The Chinese Student Bubble

The numbers are impressive: there are now more than 328,000 Chinese students in universities across the United States. When the first wave of students came in the 1980’s, they were mostly visiting scholars (professors). Now the students coming are undergrads, and in many cases high school students.

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What is it like for Chinese students on a campus in the US? A reporter from The Economist recently spent time exploring the lives of Chinese students at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Her story, Alienation 101 is sobering description of what is commonly known as an “expat bubble:”

At Iowa, as at many other American universities, the influx happened so fast that students, both Chinese and American, have had little time to adjust. As a consequence, what could have been a meaningful cultural encounter can feel instead like a lost opportunity. The Chinese population is so large that it forms a separate world. Many Chinese speak only Mandarin, study only with other Chinese, attend only Chinese-organised events – and show off luxury cars in Chinese-only auto clubs. The Chinese government and Christian groups may vie for their hearts and minds. But few others show much interest, and most Chinese students end up floating in a bubble disconnected from the very educational realms they had hoped to inhabit. “It takes a lot of courage to go out of your comfort zone,” Sophie says. “And a lot of students on both sides never even try.”

Writing about the role of Chinese student associations, she writes:

The Chinese students aren’t really disengaged, however. They are just immersed in a world that is largely invisible to the rest of the university. At its centre is the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), funded and monitored by the consulate in Chicago. Its structure even mimics the Communist hierarchy, with a “propaganda department” and a tight circle of leaders tacitly approved by the consulate. It puts on four big events each year aimed almost exclusively at Chinese students, including a Lunar New Year gala marking the biggest holiday in China. Last November, Mingjian attended a CSSA “speed dating” show in which male students in tuxes declared their love for female students in flouncy dresses, with nearly 300 students egging them on. It was conducted entirely in Mandarin.

One of CSSA’s main purposes is to make students aware that Beijing is watching over them. A Communist Party directive last year exhorted members to “assemble the broad numbers of students abroad as a positive patriotic energy”.

She also looks into the Christian ministries that reach out to the Chinese students:

Sophie Fan was given a harder sell that first night in Iowa, riding with the talkative young evangelist from the airport. By the time he dropped her off at her dorm, she felt compelled to promise that she would come to a Bridges International ice-breaker party. Sophie longed for American friends, and if Christianity was such a big part of American culture, what harm was there in learning more? Her Chinese classmates, she found, were less interested in engaging with locals. “I have roommates who are afraid to talk to Americans,” she says, “and I ask them, ‘What’s the point of coming all the way to America if you’re not going to talk to anybody here?’”

Unlike other foreign students, many Chinese haven’t been shaped by any one faith, which can make them more receptive to new ideas. Christian groups also make sure to pad their missionary work with free food, friendship and American culture. “Most Chinese students aren’t looking for spirituality,” says Pearl Chu, a senior bio-chemistry major who is a devout Christian. “They go because these American students are reaching out to them, talking and listening. I think Christian groups have done more than the university to integrate Chinese students.”

The entire article is a must-read.

And if there are Chinese students in your community, are there ways you can be reaching out to them?

Image credit: Welcome to Iowa City, by Adam Simmons, via Flickr

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