China Power

Culture Clash

What the case of Chinese student Zhai Tiantian says about attitudes toward getting a US education.

Last week, the New York Times ran a piece on Zhai Tiantian, a disgruntled Chinese graduate student turned martyr after the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, had him arrested for threatening to burn down the school. 

The news has been badly reported and hotlydiscussed in China for the past six weeks. Zhai seems a typical product of China’s education system, whose broken English, Chinese reasoning, and lack of social grace have mired him in personal and professional squabbles since arriving in the United States in 2003. He’s argued with his advisor, and in a TV interview accused his school of being racist.  The New York police had also arrested him for harassing a woman, which prompted the Stevens Institute of Technology to suspend him. 

Zhai’s appeals were in vain, and when he threatened the school the police came to arrest him, and he now faces deportation. Zhai’s fate hinges on how an American court of law interprets his words ‘I’m going to burn that building down.’  Zhai’s US advocates insist that he was speaking metaphorically, and the Chinese people are baffled by how a nation which protects freedom of speech could take such words so seriously.

Why did Zhai utter those words, regardless of what they meant? Because such behavior is too often considered normal in China. Zhai represents a new type of Chinese that most Americans have yet to encounter. Americans are familiar with the Asian stereotype of either shy and studious or psychologically unbalanced. But Zhai is a normal Chinese who’s grown up in a country where too many people get ahead in life by bullying and by cheating.

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All this reminds me of the Coen brothers’ movie ‘A Serious Man,’ about an unlucky physics college professor, Larry Gopnik. He happens to have a Korean student who is bad at maths.  Clyde, the Korean student, fails a physics mid-term, and asks Gopnik to give him a passing grade because the test was unfair—no one told him mathematics was part of physics.

The argument goes nowhere, and the Korean student surreptitiously leaves an envelope with hundred dollar bills inside.  Gopnik discovers the envelope, and calls Clyde back into his office, and Clyde refuses to admit he had left the envelope.  After this encounter, Clyde’s father Mr. Park, visits Gopnik at home, and threatens to sue him if he doesn’t pass Clyde:


Mr. Park: [The problem is a] culture clash.

Gopnik: With all due respect, I don’t think it’s that.  It would be a culture clash if it were the custom in your land to bribe people for grades.

Mr. Park: Yes

Gopnik: So you’re saying it is the custom?

Mr. Park: No, it’s defamation—ground for lawsuit.

Gopnik: Let me get this straight.  You’re threatening to sue me for defaming your son?

Mr. Park:Yes.

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Gopnik: If it were defamation there would have to be someone I was defaming him to, or I….All right, let’s keep it simple.  I could pretend the money never appeared.  That’s not defaming anyone.

Mr. Park:Yes. And passing grade.

Gopnik: Passing grade?

Mr. Park:Yes.

Gopnik: Or you’ll sue me?

Mr. Park: For taking money.

Gopnik: So he did leave the money?

Mr. Park: This is defamation!

Gopnik: It doesn’t make sense. Either he left the money or he didn’t.

Mr. Park: Please. Accept the mystery.


I remember when I first arrived at Shenzhen Middle School in the autumn of 2008, and Principal Wang Zheng called me into his office. For the past four hours, he had been arguing with a father whose son was applying to US universities. The father had paid a magazine to publish his son’s economics paper, and his son had written to American universities about this ‘achievement’. 

But in the school report to US universities, our counsellor had written that the student had ‘co-wrote’ the economics paper.  Another student had opened this confidential school report, and told the student. When the student failed to get into an American university, the father decided that the school must be at fault.  I quizzed the student, and discovered that his test scores were low, his spoken English was terrible, and that he didn’t participate in any extra-curricular activities.  But his father was absolutely convinced that the two letters ‘co’ had sunk his son’s future, and demanded we write to the universities to admit our mistake.

So, the father had bribed a magazine to publish his son’s article, his son’s friend had opened a confidential letter and leaked the contents, and his son’s English was mediocre—and somehow Shenzhen Middle School and the prefix ‘co’ were to be blamed for his son not getting accepted? 

Ultimately, with the real threat of a disgruntled and powerful father coming to the school every day to badger Principal Wang, we relented and wrote the letter—and the student did end up getting into an American university. US universities will be dealing with a lot more students like Zhai, even if they deport this one.