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Chinese Students and Fitting In

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China Power

Chinese Students and Fitting In

U.S. universities are too focused on quantity not quality of students from China, one Chinese student says.

There’s recently been a lot of discussion about Chinese students in the United States. After The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education published “The China Conundrum,” a feature article explaining why Chinese students and American colleges are sometimes a “tricky fit,” the Internet was abuzz with commentary.

Three blogs were also posted on the issue in The Diplomat. First there was “The Clash of Civilizations” by Jiang Xueqin (my former teacher at Shenzhen Middle School), who characterized the tension between Chinese students and Americans as a clash of “fundamentally different values, norms and worldviews,” and then a response, “How to Help Chinese Students,” by Kevin Slaten, who offers some ideas on how to resolve the problem. After reading these discussions, I felt compelled to offer my own perspectives as a Chinese student in the United States.

I’m currently a sophomore at a university in Illinois, where there are over 3,000 students from China, making up more than two-thirds of the international student body – one of the highest concentrations of Chinese students in America.

Personally, I get along well with my American and Chinese classmates, but that’s not the case for the majority of Chinese students on campus. In my conversations with my Chinese classmates, it’s obvious they are often prejudiced against their American peers. Some told me they thought Americans were silly because of the things they find funny (jokes about cheese are a mystery). Some said Americans were too stubborn because American teachers couldn’t be bribed like their Chinese counterparts. Some say Americans are selfish because they party, get high, or have had sex in dorm rooms (while their Chinese roommates tried very hard to pretend they are asleep). And some say Americans just aren’t very friendly, because they don’t seem interested in speaking to people without fluent English.

Of course, a tiny minority fall in love with U.S. culture. But for most, their frustration with their American peers only grows.

Mr. Slaten proposed a series of measures that colleges could take to help these disgruntled Chinese students, including: “Promote Chinese student participation in student groups,” “More careful student selection,” and “English enhancement programs.” These ideas have been put into practice by my own college: we have a department dedicated to helping international students, and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are mandatory for most students from non-English countries. But while these solutions are well-intentioned, they don’t always work.

The reason why most Chinese students never participate in student organizations is that they have their group already – their Chinese clique.

Sure, it would be nice if each Chinese applicant could be evaluated individually through interviews. But as Mr. Slaten says, in order to avoid the Americans’ worst nightmare of being labeled “racist” by interviewing all Chinese students, then every applicant from all corners of the earth must be treated the same. How would colleges boost their budget to make this possible? Probably by recruiting more Chinese students.

Having English enhancement programs is also a good idea in principle, but passing the English proficiency classes is easy. One can either copy – or for the more industrious people, paraphrase – from a paper his predecessor has done, or simply submit poorly written, undecipherable nonsense and pray the professor will be so frustrated that he’ll give up reading and scrawl down a “B.”

Last month, when one of my Chinese classmates was told that his ESL paper got rejected because “The language of this essay is so incorrect that it is unreadable,” he declared angrily that he would protest to the teacher, and that “if he doesn’t give me a grade I’m satisfied with, I’ll go talk to his supervisor.” I never found out how that confrontation turned out, but anyone who has seen the Coen brothers movie “A Serious Man” might get a good idea.

One of the problems with “helping” Chinese students assimilate into U.S. universities that such efforts can actually feel a little condescending – many don’t want to assimilate. “We are all adults here, and I can manage my own life perfectly fine,” one of my friends told me after reading the online debates. “What makes them think I want their help?”

I’ve mostly encountered three types of Chinese students in the United States. First, there are those who lead a hermitic life, spending all their time either watching anime in the dorm room or studying alone in the library. It’s the same kind of lifestyle they’ve grown comfortable with after more than a decade spent in China’s education system. For them, coming to the United States is either a last resort after failing in China’s national examination, or simply just a poor decision.

Then there are the growing number of Chinese students from well-to-do families who came to the U.S. simply because they could afford it. For them, the real life is back home – that’s where all their money, connections and social status is – so America is merely a diversion, an opportunity to travel, buy luxury products more cheaply, and get a degree before inheriting the family business or getting a job in China via their parents’ connections. They form their own circles where they party, gossip and drive fancy cars, just like they did back in China.

In fact, far from wanting to assimilate into American culture, they spend time scoffing, for example, at Americans’ poor dress sense. “Why are they always wearing hoodies, and tennis shoes?”

And then there’s the third type of Chinese student. They throw themselves into the foreign environment and embrace the new experiences, with or without help. They choose the most difficult – and most rewarding – classes, where they work diligently to contribute from their unique cultural perspectives. And despite the initial obstacles, they never give up trying out new activities, learning from different cultures, and growing as individuals. At the end of college, they make the professors and students they know feel both fortunate and proud. But it is this kind of Chinese student that is the hardest to find. I’ve only encountered a couple since I’ve been here.

So, why aren’t the vast majority of Chinese like them? Is it that colleges aren’t selecting their applicants carefully enough? Is it that Americans aren’t giving Chinese students enough help in the “assimilation process”? No. It’s because there simply aren’t over 157,000 people in China who can go to a foreign country with drastically different social norms and succeed in that new environment. After all, it isn’t just Chinese students – find 157,000 Americans and throw them into China and you’d probably have something similar happen.

The big problem, though, is that the focus on attracting massive numbers of (fee paying) is that it is actually reducing intercultural experiences, even for those most determined to fit in, because the gravitational pull towards the Chinese circle becomes so strong. With so many Chinese students on campus, it’s tempting even for adventurous students to hang around with those who can speak their first language.

One Chinese student who comments on Jiang Xueqin’s article under the name “toyo” makes this point well:

“There’re just too many Chinese students and we don’t necessarily need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone to maintain a normal social life,” he says. “I have some Chinese friends who came to US for high school and made many American friends there, but stepped back to the circle of Chinese students in college.”

As a result, colleges with large Chinese student bodies are actually becoming less appealing to Chinese applicants who have the best chance of fitting in. Over the summer, when I asked one Chinese high-schooler whether she’d like to come to my university, she responded: “It might make a good backup school, but it wouldn’t be my first choice. There are way too many Chinese people there.”

It seems that the real problem with Chinese students in the United States isn’t about assimilation programs – it’s that there is a disproportionate focus on recruiting from China. With an influx of nearly 160,000 Chinese students in the 2010/11 academic year (a 23 percent increase from the previous year), it’s inevitable that the majority of them will fail to be properly incorporated into their colleges. And just as much as Americans frown upon the hoards of Chinese students who don’t seem to be contributing much to college life, Chinese often comment sarcastically that they thought it was America they were coming to, not Chinatown.

Still, there is a solution. It’s a simple one, and one that most colleges must have thought of, but wouldn’t dare to consider seriously: Recruit less Chinese students. Instead of hundreds of thousands per year, let in…say…50,000. That will make it easier to focus on quality, not quantity.

By doing this, U.S. colleges would get a larger percentage of intelligent, motivated and capable Chinese students, who, in turn, would have a much more “immersive” American college experience. This means more diversity, more exchanges between cultures, and better education quality for both the Americans and the Chinese.

Unfortunately, this also means a significant loss of revenue. As “toyo” says at the end of his comment, “People tend to choose the easier way.” The problem is that the easy way is hurting Americans and Chinese.

Zhou Yeran is a sophomore and English major at a university in Illinois. He blogs regularly for his college newspaper.