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

A Look at Chinese Students

The good folks at the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University recently published the results of a survey they conducted among Chinese university students.

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Here is part of their introductory description:

In this general report, we profile the social characteristics of Chinese students, summarize the key findings of their social, cultural, and spiritual life, and provide the methodological information and detailed tables of this survey. We recognize that there are many types of universities in different locations in this vast land. This study is only the first systematic data collection on Chinese students studying in one of the Big Ten universities. A more representative study would require surveying Chinese students in other types of universities selected from different regions of the country, such as Chinese students in Ivy League universities or in community colleges.

The survey was conducted among Chinese students on a Big Ten campus in the spring of 2016. There were 960 participants. Some key results of the survey include:

  • Most of the students are from well-off families; more than 80% have at least one college-educated parent.
  • Twenty-six percent indicated that their view of the United States became more positive, while 44% indicated their view of China had become more positive.
  • They drank less but smoked more than other students.
  • Fifteen percent responded that they have been treated unfairly due to their race.
  • The number of students who have believed in Protestant Christianity since coming to the US quadrupled.
  • A majority of the students believe in some supernatural power or being, even those who are members of the Chinese Communist Party or the Chinese Youth League.
  • Only 2.4% are here on a Chinese government sponsorship. 72.5% reported that their families are the major financial source for tuition and living expenses.
  • Eighty-two percent said they have been proselytized by Protestant Christians.

You can go here to download a PDF version of the entire report.

If you interact with Chinese students in the United States, it is a must-read.

Note: This post was originally published at ChinaSource.

Image source: Marat Amanzholov, via Flickr

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Where Are the Liu Mei?

In the late 1990’s, I had the chance to study Chinese one-on-one with a professor in Beijing. At the beginning of my very first lesson, in a small classroom at the college where he taught, Professor Y’s first words to me were, “I’m not a member of the Party, and so we can discuss any topic you want.” He wasn’t kidding.

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What started out as a language class turned into a crash course in Chinese history, politics, culture, and contemporary society from the point of view of an educated Chinese man with no political agenda to push. Nobody helped me understand the interconnectedness of the past and present in China more than he did.

During one of our sessions, Professor Y taught me two terms: liu su and liu mei (留苏, 留美 ). Liu is the first character of the word liuxuesheng, which means foreign student, or a student who goes abroad to study. An American studying in China is a liuxuesheng. A Chinese student who studies outside of China is a liuxuesheng. Su is short for Sulian, Soviet Union, and mei is short for Meiguo, the United States.

He explained to me that in the early years of the People’s Republic, most Chinese liuxuesheng went to the Soviet Union to study. They were liusu. They immersed themselves in Marxism and Leninism, and returned to take up leadership positions in the Party and government.

In the 1980’s, following the launch of the Reform and Opening Policy by Deng Xiaoping, the government began sending liuxuesheng to America to study. They are liumei. They are immersing themselves in science, technology, and, and in many cases, western notions of policy and governance. Many are encountering the Gospel and becoming Christ-followers.

What would it mean for China, Professor Y and I wondered, when the returning liumei rose to positions of power in the Party and Government.

Whenever I read an article about Chinese students in the US, I think about Professor Y and that fantastic discussion we had. L

Last week Foreign Policy published a long story titled The Most Chinese Universities in America about the growing numbers of Chinese students enrolled in American universities:

In the 1970s, they came from Iran, riding the wave of the oil boom. Then in the first decade of the second millennium, they came from India, filling up graduate programs in business and science. Now, it’s Chinese students who comprise the largest group of international pupils in the United States, buoyed by a growing Chinese middle class that’s willing to pay top dollar for their children’s educations. According to an annual report by the Institute of International Education (IIE), in the 2014-2015 academic year more than 304,000 Chinese students were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, an almost five-fold increase from just a decade earlier.

Using the annual report issued by The Institute of International Education as a starting point, Foreign Policy researchers examined Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statistics on F-1 visas to try to determine exactly where the Chinese students (liumei) are.

Here is the top ten (ranked by # of visas):

  1. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  2. University of Southern California
  3. Purdue University
  4. Northeastern University
  5. Columbia University
  6. Michigan State University
  7. Ohio State University
  8. University of California, Los Angeles
  9. Indiana University
  10. University of California at Berkeley

I note with interest that the University of Minnesota is not among the top ten.

Image credit: by JanetandPhil, via Flickr

Note: This is a slightly edited version of a post that was originally published in the From the West Courtyard Blog at ChinaSource.

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The Chinese are Coming!