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How to Help Chinese Students

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China Power

How to Help Chinese Students

Chinese students often have problems fitting in at U.S. universities. But there are steps to make things easier.

This week, China Power blogger Jiang Xueqin wrote about the struggles of Chinese students to assimilate into U.S. universities’ student life. He attributes this social problem to the fundamental differences between Chinese and American culture – the “clash of civilizations.” Not only is this view flawed, but he offers little in the way of ideas to resolve the problem.

Jiang argues that rising China’s challenge to the United States’ status as the global hegemon is perceived as threatening to American students, who consequently reject Chinese students on college campuses. But Jiang’s line of reasoning commits a common (and critical) logical fallacy: correlation presumes causation. What’s more, he’s attributing macro-level characteristics to micro-level phenomena. China is, in fact, challenging the United States’ status, and many Chinese students are, in fact, struggling to fully participate in American college life. But just because the two are occurring simultaneously doesn’t necessitate their causal relationship.

This “hegemonic anxiety complex” simply doesn’t exist in the mind of the majority of American students. Unless they study international relations, most students would wear a confused expression when you ask them what they thought of China’s rising challenge to the United States’ hegemonic status. Most students don’t think about this. And even if they were aware of it, they wouldn’t necessarily connect it to individual Chinese students. When deciding whether or not to befriend someone, the international status of that person’s homeland is rarely a major factor.

The real reasons for Chinese students’ struggles are more nuanced. In 2010 and 2011, I developed and ran a program at The Ohio State University that sought to promote the interaction of Chinese and American undergraduate students. OSU has more than 2,000 Chinese students, which is more than most U.S. universities, so this lack of assimilation among Chinese students isn’t a small problem on campus.  Via focus panels (conducted in Chinese) with students as well as running events that brought Chinese and American students together, I wrote a report for the university that discussed the main causal factors of the Chinese-American student divide.

We can divide these factors into three assimilation processes.

First and foremost is language assimilation. As the Chronicle of Higher Education report and Jiang both mentioned, Chinese students’ average level of English is an initial problem. Their English environment in China is rarely authentic or compelling enough to provide many Chinese with advanced English competency – especially conversational skills – before entering a U.S. college. But within a year of regular interaction in and outside of classrooms with Americans, this begins to improve markedly. After attaining better listening and speaking, the more advanced problem becomes understanding young Americans’ colloquialisms.

A second problem is academic assimilation. Classrooms in U.S. universities are operated much differently from those of Chinese high schools – and even Chinese universities. In the United States, discussion-based classes are the norm, and paper assignments often require a student to motivate themselves to start a research question from scratch. In many Chinese classrooms, the teacher lectures and then gives students a very specific subject on which to write. When Chinese students arrive in the United States, they are still accustomed to Chinese-style education. Critically, adapting to the American style forces them to spend a lot more time studying, often in the library or away from places where students socialize. After a year, these students have adapted to American education, but they’ve lost their best chance to make close American friends in the dorm. Additionally, they are habituated to studying and sticking with Chinese students. 

The last issue is cultural assimilation. I’m not talking about the “clash of civilizations” that Jiang discusses. The details are smaller than that. Chinese high schoolers spend almost all of their time studying for tests, particularly the gaokao, a college entrance exam. They don’t get a lot of time outside of school to socialize – few sports, no parties. But Americans’ high school experience is half academic and half social. When Chinese students find that some U.S. college students spend their free time partying and dancing, it becomes difficult to settle in.

A separate cultural issue is that American students expect people in social situations to actively work to enter the group. The United States has a culture of individualism, and if people don’t want to participate in a social gathering, others will simply let them exclude themselves from the group. Where Chinese might perceive it as “impolite” to throw themselves into a conversation, Americans see it as par for the course.

However, like the other issues above, these cultural gaps can be overcome with experience.

This brings us to how to fix these problems. Identifying a social problem, after all, is only a precursor to attempting to tackle it. Here are some ideas:

Encourage Chinese to attend high school in the United States. Language, academic, and cultural assimilation could all be hastened early on by sending more Chinese students to America before they attend college. There are noticeable differences in the social assimilation between Chinese college students who attended a year of high school in the U.S. and those that didn’t. In high schools, classes are not as intense as college, but the teaching style is still similar. Outside of class, Chinese students become accustomed to the way in which American students socialize. And, of course, their English level will skyrocket throughout the process.

Promote Chinese student participation in student groups. Chinese students, who are spending much of their time studying, are hesitant to join students groups. Some don’t know about the groups. Universities need to more actively advertise student groups toward the Chinese student population. This could be done easily by working through Chinese student associations on campus.

More careful student selection. Jiang himself details a more qualitative way to pick Chinese students that would blossom in the American liberal arts atmosphere: an application interview that tests students’ ability to think creatively and independently. Of course, a lingering problem with this method is discrimination. Could Chinese students be the only students subjected to application interviews?

English enhancement programs. As detailed in the Chronicle, the University of Delaware set up a language institute to give students with sub-par English skills a chance to prepare for typical college classes. These sorts of programs could be carried out at any university. The focus shouldn’t only be on English language competency; in addition, the style of teaching should be discussion-based, like most liberal arts classes.   

In the end, the assimilation of Chinese students in U.S. universities isn’t, as Jiang claims, a “ticking time bomb.” It isn’t primarily a story of waves of elites returning to China to serve in powerful positions with negative impressions of the United States. For every Chinese student Jiang knows with a pessimistic view of America, I know a Chinese student who has grown intellectually and emotionally in their U.S. education and has made many American friends. Anecdotes abound.

The Chinese and American cultures only clash when we believe that it is inevitable. Consciousness is self-fulfilling; this goes double when educating the next generation. What we should be telling our students – no matter the continent on which they reside – is not “our culture is incompatible with theirs.” Rather, we should be teaching them how to understand and participate in other cultures. This is the embodiment of empathy, and empathy is the cornerstone of all education.   

Kevin Slaten is a master’s degree candidate in the Ohio State University’s Chinese Flagship Program. He has previously worked in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and served as a Fulbright Grantee in Taiwan. His work has appeared in publication including Foreign Policy, the South China Morning Postand Real Clear World. He blogs at