At just 14 years old, Susan Li Liang left everything she knew behind in Guangdong, China, and immigrated to New Bedford when her mother married an American man. Adjusting to life in the U.S. was difficult, but with the help of her stepfather, Li Liang persevered and settled into her new life on the South Coast.
It was in 2016 that Li Liang began attending Normandin Middle School, and in 2021, she graduated from New Bedford High School. During these formative years, Li Liang befriended a group of diverse friends also new to the city and spent time connecting with her stepfather’s family who provided significant support while she adapted to her new environment.
As an introvert, it was not until Li Liang reached college that she was able to flourish into the person she wanted to be. Li Liang was admitted into the University of Rhode Island as a member of its physical therapy program. After spending some time in college, Li Liang switched to a double major in biological sciences and psychology. As a major in psychology, Li Liang loves brains and how people think, so she pushed herself to take every opportunity she could to meet and learn about people who were different from her. While Li Liang’s passion for learning about other cultures bloomed at URI, she felt she was neglecting her own. This disconnection from her culture is why Li Liang founded the Chinese Student Association (CSA) during the fall of her sophomore year “to bring together Chinese students and other students interested in Chinese culture.”
After spending a year recruiting members as well as planning, organizing, and hosting events for the CSA, Li Liang was invited to URI’s Asian/Pacific Islander American Heritage Month celebration, where the rich heritage and cultural contributions of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans were honored. Li Liang performed a unique fusion dance of Chinese and Indian traditions with Argha Goswami, the president of the South-Asia Students Association and an international student at URI.
During the inaugural event, Li Liang and three other students were presented with the first-ever Asian Cultural Ambassador Scholarship Awards at URI. This scholarship was created to recognize students’ efforts to fight racism and hate crimes at the university. The award was provided through the sponsorship of longtime engineering faculty member Professor Qing (Ken) Yang, the first person from the Chinese mainland to become a professor at URI.
Li Liang emphasizes education as a means to end racism. By educating people about her culture, Li Liang actively fights stereotypes and other preconceived notions about Asian people. Regularly holding educational events that invite people of all ethnicities to partake in Chinese culture is how Li Liang works to prevent Asian hate in her community.
One particular memory for Li Liang while establishing herself in New Bedford was going to classes for students in English as a second language. Here, she met and eagerly learned from the diverse group of people around her. Li Liang enjoyed learning about their various cultures and opinions on the United States, opening her mind to diversity and a greater understanding of race and ethnicity, which she now applies to everyday life while hosting educational events about her culture.
Li Liang sees New Bedford as home. It has become the place that she can always come back to whenever she needs to recharge from college or work.
This summer, Li Liang will spend her free time volunteering in the surgical center at St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford to gain relevant work experience in her field.
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New Bedford Light: How old were you when you immigrated from China, and what was it like settling into New Bedford?
Susan Li Liang: I moved here six years ago when I was 14. At first, I had to adapt to the new culture and learn a new language. I moved because my mom married an American man. When I moved in with my stepdad, I had to adapt to living with him and the new environment. It was hard at first because I did not know anything. When I went to school, it was hard for me to make friends because of the language barrier. But it was nice because my stepdad taught me how to adapt and how things really work here.
NBL: Did you experience any culture shocks during this time of adjustment?
SLL: Everything was new and shocking to me. I love how I can meet different people here in America because back in China, I did not have that opportunity. When I moved here, I had to take classes to learn how to speak English, so I got to meet people from different countries and learn about them and what they think about America. Those interactions were fun.
NBL: Why did you decide to attend the University of Rhode Island?
SLL: At first, I was going for the physical therapy program, but I switched majors. I stay at URI because I love the community. I made a lot of friends, especially international students. URI has a variety of cultures and clubs for different ethnicities on campus.
NBL: A double major in biological sciences and psychology is impressive; what inspired you to take that route?
SLL: My goal is to be a physician’s assistant. I am a biological sciences major because it is required to be a physician’s assistant, but I added psychology because I love learning about brains and how people think. I think that if you want to cure humans of illnesses, you have to understand both their mental and physical state, so that is really why I do both.
NBL: How would you describe your community at URI?
SLL: I always push myself to make friends with different people. If I only stuck within my comfort zone, then I would not get to learn and expose myself to different things. I always approach people who share different cultures and ethnicities because it is always fun to learn about our differences.
NBL: Did it take you a while to settle in, or did your community emerge immediately?
SLL: I am very introverted, so it did take me a while to find my people. I don’t intentionally go up to people and try to make friends with them, but when I did, I had fun learning about them.
NBL: What inspired you to found the Chinese Student Association?
SLL: The Chinese community at URI is very small. While at URI, it is easy to connect and get to know other people and cultures, but I didn’t get to share my own culture. That is why I founded this club, to gather all of the Chinese students. Through the CSA, we can share our culture and invite those interested to join and celebrate it together.
NBL: Did you encounter any obstacles while trying to found the CSA?
SLL: I founded the CSA by myself during the fall semester. I had to learn how to organize the club, recruit people, and manage financial stuff. I basically had to teach everything to myself. I did not have an executive board to support me, so it was hard. It is such a small community already, and I had to find 10 members to become active. It was difficult because we did not have enough people, so we started recruiting graduate students as well. But we made it.
NBL: What actions have you taken as the CSA president to help fight racism?
SLL: I worked on organizing events that promote our culture so people can learn about us and realize that some stigmas are not always true. The hope is that they recognize our culture’s beauties.
Learning about a culture is how we reduce discrimination. People start to see, “oh, they’re not like what I thought,” and see past those stereotypes. Instead of listening to stereotypes, we invite people to come and learn about the culture themselves.
NBL: What plans do you have for the fall semester? Do you have any events already in the works?
SLL: Nothing concrete yet. I really want to target Chinese holidays where we can gather and make Chinese food together. Our funding is limited, which is a challenge, but we find ways. We collaborated with a Chinese flagship program at URI for a calligraphy event last semester. That is how we get more people to join, through collaborations with other organizations.
We did a fundraiser in the past for Valentine’s Day, where we packaged and sold bundles of Chinese snacks. We hope to do more stuff like that.
NBL: Is there anyone you would like to thank for helping you receive the Asian Cultural Ambassador Award?
SLL: I would like to thank the older members that came before me. Before the CSA was founded, there was the CSSA, the Chinese Student & Scholars Association, and they helped me with the process and taught me some of the steps. They really pushed me to found the club.
I also want to thank my new members and anyone who has attended our events so far because they are willing to come and learn about us, which helps our club grow.
NBL: Tell me about the dance you performed the night you received the award.
SLL: The person who I collaborated with for the dance, Argha Goswami, the president of the South-Asia Students Association, invited me to the event, so I really have to thank her too. She is from India, and I am from China, so we had this idea to collaborate and combine our two cultures. How it went was I did my solo traditional Chinese dance, and then she did her solo traditional Indian dance, and then in the end, we came together, and both did a dance with a Chinese song and an Indian song together. And people loved it because they had never seen anything like it before.
NBL: What do you plan to do after you graduate from URI?
SLL: That’s hard. What I usually tell people is that I will take a gap year to think about it and gain experience, but I might do a master’s program for physician’s assistants.
NBL: Do you have any messages for other aspiring youth with diverse backgrounds like you?
SLL: One thing I want to share with people is that no matter where you are from and whether you can find your community and make friends with the people around you, you should always be proud of where you are from. I had this problem when I first moved to America; I was always trying to fit in. I was scared to bring my Chinese food to school because people would judge me. I was scared that I would not make friends because of that. But after I moved into university, I realized that your culture is what represents you. It is a part of your identity. You should not be ashamed of it. After I realized that I could be myself at university and show my culture, and dance my traditional dance for the first time, that is when I felt like, “oh that’s me,” and I made friends because I was being myself.
Email Roxanne Hepburn at firstname.lastname@example.org
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.