebration; she said, “I feel so warm. It’s so rare to see so many Chinese students and the whole campus being together.”

Her Syrian friend, Maan Qraitem ’20, added that he loved that in Waterville there was this celebration of different cultures. “I feel it’s important because if you want to become a well-rounded person, you have to be exposed to culture, language, and celebration,” Qraitem said. “It’s part of becoming a global community.”

Colby’s Instructional Media Specialist Qiuli Wang, from Shenyang, China, came to the event with her husband and son, William Xu. “We waited to celebrate [the Lunar New Year] with Colby students,” she said.

It was true festivity.

One of Project Pengyou’s language exchange chairs, Lily Sethares ’21, points to a Chinese couplet, telling guests to celebrate talking about Chinese and American issues.

The rich menu was put together by a Chinese student, Sihang Chen ’20, and Dining Services, with Chen providing the chef with recipes for greater authenticity. Occasionally, a group of Chinese students sang along with the songs: Ni shi wo de xiao ya xiao pingguo (你是我的小呀小苹果) (translation: you’re my little, little apple). Traditional red packets, hongbao (红包), were given to each guest; everyone received a chocolate coin, but lucky people with a hand-drawn pig (because it’s the year of the pig) inside their packet also won gift cards to local businesses. There was a pop quiz, in both English and Chinese, about China and Chinese culture, and a tongue-twister competition. While Chinese students competed to beat each other in native-level tongue twisters, children of faculty and Chinese learners started at the beginners level and tried to make it all the way up.

New Club Reaches Out

Behind this successful Lunar New Year gathering was Colby’s recently established club, Project Pengyou (pronounced “pahng-youh”). In Mandarin Chinese, pengyou (朋友) means friend. Project Pengyou, a national initiative with almost 100 school chapters, was founded to mobilize U.S.-China bridge builders. This web of friendship extended to Colby with the efforts of two recent graduates, Ling MacLean ’18 and Emily Geske ’18. As Asian Americans, they had a unique perspective on both cultures and acted as bridge builders.

Ankeney Weitz, Ellerton M. and Edith K. Jette Professor of Art, East Asian Studies, and students competing in native-level tongue twisters.

Chinese Language Assistant Wen-Hui Chen (back, left) and Ankeney Weitz, Ellerton M. and Edith K. Jetté Professor of Art (back, right), join students to test their knowledge through a pop quiz.

In September 2017 the Colby chapter came to life. “Besides being part of the national chapter,” Geske said, “Ling and I had a vision of our own specifically for Colby.” Added MacLean: “It was very clear from my freshman year that there’s a really big divide between American students and the growing Chinese international student population.”

Their goal was clear: “We wanted to find ways … to build community in those spaces to allow for more cross-cultural exchange and understanding,” Geske said. They also believed Project Pengyou could fill a gap at Colby. The I-Club served international students, the Asian Student Association catered to Asian Americans, but there wasn’t a platform to bring together those interested in China.

Soon one event followed another to facilitate bridge building and foster friendships. The chapter-wide “Project Pengyou Day,” Lunar New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival, and a sports night, to name a few.

Before graduating, MacLean and Geske extended an offer to unite with the Chinese Language and Culture Exchange Program, created by Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies Andie Wang, from Qianjiang, China. As the program’s name suggests, Wang paired native Chinese speakers with Chinese learners for a language and culture exchange. Combining under Project Pengyou made sense to all; Project Pengyou would have a linguistic component while the Chinese Language and Culture Exchange Program could broaden its audience.

With Wang as faculty advisor, MacLean and Geske passed the flag to Elizabeth Stephens ’21, from Baltimore, and Chen—Project Pengyou’s new co-presidents.

Stephens is a Chinese language learner with a great interest in China. “I admire the culture, and I admire the language, and I wanted to share that with other people, become better friends with other people who understand it better than I do,” she explained.

Project Pengyou’s co-presidents Sihang Chen ’20 (left) and Elizabeth Stephens ’21. Chen provided Dining Services with recipes of authentic Chinese dishes.

Through Project Pengyou, Stephens aspires to be a bridge builder between American students and Chinese students. “Friendship is the basis for all long-lasting relationships and that’s the way language is best exchanged,” she said and stressed that it’s not required to speak Chinese to join Project Pengyou or attend its events. “You just have to be interested in and willing to participate.”

For Chen, this club serves as a long-desired avenue to share his culture with the Colby community. In his first year, Chen wanted to tell others about his home country, China. But each time, he found himself wondering if others would be interested. Now he feels differently.

“Project Pengyou is something I can basically use all my power to show the interesting festivals, Chinese culture, or language,” he said. “It’s like your home.” At events, he’s surrounded by people who desire to learn more about China. For them, he said, “It’s kind of like a service. It offers people a platform, if they want to know, they have this resource.”

Project Pengyou’s language chair Carrie Xu ’19, from Suzhou, China, also saw a need share her culture and language with others.

Project Pengyou’s language chair Carrie Xu ’19.

Project Pengyou’s language chair Carrie Xu ’19.

In her first year at Colby, there was a post on the anonymous messaging app Yik Yak about Chinese students studying together in a room in Miller Library and talking in Chinese. The post, Xu recalled, said it was “like Chinatown there.” “You can see how there was a gap and misunderstanding between Chinese students and American students,” Xu said. “It wasn’t something pleasant for any of us.”

At that time there wasn’t Project Pengyou or the Language and Culture Exchange Program to bring people together. Now the groups are able to reach out and “tell the campus that we’re here if you want to know more about this. You can come and join us and we’re willing to share our culture with you,” Xu said.

Wang said many Chinese students feel like Chen and Xu. “Project Pengyou acts as an agency for Chinese and Chinese international students to share their culture and feel part of the community,” she said. Project Pengyou also gives everyone a chance to gain firsthand knowledge of culture and break away from stereotypes or preconceived notions.

“What I usually tell my students,” Wang said, “is it takes friendship to really understand a culture.”