Creating Connections in Chinatown

| in Features, Students

By Katrina Scalise (COM’25)

For Tommy Li (CAS’26), a Chinese international student, visiting Boston’s Chinatown during his required writing class was an opportunity to find a sense of community 7,000 miles from home.

“I feel that although we live in different countries, we still have the same ideas, which gives me a different sense of belonging,” he said. Although people are from Chinatowns all over the world, they are all related and belong to one big Chinatown community.”

Li visited Chinatown in November as part of Academic Writing for ELL, an ESL course with the College of Arts & Sciences’ Writing Program. CAS WR 111 is a required class for English language learners. 

Associate Director and Lecturer of ELL Writing, Christina Michaud, who teaches the course, said she took her students to Chinatown so they could see that WR 111 is not just a required class, but a place to form community across international barriers.

We’ve done a lot of readings about different kinds of communities, focusing on cross-cultural differences,” Michaud said. “We zeroed in on Chinatown, because the students didn’t have a sense that it was a neighborhood. They did some research about current issues facing Chinatown, including post-pandemic economic recovery, pollution,” as well as gentrification. 

On their walk, the students defined the area’s boundaries and observed neighborhood issues such as gentrification. They also visited the Pao Arts Center, a cultural center that seeks to celebrate and strengthen the Asian Pacific Islander community of Chinatown and Greater Boston through access to culturally relevant art, education, and creative programs in the face of neighborhood gentrification.

Afterwards, Michaud invited speakers from the Pao, the Quincy Community Center in Chinatown and the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center to take part in a class panel, conducted by students.

“Students were introduced to the idea of gentrification, and saw fancy buildings, political signs after election day,” said Michaud. “They were really intrigued by the candidates and signs that said ‘Yes on 1’ written in Mandarin.”

Michaud explained that the arts center visit helped her students connect the class to experiences outside of the classroom. She said she organized the panel to show students what an academic panel looks like and encourage them to participate in discussions around campus. 

“[The visit] changed how they conceive what it means to be a student, and it changed how they see Boston. There’s conversations that are taking place in the city, and when they walk around they see that.”

Li said he enjoyed hearing panelists talk about youth in Chinatown, and found that he had more in common with Chinese people in Chinatown than he thought, “I feel that although we live in different countries, we still have the same ideas, which gives me a different sense of belonging.”

“In my class we talked a lot about finding our identity in a culture mix and how different cultures or living environments could influence one person,” he added. “The art shows how Chinese people think of their belongings and identities as they immigrated to new countries far away from China, and that although people are from Chinatowns all over the world, they all belong to one Chinatown community.” 

Along with taking her students on the Chinatown walk and organizing the panel, Michaud took her students to see the play, “English” at the Calderwood Pavilion, with support from the BU Arts Initiative, to learn about identity and personality across language barriers. She also encourages WR 111 students to attend on and off campus community events.

CAS WR 111 is one of many Writing Program courses that involve place-based and experiential learning. Michaud said she hopes to integrate more experiential learning opportunities into the Writing for ELL program so students “see that the class actually has something to do with other classes, that it’s not just a required class.”