Helen Gao wrote in The Atlantic, “Every September, the price of a flight from China to a major American metropolis like Boston or New York soars. In addition to the usual stream of business managers and tourists shuffling between the two countries is the annual inflow of young Chinese, girls in ponytails and boys in sneakers, headed to their American colleges. Backpacks hiked up on their shoulders and suitcases rolling behind, they carry transparent plastic folders with neatly arranged sheets and pamphlets showing their first destination on the new soil: Yale University, Hamilton College, University of Wisconsin Madison, University of South Florida, USC School of Cinematic Arts. [Source: Helen Gao, The Atlantic, December 12, 2011]

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Renmin University students

In the past decade, China has witnessed an explosion in the number of citizens studying abroad, a 21st-century manifestation of a deep-rooted Confucius value that emphasizes education. Even before they enter high school, children of middle class families from cities across China start to see liuxue -- studying abroad -- as the default choice. They devote hours of their class time to preparing for American standardized exams from the SAT and GRE to the International English Language Testing System, often scoring in the top quartile.

I jumped on the wagon myself in the September of 2005, traveling to far-away Massachusetts for the last two years of high school. After the initial elation of reaching my long-strived-for goal cooled and I figured out my way around the language barrier, I realized that there were bigger hurdles than language for a Chinese student in America. China and its rise were receiving more attention and discussion in the U.S. First as undergraduate in Connecticut and then as a New York Times intern in Beijing, I plunged into the China-related discussions, hoping to gain an alternate, more comprehensive perspective on my home country. But I often find myself wrestling with an instinctive compulsion to take China's side, a feeling not unfamiliar to many Chinese students in the States.

Eager New Chinese Students at Delaware University

Tom Bartlett and Karin Fischer wrote in the New York Times: Dozens of new students crowded into a lobby of the University of Delaware’s student center at the start of the school year. Many were stylishly attired in distressed jeans and bright-colored sneakers; half tapped away silently on smartphones while the rest engaged in boisterous conversations. Eavesdropping on those conversations, however, would have been difficult for an observer not fluent in Mandarin. That’s because, with the exception of one lost-looking soul from Colombia, all the students were from China.[Source: Tom Bartlett and Karin Fischer, New York Times, November 3, 2011]

Among them was Yisu Fan, whose flight from Shanghai had arrived six hours earlier. Too excited to sleep, he had stayed up all night waiting for orientation at the English Language Institute to begin. Like nearly all the Chinese students at Delaware, Mr. Fan was conditionally admitted — that is, he can begin taking university classes once he successfully completes an English program. He plans to major in finance and, after graduation, to return home and work for his father’s construction company. He was wearing hip, dark-framed glasses and a dog tag around his neck with a Chinese dragon on it. He chose to attend college more than 7,000 miles from home, Mr. Fan said, because “the Americans, their education is very good.”

Wenting Tang is quick to laugh, listens to high-energy bands like Red Jumpsuit Apparatus and OK Go, and describes herself on her Facebook page as “really really fun” and “really really serious.” Ms. Tang, a junior majoring in management and international business, speaks confident, if not flawless, English. That wasn’t always the case. When she applied to the University of Delaware, her English was, in her estimation, very poor.

Ms. Tang, who went to high school in Shanghai, didn’t exactly choose to attend Delaware, a public institution of about 21,000 students that admits about half its applicants — and counts Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. among prominent graduates. Ms. Tang’s mother wanted her to attend college in the United States, and so they visited the offices of a dozen or more agents, patiently listening to their promises and stories of success.

Naive Chinese Students Struggle at U.S. Universities

A professor of Chinese history told the Wall Street Journal Chinese students are "woefully under-prepared. They have very little idea about what it means to be analytical about a text. They find it very difficult to fulfill basic requirements of analytical thinking or writing." One Chinese student in a master's program at Harvard told Fox News, "A lot of Chinese students are struggling, and they stay rather isolated socially because the language dynamics are so hard. They look at this experience not as an educational journey, but as 'time served' — as long as they leave with an American diploma, they're happy." [Sources: Fox News, May 9, 2016]

Douglas Belkin and Miriam Jordan wrote in the Wall Street Journal: ““Yibo Fan, from Wuhan, China, came through the INTO program, but struggled when he moved into the main school at Oregon State. He failed one engineering class, he says, which he plans to retake and pass when his English is stronger. He declined to divulge his current GPA. Mr. Fan, 21, prefers to sit in class beside Chinese with whom he confers when he misses something. He occasionally asks instructors follow-up questions after a lesson. Some are patient with him, he says, “but not everyone.” [Source: Douglas Belkin and Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2016]

“On the ground, American campuses are struggling to absorb the rapid and growing influx—a dynamic confirmed by interviews with dozens of students, college professors and counselors. Students such as Chutain Shao at the University of Illinois are finding themselves separated from their American peers, sometimes through choice. Many are having a tough time fitting in and keeping up with classes. School administrators and teachers bluntly say a significant portion of international students are ill prepared for an American college education, and resent having to amend their lectures as a result.

“Mei Fong wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Most Chinese graduate students come to the United States straight from college, with little or no work experience. They have usually been far more sheltered than American students of the same age. Most of those who make it to the United States to study have spent their childhoods cramming, always pointed toward the nationwide gao kao university entrance exam. [Source: Mei Fong, Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2012]

“Even the most media-savvy Chinese students have a touching naivete about what it means to study in America. A few years ago, one of the sharpest and smartest researchers at the Beijing Wall Street Journal bureau won a full scholarship to Columbia. I warned her to expect bad cellphone reception and rats and urine on the subway. She was incredulous, disbelieving. To her, America meant lattes and luxury cars.

Confusion of Being a Chinese Student in America

Helen Gao wrote in The Atlantic, After a lifetime of experiencing conformity as the social norm, Chinese students are sometimes amazed by the politically charged conversations and expressions common in America. The night Barack Obama was elected president, I watched from my dormitory balcony the carnival-like celebration at my college courtyard, reading the banners and listening to the chants, fascinated by the burst of energy. The scene felt strange yet familiar -- I recalled the joyous parades when Hong Kong returned to China and the cheering crowds when the Olympic committee announced Beijing to be the host city for the 2008 games. But the differences became clear when this political energy took other forms in America. "When I started reading American news, it was incredible to see the two parties throwing rocks at each other," April Sun, a native of Liaoning province in northeast China and a graduate student in education at George Mason University, told me. "I thought, 'How could you have disagreement in front of the public?'" [Source: Helen Gao, The Atlantic, December 12, 2011]

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Renmin students

Many students shrug off the incongruity of choosing a Western education at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars a year and resisting the ideological environment that comes with it. For them, the primary draw of an American education is the socially recognized prestige that brightens their job prospects. Serena Zhang, a Georgetown junior from Shanghai, said she applied to U.S. colleges because she considers herself "qualified for them" and "they bring more opportunities." She beamed as she recounted working alongside a senior boss in the American consulting firm that employed her, something she feels would be "hardly possible in China without a connection." Although she grumbled about the "arbitrary and alienating" U.S. media coverage of China, she said it was "unnecessary to dwell upon the details."

As a student in the United States, I yearned for a forum to talk and share thoughts on events back in China: an earthquake in Sichuan, the Olympic Games in Beijing, a Uighur uprising in Xinjiang. But the silence of the campus Chinese community, initially disappointing, became almost suffocating. So I turned to Western media, hoping its open civil discourse could help me make sense of my country. The daily headlines on China gave me feelings of liberation as well as unease: "On Our Radar: China's Environmental Woes," "In Restive Chinese Area, Cameras Keep Watch," "Behind a Military Chill: A More Forceful China."

While it was a relief to finally be able to access direct knowledge on these sensitive domestic issues, as someone who grew up in a middle-class family in suburban Beijing, I had difficulty connecting the Orwellian China described in western media to the one I recognized. Then, working at the New York Times Beijing bureau, I witnessed a different side of China. As I picked up phone calls from petitioners who had fallen ill working in toxic factories and interviewed a Uighur intellectual who was hunted by the government for his "separatist tendency," their narratives muted the defense of China I had long muttered to myself. It saddened me that the powerless in China had to resort to foreign media to find a voice. It depressed me when I pictured my non-Chinese college friends skimming these headlines, shaking their heads at my country.

Chinese Students Lost Between Chinese and American Culture

Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times, “Ms. Liu found refuge in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the towering cube of translucent marble at Yale that holds thousands of the world’s most precious written originals. Last summer she worked there as a page, bringing requested items to researchers. But more satisfying than the $12 an hour was discovering treasures like the original manuscript of Edith Wharton’s “Age of Innocence” in the stacks and leafing through illuminated parchment from the ninth century. The experience has given her a deep appreciation for the West’s values of transparency and access to information. “In China, I?m used to secrecy, so being 18 and able to touch history with my bare fingers really impressed me,” she says. After a year, Ms. Liu believes she is less of the quiet-Asian-nerd stereotype that she had felt followed her through Yale’s Gothic hallways. Now she wears makeup, raises her hand in class, and has a different perspective than her friends in China, according to whom “I?m contaminated by American culture and not Chinese anymore.”

“That harsh assessment is heard by many Chinese undergraduates, which they say is hard to ignore. It was in a freshman literature seminar class at Yale called “Experiences of Being Foreign” that Xu Luyi began to tackle the “pulling force westernizing me rapidly and driving me away from my own background.”

“Somehow I was stuck in this middle zone and unable to identify with either side,” says Ms. Xu, a sophomore from Shanghai. She was the only international student in the class. Rather than ignore her “otherness,” she dived into the course’s exploration of identity construction and confusion, and embraced the assigned readings, by immigrants and exiles. For an assignment that required that students go somewhere that would make them feel foreign, she went to Bible study. Where she ended up feeling most at home was in her dorm. The women in her hall would meet for tea and cookies every few weeks to discuss college life and address girl “drama.” This “women’s table,” Ms. Liu says, “was a great bonding experience and also a good chance to meditate on our experiences.

Isolated Chinese Students at American Universities

Douglas Belkin and Miriam Jordan wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Chutian Shao moved from China to the Midwest college town of Champaign, Ill., a few years ago. Some days, he says, it feels as if he hasn’t traveled very far at all.On a recent Monday, the 22-year-old woke up in the apartment he shares with three Chinese friends. He walked to an engineering class at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he sat with Chinese students. Then, he hit the gym with a Chinese pal before studying in the library until late into the night. He recalls uttering two fragments in English all day. The longest was at Chipotle, where he ordered a burrito: “Double chicken, black beans, lettuce and hot sauce.”[Source: Douglas Belkin and Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2016]

“In a recent computer engineering class, Mr. Shao sat quietly in the back of a large lecture hall, dividing his time between Chinese social media on his smartphone and a lecture by Dave Nicol. He doesn’t remember ever asking a question in class. Mr. Shao says he doesn’t want to expend the energy it would take to bridge the culture and language gaps. “The academic atmosphere is really good, which is the most important thing I care about,” he says. He pledged a fraternity his freshmen year but soon found the drinking rituals and other demands took time away from his studies. “I am majoring in electrical engineering,” says Mr. Shao. “It’s pretty intense.”

Yio Fan from Whuan says he has made two American friends since arriving in 2013: his former roommate, Jonathan Avery, with whom he occasionally communicates by text; and a fellow member of a local car club he met online. “Before I came here, I would like to have many American friends,” he says. “After I came, I found language and culture is a problem.” Mr. Avery, an Oregonian who hasn’t traveled outside the U.S., says Mr. Fan was the first Chinese person he met. “I really appreciated the exposure,” he says. With the concentration of Chinese students so high, it is more likely for them to have a fairly insular campus experience, compared with students from countries with fewer numbers.

Lingyun Zhang, 25 years old, came from Beijing to study business at Oregon State University. She landed in an accounting class with 11 other Chinese students and four Americans. “I didn’t expect to go abroad and take classes with so many Chinese people,” she said during a recent lecture on the U.S. regulatory environment. One of her Chinese roommates, determined to interact more with Americans, recently transferred to a small university in Ohio, says Ms. Zhang.

“Other students say the school isn’t doing much to help them secure internships or jobs—or even teach them how to compile a résumé. “How can we fit in this environment? How can you write a résumé, application, and how does this procedure work?” says Haiyi Li, from Guangzhou, China, a 21-year-old Oregon State student.

“On some campuses, wealthy Chinese students stand out for their extraordinary opulence—and fuel resentment in the process. Ashley Yao, a student at Stony Brook University in New York, speeds to classes in a tricked-out BMW X5 M sport-utility vehicle. The 25-year-old wears haute couture and hangs out with other wealthy Chinese-born university students who drive candy-colored Lamborghinis, Ferraris and McLarens. Ms. Yao, who lives in a four-bedroom house her parents bought for her, says she finds it difficult to connect with the U.S. students on campus. “American students have a certain idea about how Chinese students should be,” she says, adding, “It feels a little hard to become part of American society.”

Do Chinese Students in the U.S. Assimilate or Only Hang Out with Other Chinese?

John Pomfret wrote an article in SupChina in which he suggested that Chinese students in the U.S. don’t assimilate into American culture, only choose to hang out with other Chinese and only get in because universities are cash poor and Chinese students can pay the full tuition. He then went on to say that Chinese students never make any American friends and return to China with no appreciation of American civil society, its freedoms of association, speech, and religion, or its democracy. “In fact, many I have spoken with can be openly hostile to Western values.” he said. [Source: Lawrence Kuok, Sup China, September 5, 2017].

Lawrence Kuok, a Peking University graduate and an employee at Microsoft, took offense to thi portrayal. He wrote in Sup China: “To be sure, many Chinese students’ closest friends tend to be Chinese because only another Chinese student understands what they’re going through. They know what the road ahead looks like. So they know that as a Chinese student, getting an H-1B visa is freaking hard, and if they’re lucky enough to get sponsored, they have to work hard enough so that their company will sponsor them. [Source:Lawrence Kuok, Sup China, September 5, 2017]

Many Chinese students — especially female students — really work hard to understand and be transformed by American culture. After living in the U.S. for a few years, they’ll have transformed, as Kaiser Kuo says, “really on top of their shit…they become cosmopolitan, savvy, and have dated a variety of people.” They’ll be very active with a few hobbies such as hiking or yoga and other clubs. While being in the states, the vast majority of Chinese students work their asses off and try to make the most of their American experience.

“Make no mistake, Pomfret and others, that your average Chinese student who comes to America knows and learns orders of magnitude more than your average American that goes to China. They become much more American than Americans become Chinese. How many American students that study in China are able to speak their host country’s language 1/10 as well a Chinese student that spent the same amount of time in the U.S.? In fact, how many American executives go to China for years, and come back with a vocabulary of nihao (hello), nage ([I want] that one), and ganbei (cheers!), whereas Chinese executives in the U.S. speak and write phonetic English and can do complex business deals in English.

Chinese Students Enjoying College Life in the United States

Many Chinese students find American college life — with its parties, activities, roommates and discussion classes — to be an eye-opening experience. Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times, “In her ballroom dance class, Li Wanrong has learned to tango and cha-cha. At lunch one day, she tried a strange mix of flavors — pepperoni pizza, the spicy sausage and oozing cheese nearly burning her tongue. Then there was that Friday night before going clubbing for the first time when new friends gave her a makeover, and she looked in the mirror to see an American girl smiling back wearing a little black dress, red lipstick and fierce eyeliner. “I say “wow” a lot,” says Ms. Li, a freshman at Drew University, a small liberal arts school in Madison, N.J.” [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, November 5 2010]

“Against her parents’ wishes, she studied for and took the SAT in Hong Kong, a three-hour bus ride from her home in southern China. She told them she was going there to do some shopping. Her parents eventually came around, persuaded by her determination and a $12,000 scholarship that would take some of the sting out of the $40,000 tuition at Drew, which her high school teacher had recommended. Describing her whirlwind transformation to college kid sometimes leaves Ms. Li at a loss for words. And sometimes the cultural distance seems too much, especially when facing dining options in the cafeteria. “Sometimes I feel when I go back to China I’ll never eat a hamburger ever again,” she says, laughing.

“Ding Yinghan grew up in a modest apartment with his mother, a marketing executive, and his father, a civil servant in Beijing’s work safety administration whose own mother is illiterate. A child of the “new China,” he is fully aware that his generation has opportunities unavailable to any before. His parents pushed him to study hard — and study abroad — because they have little faith in the Chinese education system. Sipping tea in their living room one sweltering August afternoon, Mr. Ding’s mother, Meng Suyan, reflects on the Chinese classroom. “In the U.S. they focus on creative-thinking skills, while in China they only focus on theory,” she says. “So what university students learn here doesn’t prepare them for the real world.”

Mr. Ding says: “Chinese values require me to be a good listener, and Western values require me to be a good speaker.” A bespectacled whiz kid, Mr. Ding was accepted early admission to Hamilton College in upstate New York following a yearlong exchange program at a North Carolina public high school. Now a junior, he is on a full scholarship, No. 1 in his class and spending this year at Dartmouth on a dual-degree engineering program. He also founded the bridge club at Hamilton, ran the Ping-Pong team, wrote for the student newspaper and tutored in chemistry, physics and economics for $8.50 an hour. His first tutoring job was freshman year, when his advanced calculus professor asked him to help classmates struggling with the material. Over textbooks and calculators, Mr. Ding used the opportunity to practice his English and find commonalities with people who had never met someone from China.

“At Hamilton, he is surrounded by wealth — some students, he says, fly to Manhattan on weekends in helicopters, party with Champagne instead of beer, and smoke $100 cigars. It’s a new experience for a man who gets his hair cut a few times a year because the $15 is a lot of money for his parents, who fret that they cannot afford to provide him with health insurance in the United States. But sending their child to live across the world is a worthy sacrifice, says his father, Ding Dapeng. “In China 25 years ago it was rare to even go to university, so for Yinghan to study in the U.S. is a real miracle.”

Having a Chinese Student as Your Roommate

Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times: “The cultural exchange perhaps manifests itself most in the intimacy of the shared dorm room,” Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times, “When Mariapaola La Barbera learned last summer that her roommate at Drew would come from China, her mother was thrilled.” She said, “They’re smart people, so you’ll learn from her and be focused.” She shares a room with Li Wanrong. The two have tacked funky tie-dye tapestries and a poster of the Eiffel Tower to the walls; Ms. Li is planning to study Spanish while perfecting her English, and has taped the words “hola” and “muy bien” next to her laptop.” [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, November 5 2010]

“Wanrong is very brave,” Ms. La Barbera says. “I give her a lot of credit for moving across the world and being so focused.” Still, Ms. La Barbera, who knew no one from China, says: “It’s different. I’m not going to lie.” They have different groups of friends but are friendly. The roommates have taught each other words in Mandarin and Italian, discussed the political differences between the United States and China, and had impromptu lessons on American slang.

“Ms. Li’s teachers in China had told her that American parents kick their children out of the house when they turn 18. Ms. La Barbera, who goes home to Staten Island every weekend, has corrected this misconception. “She’s like a window,” Ms. Li says. “I can watch her and see what Americans are like.”

Chinese Students Exposed to Marijuana and College Drinking

Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times, “As a freshman at Central Michigan University, Qi Fan realized that even Americans come from different cultures. His roommates — one black, one white — spoke to him in different accents and had social circles that largely matched their own skin color. Sometimes they would grab him out of bed and drag him to parties where beer pong was played all night. Mr. Qi had learned of Central Michigan from a Chinese friend who went there, and it was talked up by a company in China that recruits students. Originally he had considered Britain or Germany, but his parents decided there was little point in paying for college in “second-tier” countries, and they would send him to the United States “no matter what, because it’s the super power.” [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, November 5 2010]

“But the American myth faded once he settled in. He disliked a campus culture that “was all about drinking,” and wanted a high-profile school closer to New York’s finance world. In his sophomore year, Mr. Qi transferred to the University at Albany, of the State University of New York. He says he is happy there, makes trips to New York City in the car he just bought, and avoids any drinking culture by living with other Chinese off campus.

Partying is an American college rite of passage, but socializing in China is usually conducted around the table, where close friends cook, eat and play games together. The fun in standing around a dark room filled with strangers, speakers blaring, is often lost in translation. Frances Liu, a Yale sophomore from the bustling city of Tianjin, remembers one night freshman year when friends started smoking marijuana. And then offered her the joint. “They were like, “Frances, come on,” she says, rolling her eyes. She declined, but the pressure to fit in meant plenty of late nights. “I don’t want to be in a bar drunk and grinding with someone I’ve never met and will never see again,” Ms. Liu says. “I’ve tried that. I went to parties every single weekend freshman year and realized it’s not for me.”

Chinese Students in the U.S. and Politics

Helen Gao wrote in The Atlantic, American political discourse -- and American criticism of China -- can clash, sometimes painfully so, with the more closed and more uniformly nationalistic social norms Chinese students are accustomed to. Their desire to share in American prosperity and their admiration for its fair social values are often complicated by a defensiveness of their homeland, instilled in them by a nationalistic atmosphere back home and compounded by an American tendency to talk about China in ways that can sometimes sound condescending, even hostile. Reconciling these feelings and gaining a balanced perspective can turn out to be much more difficult than, for example, the GRE vocabulary section. [Source: Helen Gao, The Atlantic, December 12, 2011]

On American campuses, Chinese students often steer clear of political debate, something they likely had few encounters with during their single-track life path prior to their arrival in America. Students now in their late teens or early 20s missed their country's brief period of relative political pluralism in mid-1980s, which was ended by the violent Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Instead, they grew up in the pragmatism-defined 1990s, which propelled citizens to trade political rights for material affluence. Champions of China's lopsided education system, they devoted after-class hours to hone their quantitative skills and memorized verbatim their history and political science textbooks to pass the humanities exams.

Amazement aside, the majority of Chinese students, busy adjusting to the new environment, spare little attention to American political bickering as long as their homeland is not involved. However, as America's attention shifts toward China, they often find themselves caught between two more or less opposing ideological camps.

Chinese students typically choose to withhold their opinions for fear of remafan “-- causing trouble. When Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010, liberal intellectuals in mainland China held underground celebrations and threw secret banquets (despite the government's attempt to block them), while Chinese students in America seemed to remain eerily silent. "We shouldn't talk about it," a Chinese student at Yale University told me in a private message at the time. "We should focus on studying and doing things we can do. Truth comes from practice." The habit of self-censoring, common among China's post-1980s youth, can feel both frustrating and bewildering, even to some within the generation. Jiang Fangzhou, a 23-year-old Chinese writer, calls this phenomenon an "active effort to maintain status quo." These students, she said in an interview with the Financial Times, "dare not stray from the orthodoxy for even one millimeter when they are still 10 meters away from crossing the line."

Though their silence on politics could be mistaken for nonchalance, it's anything but. When a fellow Chinese student in the U.S. deviates from the political orthodoxy, the otherwise quiet community can sometimes erupt. In April 2008, a month after a bloody clash between ethnic Tibetans and Han Chinese in the Tibetan city of Lhasa, a Duke freshmen named Wang Qianyuan became a household name among the Chinese community in America. During a confrontation between Tibetan and Han Chinese students during a pro-Tibet vigil on campus, she agreed to write "Free Tibet, Save Tibet" on one Tibetan student's back. Witnessing the scene, her fellow Chinese schoolmates lashed out, calling her a traitor and ostracizing her. "They said that I had mental problems and that I would go to hell," she writes in a personal account published by the Washington Post. "There's a strong Chinese view nowadays that critical thinking and dissidence create problems, so everyone should just keep quiet and maintain harmony."

Chinese Students in the U.S. and Free Expression

Helen Gao wrote in The Atlantic, Though many Chinese students come to the United States to absorb ideas from a society that encourages free exchange of opinions, this much-admired quality can become thorny when the discourse centers on China. To make peace with these criticisms, they are learning first to make peace with themselves. [Source: Helen Gao, The Atlantic, December 12, 2011]

Joy Zhuang, a graduate student majoring in international relations at Syracuse University and an intern at American Enterprise Institute, loves American television dramas. They helped her learn the language as well as the society before she came here to study, she said. Her favorite was "Boston Legal," which she explained shows her "the collision of different values in America."

Zhuang, interested in the development and function of NGOs, maintains a blog titled "I Study NGO Management in America," where she posts reflections on this topic and others. In July, after a high-speed train wreck left 40 people dead in eastern China, she wrote a post pressing the country's state-controlled media for greater transparency. "I would rather have rumors than have lies," she wrote. In the fall, as Occupy Wall Street kindled popular protests across the United States, Zhuang stopped by Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., to watch the demonstrations. "I always believe people's grievances should be channeled instead of blocked," she reflected. "In China, even when the government makes large moves such as demolishing and relocating rural villages, it never gives the residents a chance to speak and just settles everything with money."

Zhuang is an unwavering proponent of dialogues and free expression, though American discourse about China has at times tested her patience. "Foreign policies toward China only enters mainstream discussion in America in recent years," she said, "because now it needs help from China." She added, frustrated, "On the one hand, [America] praises China for the role it plays on the international stage. On the other hand, it tells its citizens about China's investment in clean energy and technology and argues that America needs to do more in order to not fall behind. That's not the way you speak about a friend [in Chinese social norms] ... it hurts feelings."

She especially dislikes when Western voices predict China's political doom. She is still bothered by an American teacher's comment, while lecturing on China's aging population, that the nation will "get old before it gets rich." She bristles at mass media speculations on the possibility of an "Arab Spring" toppling the Communist Party in China. "If you ask Chinese people, they will tell you all they want now is, for example, free media. But America always calls for 'the collapse of the Communist Party' or 'a multi-party system.' It's too radical." Zhuang believes that gradual change will take place in China through its burgeoning civil society, which she said Western media tends to overlook.

Chinese Students and American Criticism of China

Helen Gao wrote in The Atlantic, When Lawrence Guo, a soft-spoken, bespectacled boy from the bustling city of Tianjin, learned about Liu Xiaobo winning the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, he deliberately avoided both Chinese and American media coverage of the prize. He did not want to "be trapped in one side of opinions," he explained. He maintains that democratic reform should proceed cautiously. "I might sound like a Chinese bureaucrat," he chuckled. "Human rights is indeed a sensitive topic in China, but that doesn't mean no one in the government wants to improve the situation. Western governments are pushing it too hard, so it's counterproductive."[Source: Helen Gao, The Atlantic, December 12, 2011]

Guo, like Zhuang, embraces public debate in America and takes advantage of the vibrant campus environment. Now a second-year student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) with a concentration in Latin American studies, he is learning Portuguese. ("Democratic reforms in Latin American countries do not follow a smooth trajectory either," he did not forget to add.)

"Sometimes I think [discussing political matters] is just the government's means of living. It's their job." Guo tries not to take the U.S. government's criticisms of China personally. "America is not only attacking China, it's also self-criticizing all the time." He also separates these criticisms from the opinions of the people he interacts with in daily life, whom he thinks are quite friendly to China. In his class at SAIS, China mostly comes up in the context of its economic miracle, which evokes admiring remarks from his classmates. "It makes me feel proud to be a Chinese," Guo recalled, smiling.

Zhuang, too, tries to reason away the angst she can feel on hearing harsh American criticisms of China. "I am not a Chauvinist, and I have a strong sense of morality. If our government does things wrong, it should be criticized," she said. "But as a Chinese, I cannot disconnect myself with this identity, and sometimes I still feel upset." Difficult as it is for her to digest these criticisms, she eagerly swallows them all. She faithfully attends every roundtable discussion about China her think tank hosts and tracks the event calendars of other major political institutes in Washington. She is grateful that such discussions exist for her to roam into. "Among my peers in China, if you care about anything deeper, they will say, 'Come on, why are you so idealistic?” she said. "Being in America actually makes you feel better. People don't judge."

Zhuang's friend Andy Liu, a former Chinese Central Television anchor who just completed his master's in public diplomacy at Syracuse University, described his feelings toward China and America in human terms: "China as my birthplace feels like my parent, whom I can't choose but naturally love. America is like a girlfriend, with whom I experienced crush, disappointment, and finally settled into a mature relationship." To achieve this inner balance, Liu has had to distance himself from his Chinese perspective. "I can now observe China as a third party, a skill I have intended to learn. Of course my attachment to China maintains, but now it's the difference of seeing it inside or outside Lushan."

Liu was referring to a Chinese poem by the 11th century poet Su Shi, who encapsulated the science of perspective in verses now recited by every Chinese elementary school student: Sideways a mountain range, vertically a peak. Far-near, soaring-crouching, never the same. No way I can tell the true shape of Mt. Lushan, Because I am standing in the middle of this mountain.

Chinese Students and American Activism

Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times: “Perhaps most unsettling to Chinese students is the robust activist culture on campus, where young Americans find their voices on issues like war, civil rights and immigration,” Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times. “In China, protests are illegal and vocal dissent forbidden, and on sensitive topics like Tibet and Taiwan a majority are in lockstep with their government. It can be especially painful hearing Westerners condemn China after growing up steeped in propaganda blaming the West for the suffering before Communism.” [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, November 5 2010]

“Shen Xinchao, a Rutgers junior from Shanghai, chose to attend college in the United States because “here you can argue with professors, which is not encouraged in China,” and choose a major rather than test into one. “In China, your path is almost set when you get into college on the first day,” he says.

“But American college life presented obstacles. As a freshman, he found his campus lonely and alienating. First, he spent a semester living in a dorm lounge because Rutgers had run out of rooms for freshmen. Then he was paired with a roommate who challenged him over his homeland’s human rights record. “He thought China was just a very tyrannical Communist country that has no freedom, and that is not what life is really like there,” says Mr. Shen, who has moved off campus to live with Chinese friends. “Americans are friendly, but I just can’t establish a deep relationship because our cultural differences are too deep.”

“Some Chinese students have turned activist themselves to rebut criticism of homeland policies. Following China’s crackdown on Tibet before the Beijing Olympics in summer 2008, furious groups of Chinese students confronted protesters who were trying to disrupt the torch relay in the United States. And on rare occasions, Chinese students have harassed pro-Tibet activists on campus, and sought to dissuade universities from inviting the Dalai Lama to speak on their campus.

“But for the most part, raised on only whispers about the student troublemakers at Tiananmen Square, Chinese students steer clear of sit-ins, demonstrations and petitions. “In China, we definitely don’t see people marching in the streets, so it’s a bit disturbing to see the masses rallying,” says Li Yidan, a freshman at Yale, wearing a preppy white sweater at an off-campus cafe. “People did that in 1989, and it ended in bloodshed.”

Making the Move from an American University Program in China to an American University

“During Vermont’s first bridge session, last summer, 29 new Chinese undergraduates absorbed American culture by hanging out with a crowd of aging hippies at a reggae concert,” Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times. “They went to the Ben & Jerry’s factory and met with the co-founder Jerry Greenfield to discuss entrepreneurship and social justice. They also got face time with elected officials, including Vermont’s governor and Burlington’s mayor, for a lesson on democracy. Among course electives: "History of Rock & Roll," for a hearing of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and the Doors.” [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, November 5 2010]

“Yuan Xiecheng, who grew up amid the neon-lit skyscrapers and karaoke emporiums of Shanghai, was eager to study abroad. He had planned to go to a Canadian university until he attended a presentation by the chief executive officer of Kaplan China, Zhou Yong. When Mr. Zhou announced that students would not have to take the SAT or TOEFL or attend the final year of high school, Mr. Yuan leaped at the opportunity. He attended an international high school, and says he was 20 course credits short of graduation. Instead, he took the final exam given to secure a Chinese diploma, and enrolled in the pathway program. He is now a sophomore at Vermont.

“Zhao Siwei took the same route. “This program is super easy to enter, and it was really easy to come here to the U.S.,” says Ms. Zhao, who hopes to major in film and TV at Vermont. “I love it here,” she concludes. She expresses amazement, though, at her program peers’ English: “They can’t talk. They can’t communicate with American people.”

“Language is one of Chinese students’ biggest challenges. Mr. Yuan wishes he had had more exposure to the vernacular. His for-credit classes at Kaplan included calculus, chemistry and American studies, taught by instructors approved by Northeastern. But only half were Westerners, he says, and none American. His teachers in grammar, reading and listening comprehension were Chinese, he says, and “some of their English was not good enough.”

“Once in Vermont, Mr. Yuan worried when people smiled and asked “What’s up?” “It was really awkward,” he says, “because I wouldn’t know how to respond and while I was thinking of an answer they would just walk away.” Still, his English is strong enough that he joined the debate team, with its fast-clip speech and thinking. At weekly meetings he has argued about indigenous land rights and vote buying. Presenting an opinion in under seven minutes, as he did at his first competition, at Binghamton University, has helped him write college papers succinctly, he says, and question the world around him. “It’s about challenging the status quo and thinking of better solutions in a way I never thought about in China.”

Chinese Student at Brigham Young

“Zhou Kehui had an unusual adjustment to Brigham Young University,” Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times. “Growing up in officially atheist China, she knew little about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with which the university is affiliated. Mormonism is not a state-sanctioned religion, and proselytizing by its members is illegal. Ms. Zhou chose Brigham Young on the recommendation of a friend of her father’s, who had gone there. Its business school also ranks highly. Her parents thought the university’s honor code, with its rules of conduct, would keep her safe and focused. Initially, however, the curfew and code, which includes a ban on short skirts and drinking tea, left her shellshocked.” [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, November 5 2010]

“It was really hard for me to accept the rules in the beginning,” says Ms. Zhou, a junior majoring in accounting. “I mean, where I’m from, in Fujian province, drinking tea every day is what we do.” But few American universities offer the comfort zone she found here. Though there are only 77 Chinese undergraduates at Brigham Young, with so many Mormons doing their two years of missionary work in Taiwan and Hong Kong, finding someone fluent in her language was easy. “A lot of times I’d be walking on campus when some white dude would just come up to me and start speaking Chinese,” Ms. Zhou says. That warmth and common experience — not to mention several meetings with church missionaries — went a long way toward convincing her B.Y.U. was the right match.

“A few months after arriving, Ms. Zhou was baptized, which, she says, provided a support network. That Mormonism is considered subversive at home, or that her parents were unhappy with her conversion, gave her little pause. After all, she says, saving her soul was as logical as deciding to go to college in the United States. “It wasn’t a hard choice to make,” she says. “It’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.”

Even at U.S. Universities, Beijing Cracksdown on Students Who Speak Out

Sebastian Rotella wrote in ProPublica: At the campus of Purdue University in Indiana, deep in America’s heartland and 7,000 miles from his home in China, Zhihao Kong thought he could finally express himself. In a rush of adrenaline in 2020, the graduate student posted an open letter on a dissident website praising the heroism of the students killed in the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. The blowback, he said, was fast and frightening. His parents called from China, crying. Officers of the Ministry of State Security, the feared civilian spy agency, had warned them about his activism in the United States. “They told us to make you stop or we are all in trouble,” his parents said.[Source: Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica, November 30, 2021]

“Then other Chinese students at Purdue began hounding him, calling him a CIA agent and threatening to report him to the embassy and the MSS. Kong, who goes by the nickname Moody, had already accepted an invitation from an international group of dissidents to speak at a coming online commemoration of the Tiananmen massacre anniversary. Uncertain if he should go through with it, he joined in rehearsals for the event on Zoom.

“Within days, MSS officers were at his family’s door again. His parents implored him: No public speaking. No rallies. Moody realized it didn’t matter where he was. The Chinese government was still watching, and it was still in charge. Just before the anniversary event, he reluctantly decided not to give his speech. “I think that the Zoom rehearsals were known by the Chinese Communist Party,” he said. “I think some of the Chinese students in my school are CCP members. I can tell they are not simply students. They could be spies or informants.”

Image Sources: 1) Louis Perrochon ; 2, 3) Ohio State University; 4) Nolls China website ; 5) Bucklin archives; 6) Poco Pico blog

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2022

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