China’s Nouveau Riche Have Landed on America’s Campuses

Chinese students abroad used to be seen as diligent, penny-pinching, and idealistic. No longer.

When Lingjia Hu arrived in the United States from China in 1996, she did so thanks to a scholarship that would allow her to pursue post-doctorate training at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Raised by a family of doctors, Hu told Foreign Policy she wanted to “save the country with science,” but there were no opportunities for her back home. At Xiangya Hospital in Hu’s native city of Changsha, the best medical institution in China at the time, the lights would intermittently turn off because electricity was unreliable. When Hu moved to Colorado, she did a homestay with an American family. It would be six months before her first bite of Chinese food in the United States, only after learning how to drive to the local take-out restaurant. She then married, raised a son, and has lived in Denver ever since.

Fast-forward to Boston in 2015, where Yikun Wang will soon enter his senior year as an undergraduate at Northeastern University. Wang hails from Anhui province, a historically impoverished region of China, but pays full tuition at the private school — which charges over $44,000 per year — and lives in a co-op with two other Chinese students. Wang said he often sees young Chinese peers cutting class, driving luxury cars, and going into the city for extravagant weekend shopping trips. He is an economics and finance major, and hopes to pursue a career in investment banking. While he thinks that he may stay and work in the United States after graduation, he is an anomaly: For many of his peers, the American higher education experience, Wang said, is a bit like a four-year vacation.

In less than two decades, the image of Chinese students studying in the United States has transformed drastically. While Hu and Wang are just two of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students who have made the trans-Pacific journey, they embody the archetypes of each generation. The Chinese students who arrived in the early 1980s — when then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping first announced his “open door” policy, which allowed Chinese scholars and students to study in the United States after decades of national isolation — represented some of the nation’s best and brightest. Funded by international scholarships and money from Beijing, they sought to escape poverty and instability for a land of opportunity. The majority wanted to stay in the United States, where they could get a green card, land a job, and integrate themselves into American society. They were, in other words, pursuing the American dream.


China U. is an FP series devoted to higher education’s role as a major and growing node of connection between the world’s two powers. How will a new generation, fluent in China and in America, shape the future of bilateral ties?

But for many Chinese studying in the United States in 2015, time spent stateside is but a steppingstone to a Chinese dream — one that’s for sale.Thanks to the immense purchasing power of the growing Chinese middle class, the image of the humble and diligent Chinese student of the 1980s has been replaced by that of the entitled fu’erdai, or the second-generation scion in a wealthy family, who studies abroad in order to return home to run the family business. The fu’erdai pay full tuition, often study finance, business management, or economics, and spend their time clustered together. At the University of California Los Angeles, rising senior Jing Li said that many Chinese students have “formed a sub campus,” capable of living a life apart from their classmates.

Their relative isolation isn’t hard to understand, given that Chinese students are part of a massive influx that dwarfs anything that has come before. When Erhfei Liu entered Brandeis University, a private research university in Massachusetts, as a sophomore in 1981, he was the second Chinese student the university had ever admitted; his Chinese-ness was simply an interesting addition of diversity to the student body. “I was a rare animal from Red China,” said Liu, “an alien from the moon.” (Liu ended up pursuing a career in finance, a rarity among Chinese graduates in his time.) By contrast, in the 2014-2015 academic year, there were 423 graduate and 248 undergraduate Chinese-born students studying at Brandeis. It’s just as crowded in America’s heartland. As of 2014, there were over 2,800 Chinese students studying in Colorado and even more in Illinois. “Walk around the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign” — which enrolled nearly 5,000 Chinese students last year — “and it will feel like you’re walking around the busiest shopping district in Shanghai,” said Mark Montgomery, founder of American Academic Advisors, a consultancy based in Hong Kong that works with Chinese students.

The generation gap goes deeper than sheer numbers, to the very root of China’s recent transformation from economic basket case to global titan. “We came penniless. We didn’t go out to dinner, didn’t go to parties, and assumed that American students were all really rich,” said Brandeis graduate Liu, looking back on his undergraduate days in the 1980s. “At the time, the U.S. minimum wage seemed astronomically high to us,” he explained. “A friend of mine was the daughter of one of the top ten most powerful officials in China and yet, in America, she worked three years as a part-time house maid to pay for her student loans.” The year that Liu graduated, according to the World Bank, China’s per capita GDP was $249 per year.

China’s per capita GDP now exceeds $7,593 per year, more than 30 times the 1984 tally. The country’s breathtakingly rapid economic growth has minted dozens of billionaires and lifted hundreds of millions into a burgeoning middle class, whose members can often afford to send their children abroad and even pay full college tuition. It’s showing. Upscale department stores Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale’s have sponsored events aimed specifically at wooing the pocketbooks of Chinese students, the former sponsoring Chinese New Year celebrations in January 2014 at New York University and Columbia University — where Chinese students number in the thousands — and the latter holding a fashion show for Chinese students in Chicago in November 2014.

As these anecdotes might suggest, on-campus Chinese are often richer than their American classmates. Jing, the UCLA senior, told FP that the disparity is particularly stark at public universities like hers: Tuition fees for international students are far higher than for Californians, and the cost of living in the Beverly Hills area is particularly demanding. “My Californian friends were shocked when I told them how much I have to pay [to study at UCLA],” Jing said.

It’s not just a thickening wallet that separates yesterday’s overseas Chinese student from today’s. Many have noted a shift in the academic goals and underlying motivations pulling Chinese scholars stateside. A common observation among the Chinese interviewed for this article is that the students of the previous generation were more idealistic and patriotic. Danchi Wang, a graduate of Wellesley College’s class of 1989 (no relation to Yikun Wang), said she pursued education in America because she “wanted to improve [herself], so that [she] could contribute to the modernization of China.” Wang recalled wanting to be “the Chinese Madame Curie,” an aspiration she said many of her peers shared.

Chinese students studying abroad today aren’t generally looking to cure cancer or serve their homeland. According to Danchi Wang, many young Chinese come to the United States to make themselves more marketable, a goal reflected in the growing proportion of Chinese students who are choosing to study business, finance, or management. For Zhao Yong, a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry, “there are really only two paths for a Chinese graduate in the United States: Go into finance or join a large IT firm.” Zhao said this jokingly, and although he himself took neither path, his words appear to ring true. When people ask Yikun Wang what he is studying at Northeastern, they often give him a choice of one of two answers: finance or economics. (Wang studies both.) “They’d be totally surprised if you tell them you’re majoring in art,” he said.

Parents are often equally, if not more invested in the pragmatic value and marketability of their children’s education. Jiang Xueqin, educator and author of Creative China, a book published in China about the country’s education system, explained in an August 2014 interview with the Huffington Post that parents in China want to “hedge their bets and diversify their assets” — and a child overseas makes a “good pretext for capital flight.” Paying for an American education is also a way to elevate a family’s social status. “Having a child attend an overseas school is now seen as the equivalent of driving a BMW and carrying an [Louis Vuitton] handbag in China,” said Jiang. Montgomery said that he has clients that pull children out of the Chinese college entrance exam, or gaokao, prep stream as early as preschool and place them into the international division of select schools to chart their path to higher education abroad. Forums on massive Chinese mobile chat platform WeChat and online microblogging websites are now peppered with stories of grandparents pooling their resources to send their grandchild to college. A recent article on microblogging platform Weibo featured an interview with a taxi driver from the central province of Henan, who sold his house and plowed all of his annual $12,885 salary into sending his son abroad. Montgomery said many Chinese parents send children abroad “to see how quickly they can get into Goldman Sachs,” an investment bank.

Not everyone is happy with the influx of Chinese students flowing into U.S. higher education. At Michigan State University, vandals spray-painted the words “go back home” on a Chinese student’s car. At UCLA in 2011, an undergraduate student posted an anti-Asian video rant, where she mocked people speaking an Asian language and said, “The problem is these hordes of Asian people that UCLA accepts into our school every single year.” Some of the criticism of Chinese students appears to stem, at least in part, from anxiety over an increasingly fraught U.S.-China relationship. At Kansas State University, a student newspaper published a column (later appended with an apology) in response to the rising numbers of international students — Chinese students, in particular — attending the school. The piece went so far as to argue that U.S. tax dollars should not be used to fund the education of “citizens from Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq or Turkey … students who could, in the near future, become the enemy.”

Montgomery invited critics to put the shoe on the other foot and imagine they were preparing to send their children to China. “Maybe you’ve been to Beijing or Shanghai, maybe you have one Chinese friend, maybe you’ve eaten some General Tso’s Chicken,” he said. “Now you’re sending your kid to China — how are you going to do that? Who are you going to talk to? You’re going to look at the rankings, you’re going to pay whatever it takes to trust somebody who will help your kid out, and when he’s there, your kid is going to hang out with other Americans.”

Much of the criticism also fails to consider that many Chinese students are engaged in pathbreaking, self-expressive pursuits that many young Americans would find familiar. Yong, the Yale Forestry graduate student, for example, eschewed finance and IT and instead partnered with the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute to create Junzi Kitchen, a restaurant serving Chinese food in a Chipotle-style service line. Min Yang, a health policy major at UNC Chapel Hill from the southern province of Guangdong, who wants to pursue a career in healthcare, studied approaches to increase HIV testing uptake in South China and designed health and science classes for Tibetan children in Yunnan province as part of his work with the NGO Machik. And Cathy Jiang, a 27-year-old marketing analyst turned producer and a graduate of Fordham University’s MBA program, has tried to challenge the stereotype of the wealthy and entitled overseas Chinese student by producing short films. One of her films, Study Abroad, focuses on the day-to-day challenges Chinese students face in the United States, from making new friends, to having the courage to speak up in seminars, to pursuing one’s passions and shaking off sometimes onerous parental expectations. The sequel, The Daydreaming Bunny, chronicles the life of an art student who tries to earn money for her graduation exhibition and prove to her conservative family that her paintings have a purpose.

The previous generation of Chinese students in America was no doubt different from today’s crop, a fact Jiang acknowledges. “Sure, they had more difficulties paying tuition, taking on student jobs, and dealing with student loans,” said Jiang. But she added, “Just because we are different does not mean we don’t have our own unique set of challenges to overcome.” And among the Chinese students pouring into the United States every year, there will be countless students like her who will tackle these obstacles in innovative ways their predecessors could never have envisioned.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Corrections, Sept. 1, 2015: Over 2,800 Chinese students studied at Colorado in 2014; this article originally stated 2,880 students studied there. Erhfei Liu enrolled in Brandeis as a sophomore in 1981, not 1984. 423 graduate and 248 undergraduate Chinese-born students studied at Brandeis in the 2014-2015 academic year, not 250 and 200. 

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