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The Clash of Civilizations?

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China Power

The Clash of Civilizations?

Is the latest wave of Chinese students studying in the United States a ticking time bomb of cultural tension?

In conjunction with the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times has just published a feature article on the 130,000 or so Chinese studying on American campuses. Ever since 2004, when the U.S. government relaxed visa requirements for Chinese students and American universities began recruiting Chinese undergraduates, Chinese not adapting well to American academic life has been a growing problem. And now, because the New York Times has pronounced it so, it’s officially a problem.

But what exactly is the problem?

The obvious answer is the language barrier, which results in Chinese students keeping silent in the classroom, and ostracizing themselves from campus life. Then, of course, there’s the cheating and plagiarizing, as well as the psychological and behavioral issues that arise from the culture shock.

The good news is that Chinese parents are themselves concerned, and Chinese students who are planning to study abroad are, as early as elementary school, taking weekend English classes, watching “Gossip Girl,” and attending summer camps in the United States. Chinese applicants to U.S. colleges and universities are increasing in terms of both quantity and quality.   

But here’s the bad news: Cross-cultural tensions on the American campus may still increase because the problem isn’t Chinese students who can’t speak English – it’s fundamentally a clash of civilizations. Chinese and Americans have fundamentally different values, norms, and worldviews, and Chinese students on U.S. campuses is merely the first front of the inevitable struggle between the hegemon and its challenger. 

Chinese students studying in America isn’t historically new – this is in fact the third wave. The first wave occurred around the turn of the 20th century, when a humbled China’s best and brightest, either on Christian missionary or government scholarships, went to a rising America to learn “science and democracy” to save the motherland.  The second wave occurred after Deng Xiaoping’s opening up when China’s best and brightest went to U.S. graduate schools just to get the hell out of China. What distinguishes this third wave of Chinese study abroad students is that they are the children of a confident and assertive Chinese elite, and they have no intention of kowtowing to Americans; in fact, they think the world revolves around them, just like it did back in China. 

In this way, many of these 130,000 or so Chinese students studying in the United States are no worse and no better than the scions of the South American, African, European, Asian and American elite currently studying in America. But what makes these Chinese students – many of whom while speaking terrible English are still much more polite and considerate than their American peers – stand out is that they’re Chinese in a time when a declining United States is more and more anxious about a rising China.            

That’s why those Chinese students who are most frustrated with their experience in the United States are sometimes those who try hardest to surmount the cultural barrier.  Read this paragraph from the New York Times / Chronicle of Higher Education story: 

“[A Chinese marketing major] recalls one class in which, she says, the professor ignored her questions and only listened to American students. Also, while working on a group project in a sociology class, she says she was given the cold shoulder: ‘They pretend to welcome you but they do not.’ The encounters left a deep impression. ‘I will remember that all of my life,’ she says.”

Now read this comment posted online in response to the article:   

“As a Chinese who studied in the U.S. with full scholarship, I appreciated the opportunity and the professors who helped me very much. However, I remember vividly how I was not so warmly welcomed by my fellow American students in group assignment…[M]ost Chinese like the U.S. That is why millions are learning English, watching American movies, and sending their children to the U.S. for their education are pro U.S…As a matter of fact, I got most of the negative image of the U.S. after I lived here for years.”

And these two Chinese students are hardly alone in their sentiments:  For his college paper, Zhou Yeran, a former student of mine, wrote how many of his Chinese classmates at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, home to thousands of Chinese students, have negative impressions of America. 

We can argue endlessly who’s at fault here, but the fact that China’s future elite will return to China one day and assume the mantles of power with such negative memories of their time in the United States isn’t a good thing. In fact, I know many overseas returned Chinese who have become wealthy thanks in part to their American graduate degree, but who nevertheless are far more nationalistic and xenophobic than the Chinese I know who’ve never been abroad. 

The irony is that U.S. colleges and universities justify matriculating so many Chinese students as a way of bridging the vast Sino-American cultural divide. But some U.S. colleges and universities will say just about anything in order to justify using Chinese students to plug growing budget holes, even if doing so may have serious long-term geo-political consequences.

My fear is that trend of Chinese students studying in America is a ticking time bomb that will create an international crisis when it goes off: there are just too many there at a time when Sino-American relations are becoming more tense, and U.S. leaders are desperately looking for a scapegoat to explain away the problems they’ve created in the first place. 

It’s good that the world’s most powerful newspaper has finally declared Chinese students studying in the United States to be a problem. It’s just that it’s a much bigger problem than we’re willing to admit.