When I first started high school in the United States after moving from China, I was very confused about the whole stationery system. I didn’t understand why American students used such simple and plain notebooks and pens. It seemed like most of the notebooks were in fundamental colors like black, red or blue. If you were lucky, you could find some with patterns on the covers, but they were unreasonably expensive. When it came to pens, it seemed as though there were no fancy colors, patterns or functions that allowed you to switch the cartridge when you needed to refill. More importantly, there were no cute stationary stores like that ones my friends and I would go to in order to buy our pens and notebooks for school. Instead, most school supplies in the US are mostly sold in stores like Walmart, Staples and Target.
To me, American students look much more mature than Asian students. American high school students look as old as Chinese colleges students. I guess it makes sense then for American students to use simple school supplies to emphasize their sense of maturity. I suppose most adults wouldn’t use pens that have cute dogs on them. On the other hand, Chinese students buy their own school supplies whereas many American students have their parents buy them. So in that sense, it seems like the Chinese students are much more mature.
This made me think about social identities in both countries and how they are reflected through the act of buying school supplies. In the US, individualism is definitely more emphasized than it is in China, but the school supplies used are mostly the same, which decreases the individualism. In China, students only get the kind of stationery they like. There are certain styles for each students’ use of pens or notebooks, which interestingly should increase their individuality. I am lucky that I received both a Chinese and an American education, creating harmony in my choices for stationery.
During my first year of American high school, I brought my own pens and notebooks. While I was packing for my trip to the US, I went to the stationery store to get the most fancy pens and notebooks I could find. When I used them in class, I received many compliments from my peers on my rabbit pen. Its cap was shaped like a rabbit head and it was pink and white.
As time passed, I transformed from a high school student to a college student. I still have some Chinese pens and notebooks, but the number of them is decreasing every year. Right now, I only use the American multi-prong notebooks and binders because it’s more convenient and it makes me look more like an American student.
One day in my multicultural literature class, the professor mentioned that when she was teaching English to some Japanese girls, she was amazed at how they were still using notebooks with flowers and stickers on them even though they were 20-years-old. I smiled and nodded my head because I understood. It felt like I just saw someone I knew in a strange place. It was then that I realized that my Chinese pens were not just pens, they were actually a symbol of that one piece of “Chinese-ness” that I am trying to hold on to. They are the one thing that I am familiar with in this strange country where most people’s faces are different than mine.