China U

The Girl From Harvard, the Girl From China

What it's like to live a double life.

CAMBRIDGE, MA - FEBRUARY 21:  Harvard University walk through the campus on the day Harvard University president, Lawrence H. Summers announced he is resigning at the end of the academic year February 21, 2006 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Summers will step down from his post after a turbulent five-years at the Ivy League school.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
CAMBRIDGE, MA - FEBRUARY 21: Harvard University walk through the campus on the day Harvard University president, Lawrence H. Summers announced he is resigning at the end of the academic year February 21, 2006 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Summers will step down from his post after a turbulent five-years at the Ivy League school. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

There are now over 300,000 Chinese students enrolled in American colleges or universities, up 10.8 percent from the year before and more than from any other country. The surge is bringing billions of dollars stateside and changing the face of American universities. It’s also changing lives like mine. I recently started my junior year at Harvard, and I still sometimes feel like I’m living a double life. In China, I’m known as “the girl from Harvard.” At Harvard, I’m known as “the girl from China.” Neither truly tells my story.


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?

In China, everyone puts too much stock in the fact that I go to Harvard — or more accurately, that I got in. I’m asked to review application essays, predict U.S. college admission results, help youngsters choose which American college to attend, and sometimes even dispense advice on romantic relationships (a subject on which Harvard, not surprisingly, lacks any particular curricular focus). High school students and their parents treat me as if I have an encyclopedic knowledge of America’s higher education system, asking me what kind of students Princeton might like, or which SAT II subject tests a student should pursue. More than twice, I have been asked why Yale rejected me. (If I knew, of course, I would have already dropped out of Harvard and promptly gotten rich advising anxious parents.) In China, a U.S. education is often seen as superior, and a Harvard education is perceived as the best of those.

Yet I often find it hard to convey certain parts of Harvard life. For example, it is difficult to explain the notion of a “liberal arts education” to people who are conditioned to an education system that requires students to sign up for majors even before applying to college. It is harder still to convey the degree of freedom that we get in shaping our own college career in the United States. While my friends who are attending universities in China complain about a compulsory, dry course on Marxism–Leninism–Maoism, I get to choose from a wide variety of courses in the humanities, social sciences, and languages. Most Chinese people are also puzzled when they hear that I only spend, at most, half of my time on academic work, with the other half devoted to social life and extra-curricular activities. In China, a university (whose Chinese name literally translates into “big study”) is a place where one studies, while in America, I’m conditioned to feel that I would be wasting my Harvard career if I spend all my time immersed in books.

Meanwhile, at Harvard, I’m just one of many, surrounded by world-class debaters and violinists, young CEOs of budding tech startups, and people with well-known last names. Whatever I feel I’m good at, there is always someone who’s better. In China, I’m called “one in a thousand,” which is supposed to mean I’m exceptional — but at Harvard the statement is literally true. The sheer concentration of talent far surpasses even top Chinese schools like Peking University. While competition to get into China’s top universities is almost unimaginably steep, many students of those same institutions, upon finishing their undergraduate careers, flock to the United States to attend graduate school.

At Harvard, where I operate mostly in English, I sometimes find it hard to make classmates and friends understand what it means to be one of relatively few Chinese undergraduates on Harvard’s famed campus. (Many larger U.S. schools like Michigan State, Ohio State, and UCLA have significantly higher percentages of Chinese enrollment.) People in Cambridge, MA expect me to understand slang, get references to American pop culture, and appreciate jokes that involve irony, which plays a much smaller role in Chinese humor. Going to primary school back home, being different meant being punished by the teacher; but in America, being different is cool. Chinese culture prizes uniformity, whereas American culture prizes individuality. I was shocked when I met professors here who encouraged students to address them by their first names — something that is unthinkable in China, where concepts of authority and seniority draw nonnegotiable lines between students and teachers, children and parents, the young and the old.

I’ve also been struck by the “otherness” that each culture associates with the other, as well as the degree of mutual curiosity between two peoples who have heard so much about each other. In China, I’m responsible for representing the real America in front of people whose only sources of information about the United States are generally Hollywood movies and hearsay. At Harvard, by contrast, I’m faintly exotic, unlike the better-represented Chinese American students. I’m responsible for representing the real China, dispelling any myths or misconceptions about the People’s Republic. Whenever the word “China” is mentioned in a class, the professor often throws a meaningful glance at me — the personification of the 1.4 billion.

Every day, a mild clash of civilizations plays out in my own life. I took a class called “the history of sexuality in the modern West” — something that could never be taught in China, where the word “sex” is rarely uttered in public. I see my classmates enter into heated and informed debates about the current presidential election, and wonder at how much they care about their country’s political future, because they have a stake in it — something that can hardly be said about my country, where presidents are picked through opaque backroom dealings years in advance. I worry about the political correctness of my diction in a diverse country where conversations surrounding race, gender, and sexual orientation can become sensitive — something that I hardly think about back home because they are not acceptable topics of national dialogue to start with. And for the first time in my life, I have found myself part of a minority called “Asian.” Growing up in a fully Asian society, I had always been surrounded by people who shared my skin color and cultural heritage, and I look at the recent controversies surrounding racial tensions on American campuses with wide eyes.

Ultimately, neither “the girl from China” nor “the girl from Harvard” tells my story adequately. I am perhaps best described as “the girl who went from China to Harvard,” a path that has become less unusual as the number of Chinese students in American universities continues to rise. If China will one day become a more democratic and open society, it will probably be a result of the effort of this large group of culturally hybrid individuals whose heads are now used to Western thinking — but whose hearts are unchangeably Chinese.

Photo credit: Getty Images News

Zara Zhang writes for the Harvard Crimson.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola