International master's students, most of whom are Asian, are subject to nontrivial financial burdens. They are usually not eligible for scholarships, and proof of sufficient funds from home is a requirement for admission. With a heavy course load, they barely have time to work to even cover their living expenses, which in my case, at around $600 a month, is three times that in Taiwan.
During the process, part of the meaning of coming to the “Land of the Free” is lost: that is, to experience and explore a Western way of life, or, to put it less momentously, to enjoy the vibrance, liberalism, and landscape of Ann Arbor and Michigan. There are several direct causes to this lost. Lack of engagement with the city’s local population is one, and lack of transportation another. I have met people who rely on only University buses and never set foot west of State Street, and who by the natural course of events never meet any American outside academic or job-hunting settings, come to the conclusion that Ann Arbor is extremely dull.
But we know it is not. In the 60s and 70s Ann Arbor was the focus of American social activism and home to many influential musicians. To this day there is still a thriving cultural scene in the city, and Ann Arborites are known for being intellectual, open-minded, and socially and healthily aware. During the summer there is a non-stopping stream of canoes, kayaks, and floating tubes down a very accessible Huron River, and even on Tuesday nights the sidewalks on Main, Liberty, and Washington Streets are packed with merry diners, just like the left bank of Seine in Paris. In the winter the weather can get a bit rough, but there is always skating, skiing, cheering for Tigers and Pistons and Red Wings, or just watching the snow-white wonderland in awe – things most Indians, Taiwanese, or Malaysians do not even dare to dream of back home. The best of Ann Arbor, indeed, is Ann Arbor itself, and there are ways to live inspired and enriched here without spending a fortune.
The first thing I did upon arriving at Michigan was to get a bicycle. I hit the jackpot by scoring a road bike in excellent condition and even powder-coated in maize and blue at the ReUse Center for $150, which at the time was the largest single purchase I made in the six months I had lived in the States. Craigslist (online), Kiwanis thrift store, and local bike shops like Midwest Bike & Tandem are more likely places to visit when looking for wheels. A bicycle is a must: It is a time-saver, a great complement to The Ride/AATA and WAVE routes, and expands one’s horizon to the nearby communities of Ypsilanti, Dexter, Chelsea, Manchester, etc., all of which, with their own identities, feature historical buildings and a small town feel of American Midwest. Without a bike, even a walk from C. C. Little to Kerrytown sounds tedious.
One of the adjustments an international student has to make to survive in the States is to (shop online and) do-it-yourself. Beside the labor costs, there is also the culture of independence involved. It was in Ann Arbor I first taught myself the basics of bike maintenance, how to sew a button, and the bravery to take apart an out-of-warranty laptop to change faulty components. (It cost $70 for a repair shop to inspect and fix the computer; I got the replacement part on eBay for $7 with free shipping.) I am not embarrassed to say I had never cooked a single dish before I came to this side of the Pacific Ocean. My mother would burst into tears of joy if she could see what I am feeding myself here.
Art, or a sense of living artistically, for the most part does not exist in modern Chinese and Taiwanese society because it is viewed as some kind of bourgeois luxury. In the States, however, connoisseurship is cultivated and people are proud and comfortable calling themselves artists. Truly, performance arts are quite affordable in Ann Arbor. Students can get half-price or rush tickets, ranging from $10 to $25, for world-class UMS shows. Even if that is too much, $5 or free (donation) concerts take place everywhere around the city. Canterbury House Concert Series presents jazz and bluegrass musicians of regional fame, in a cozy venue with a knowledgeable crowd. Crazy Wisdom’s lineup tends to be more eclectic, and that of Far House avant-garde, rock ’n’ roll, or punk. On campus the School of Music, Theater, and Dance hosts free performances virtually every day during fall and winter semesters, and there is also the rather secretive Basement Arts. As for cinema, Michigan and State Theaters charge students $7 for independent, art-house, or thoughtful foreign films, as opposed to having one travel to the outskirts of the city and dig deep into pocket for commercial entertainment. The University’s own radio station WCBN has its own weekly or monthly free screening nights.
Finally, as an avid reader, I frequent Ann Arbor District Library and the University libraries. It is interesting how the two systems complement each other: While the school focuses on professional, specialized and rare collections, AADL is usually the place to go for fiction, self-teaching, CDs and DVDs. One can even check out art prints there for two months. If book ownership is of concern, Dawn Treader buys and sells at good prices, and organizes its stock well for a used-book store. Kiwanis thrift store’s department of used books and CDs is also worth a look.
Everyone has his or her own vision of Ann Arbor, and it depends on one’s cultural preferences and social limitations. I have been trying very hard to have an existence outside schoolwork and professional networking, and was fortunate to have made friends with people who know the origin of the term “Top of the Park,” or why all the hydrants and traffic signal boxes were painted so brilliantly. I love Ann Arbor, and one of the images that will stay in my heart once I leave a year from now is that of a homeless artist selling his painted stone necklaces at Liberty and State, Messrs. Lennon, Poe, Hesse, Kafka, and Ms. Nin on the mural watching over him.
About the Author
Chi-Jui Chang, Master’s student, Financial Engineering
Published in: Student Voices