Meals at Chili’s. Late-night “Call of Duty” marathons. Pickup basketball games. Tipping back red Solo cups with friends. Lazing away weekends.
For Xiangjia Kong, these “super-normal” moments in young Americans' lives offer a glimpse of our nation that Chinese citizens crave but rarely receive. “In China, we don’t really see American daily life in the mass media,” says Kong, who often goes by Sarah in the U.S. and is a junior in the Brian Lamb School of Communication. “We see big things like New Year’s Eve in New York City or 9/11. But people are curious about what happens every day on the other side of the earth.”
Kong evocatively captures such moments in A Beijing Girl’s American Experience, her photo-essay book published last December in her native city. Purdue has the second-largest international student population among U.S. public universities, with a growing number of students from China (3,934 this year). Kong’s book may help Chinese students prepare for social life on an American campus by offering them a glimpse of her experiences.
What began as pictures to send home became a curated collection of what she hopes is a “more accurate” portrayal of American life—namely for inquiring parents like hers. “I consider it a gift to my mom and dad,” Kong says.
Spanning 11 months, the book encompasses Purdue football, Thanksgiving dinners, Chicago getaways, and more. Comprehensive Chinese captions offer cultural context for its main audience. There are cursory English explanations, some with witty brevity. But Kong’s striking eye for movement and unguarded emotion require no translation.
Her photos readily convey the personalities of her roommates, Steph and Monica, and her neighbor Liz—all of whom become main subjects.
“We were strangers when we moved in together, but we’re like sisters now,” Kong says. “They told me it’s important to speak my ideas out loud. And they’re showing an interest in learning Chinese language and culture. Steph said before she knew me, General Tso’s Chicken was the only thing she knew about China.”
Kong’s photos also speak plainly, sometimes poignantly, to her friends’ exuberance, ambition, regret, and triumph. Steph, a transgender friend, celebrates strength gained after a bitter breakup. Later, she finds comfort in a relationship, in a section titled “Two People World.”
“People in China ask if that’s Steph’s ‘girlfriend,’ ” says Kong, who occasionally presents other subjects that are potentially taboo (such as drinking or visiting a shooting range). “I have their pictures, which count more than words. I write ‘girlfriend’ and they can interpret that their way.”
Kong cut her teeth on photojournalism with internships at China’s Xinhua News Agency. Mentors there put her in touch with the Beijing Publishing Group, which ultimately granted her carte blanche in writing, photography, and design. Kong credits academic advisor Joshua Dexter-Wiens and Yvette Perullo, a graduate teaching assistant and MFA candidate in Visual Communications Design, for translation and layout guidance.
Kong aims to abide by advice from Chinese photographer Xiaomeng Sima, who also wrote the book’s preface: Tell the truth, be vivid, and the best pictures need no description. She also applies those maxims as a media assistant at Purdue’s Confucius Institute, where the director, Professor Wei Hong of the School of Languages and Cultures, encouraged her work by asking her to photograph the institute’s events. Publishing the book has also boosted her confidence to communicate in English and perhaps pursue internships in America, Kong says.
“I’m pretty open to continuing to see things I’ve never seen and do things I don’t know about,” she says. “Why would I fly 13 hours to always do the same things?”