Friendship breaks down borders


Five years ago, current UI senior Yuhao Cai decided to move away from his hometown of Chong Qing, China, and go to America alone.

Cai’s parents are reside in China because they have jobs there, but they support their son’s decision; his father even encouraged him to get to know more students outside his own culture.

And Cai did exactly that. 

He made a point to make friends outside of what might be most comfortable for him.

“The easy inclination for most people is to stick with your group,” said Lee Seedorff, the senior associate director of International Student and Scholar Services.

However, this wasn’t the case at all for Cai.

“So many Chinese students feel scared, but I was like, ‘just go,’ ” Cai said. 

Upon arriving at the UI his freshman year, Cai was paired in Stanley Residence Hall with roommate Jared Szabo, an Iowa native who was also a freshman.

Szabo, a fifth-year UI senior, says his hometown of Postville, Iowa, is “a really diverse town,” so being paired with an international roommate “wasn’t too much of a shock.” 

Cai, on the other hand, was nervous his roommate would fit his perception of American stereotypes.

“In some American movies in China, [Americans] just party a lot and drink a lot,” Cai said. “[But] the first time I came to the dorms, they were very good and very clean.”

As they got to know each other, Cai’s worries about his roommate soon evaporated. 

Cai and Szabo, said that though they do have many differences — which include cultural, that Szabo is studying pharmacy and Cai is studying business finance, or Cai’s preference to pork while Szabo prefers beef — their common ground is what strengthens their friendship. 

Szabo said there is “no drama” between the two of them, and they both make “simple, quick decisions.”

Their friendship continued into their sophomore year, when they decided to get an apartment together.

“He just asked me if I wanted to live with him next year, and I was just like, ‘Sure,’ ” Szabo said. “It was all done in less than a day.” 

Another unique commonality is their love for badminton.

Because badminton is a huge sport in China, Cai has been playing for 10 years and encouraged a hesitant Szabo to try it out. 

Although he declined at first, he eventually gave in.

“It kind of grew on me so I started practicing, and I was terrible,” he said. 

Szabo has been playing badminton for about a year and a half now — nowhere near as long as his friend — but he still enjoys the sport.

“[Cai] is better than me for sure, but it’s still fun,” Szabo said.

The seemingly simple things that the two have bonded over — drama-free decisions and badminton — have inspired those who spend time with them. 

Szabo coworker Kim Reardon says Cai and Szabo’s friendship stands out. 

“Here is a young man from Postville, Iowa, who has established a long-standing, genuine friendship with a Chinese student, which has extended to Jared enthusiastically adopting the sport of badminton,” Reardon said, a certified pharmacy technician at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics ambulatory pharmacy. “Eventually it struck me that this is a success story of the best that can happen when American and international students befriend each other with open minds and willingness to try new things.”

Seedorff said she is also pleased with the example that Szabo and Cai set for other students. 

“Interacting meaningfully with someone who may have very different beliefs and a background different from yours really provides opportunities for personal growth and development of skills and awareness you really cannot get in other ways,” she said. 

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