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A Home in Iowa

By Laura Wang, a current student at the University of Iowa, originally published on
Laura WangThe Shambaugh House in Iowa City is home to the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. It was originally the home of Professor Benjamin F. Shambaugh. After passing away in 1940, he gave his home to the University of Iowa, and the Honors Program moved in. Eventually, Honors outgrew the Shambaugh House. In 2001, the house moved down the street and underwent renovations. The International Writing Program took over the relocated Shambaugh House and has lived there since.

Each time I’ve visited the Shambaugh House, it’s felt warm. The floors, the stairs, the poles are all made of a rich wood. On the ground floor, comfortable chairs are everywhere for the weekly readings they hold. The walls of the house seem to be constructed out of bricks of book, and the bookshelves along each wall are the cement that glues them together. It’s the perfect environment for a house of writers, but it certainly has its problems. Despite the fact that it was renovated in 2002 and made more eco-friendly in 2009, it squeaks like a dying mouse. I can’t take a step in Shambaugh without hearing the floorboards creak underneath me. If I want to move a chair, it growls back, loud and long.

Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his wife Hualing Nie Engle, a Chinese writer and graduate of the Writers’ Workshop, founded the International Writing Program in 1967. Every fall, the Engles invited writers from around the world to come to Iowa City, share their work, and write together. It’s a tradition that lives on today in the Fall Residency, the premier activity of the IWP.

With Hualing’s help, the Engles, and subsequently the IWP, developed a reputation for their support of Chinese literature. In 1976, the two were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their work with IWP. The Engles were praised particularly for the Chinese Weekends they coordinated in the 1970s, where the two facilitated conversation among visiting writers from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, an anomaly at the time. After the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1949, the Chinese were forced to split, with the Nationalist Party retreating to Taiwan and the Communist Party cutting ties with British-controlled Hong Kong. During this period of diaspora, no travel or communication was allowed between the three parties. The Engles’ Chinese Weekends changed that. For a few years, the Shambaugh House was the only place in the world where Chinese people were able to talk about literature that wasn’t Communist-controlled and form friendships with other Chinese speakers, as well as Americans.

It’s funny that the University of Iowa has such a noble history with the Chinese because I can find few traces of it today among my classmates. I rarely, if ever, see international and domestic students interact with each other. Most of the time, I only witness hostility. The discussions of literature in the Shambaugh have deformed into offensive posts on social media. A UI Memes Facebook page and a UI Asian Probz Twitter were both shut down recently because of the inappropriate comments contributors made about international students —more specifically, Asian international students, and usually, Chinese students.

Offensive tweets are still abundant on Iowa social media. If ever I want to lose my faith in Americans and the university and even the International Writing Program, all I need to do is visit the UIHawkeyeProblemz Twitter account and search “Asian.” Tweet after tweet pops up complaining about the luxury cars all Asians drive and the weird get-ups they see Asians in and how their business lecture has a few dozen too many Asians for their liking. I wonder how we moved from being one of the few sites in the world for positive American-Chinese relations to this. I wonder if these people know that what they are saying is racist, that someone who grew up halfway around the globe from them is probably going to dress differently, that, just like every other person in this world, there are more ways to identify a human being than the place they come from.

The only times that I’ve thought the Shambaugh House was quiet were during IWP readings. I’ve heard Mainland Chinese writer Chi LiTang Siu-Wa from Hong Kong; Taiwanese poets, Chen Li and Ye Mimi; and the Chinese-to-English translator Steve Bradbury all read by the glow of the Shambaugh’s lamps, across from the bust of Paul Engle. At each of these readings, I’ve arrived too late to get a good seat and am crammed in the very back. But each time, the packed room buzzed from the genial chatter of the audience members. When the writers took the stage, not a single floorboard creaked as they read their work. We were all still. The ideals the Engles instilled decades ago are still present, but I wonder when and how and if those ideals will ever permeate past the books and walls of the Shambaugh House.

While walking to class, I once overhead a group of boys behind me discussing the classes they were going to take next semester.

“You could learn Chinese.”

“No way, man. I don’t want to talk to anyone who’s Chinese. They’re crazy.”

A quick glance to my left and right revealed to me that there were at least five Asian students within earshot.

“Do you see all the people around you who are Chinese?”

“I don’t care. They can’t understand me anyway.”

I could’ve turned around immediately and told him that they could in fact understand him, that they included someone who has just as firm of a grasp of the English language as he does and even if that wasn’t the case, they are human beings and don’t deserve to be marginalized while trying to make it to their next class. But I didn’t say a word. I kept my head down, continued walking, and became exactly what the boys thought I was and what they wanted me to be—a stupid, crazy Asian who doesn’t know English.

It really starts to wear on me after awhile. I know I’m different than them because I grew up in America, as if that’s my redeeming quality from the inferior Chinese culture, but I still have to wonder if people know me as anything other than the Chinese girl. I feel so trapped by my yellow skin, my flat face, skinny eyes, and immigrant parents that I find myself fighting against it all. I become a hypocrite. I participate in the same micro-aggression of Americans to international students. Sometimes in the morning, I look at myself in the mirror and think my outfit looks too Chinese. The bow on my shirt is far too big; the skirt I’m wearing is too garish; I look too goddamn cute and Asian, and God forbid I dress like the Chinese students my classmates are always tweeting about. I hate myself for thinking it. It doesn’t make any sense. Of course I look Chinese; the only blood running through my veins is Chinese.

When I walk into class on the first day of school or eat lunch in the River Room, I worry that everyone looks at me and writes me off as an international student. I’m one of the antisocial, bad driving, iPhone obsessed, perpetually napping Chinese. I feel the need to wear yoga pants and Victoria’s Secret sweatshirts and plaster a sign across my chest saying, “I’m an American.” And then, I ask myself when I became ashamed of my people and my culture, and if I can’t respect them, how could I expect anyone else to? It’s hard for me to remember that I want to be complicated and influenced by both countries that I call home. I want to drink loose-leaf green tea and chase it with apple pie. I want to decorate my room with Hello Kitty and then read Shakespeare. I want people to think that all of that is okay. But more than anything, I want to be intelligent, funny, kind, and interesting, which might just be what everyone wants to be..

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