What it’s Like to Be a Chinese High Schooler in America
Fitting in is hard for everyone, but particularly for students born thousands of miles away.
If Lydia Hong, 16, had to choose a standout moment in her tenure so far at the Bullis School in Potomac, Maryland, it would probably be the time the Beijing native was chosen to represent her class on the student council.
“I didn’t think I was going to be picked because there were six students and the other five girls were quite popular,” the current high school sophomore recalled of the 2015 student council elections. “But after I gave the speech, everybody clapped. People all around me said, ‘You are so cute on stage.’”
In her speech, Hong spoke candidly about being a Chinese student living away from her parents, navigating her freshman year of high school in America. During the past 10 years, her situation has become increasingly common. The Department of Homeland Security has reported a 5,927 percent increase in Chinese secondary school students since 2005, with 38,089 now in U.S. secondary schools, 95 percent of those private.
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?
The Bullis School, a private day school in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, reflects that huge surge. In 2007, the school had two Chinese students; by 2015, it had 27. Bullis is among the hundreds of private schools nationwide that have, over the past decade, gone from having a tiny international student population to a booming Chinese contingent. Since U.S. public schools tightly limit foreign enrollment, private schools have absorbed the overwhelming majority of Chinese secondary students stateside. According to data collected by the U.S.-based membership organization National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), in the 2005-2006 academic year, 558 of its member schools reported having international students; by 2015-2016, that number had increased to 740. (NAIS claims over 1,500 member schools.) Myra McGovern, vice president of media at NAIS, told Foreign Policy that most of this increase occurred concomitant with soaring interest from Chinese students.
Around the middle of the previous decade, parents among China’s growing middle class began to see an American secondary education as a desirable prospect for their only child, according to Peggy Blumenthal of the Washington-based non-profit Institute for International Education (IIE). “When they look around the world, the way that education is offered in the United States is very attractive, both in preparing for future careers and the way we teach, which is very participatory,” she said. The influx of Chinese students was serendipitous for private schools. With their often expensive rates, many had suffered from declining enrollment in the wake of the recession. Many institutions were happy to fill vacancies with international students who often paid full tuition. “It was sort of fortuitous,” McGovern said.
But it turns out that the toughest part of American high school for Chinese students is neither the language barrier nor the adjustment to U.S.-style education. Chinese students at Bullis say the hardest part of their high school experience has been that ancient teenage problem: the struggle to fit in. In interviews with FP, they said that difficulty integrating has colored their high school experience. Many primarily associate with other Chinese students.
It was another Chinese student who had helped coach Hong to her victory. “I taught her that,” said Thomas Liu, 17, of Hong’s political success. A former class representative himself, Liu, now a senior at Bullis, told Hong she could parlay her first-year struggles into an effective appeal. “I had this brilliant idea,” said Liu, grinning. “I talk about how lonely, how sad I was, and they all vote for me.” The strategy worked.
The transition to Bullis hadn’t been easy for Liu either. Originally from Kunming, a city in southwestern China, he described his first year as a time of struggle and growth. He remembers the shock of getting a failing grade on his first social studies test, something that had never happened to him before.
But ultimately, it is not the academics — which, in the end, are a breeze compared with the grueling demands of Chinese high school — that are the most challenging in a new arrival’s first year. It’s the pressure to find common ground with American peers.
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“You try so hard to fit in,” Liu said of those first few months. “You just try too hard.” Liu remembers trying to learn to watch football on television (“That’s American, right?”) and understand American humor (“Knock-knock jokes; I never got those”). “Sometimes,” he said, “you feel like you’re selling yourself out.”
Liu’s closest friend is another Chinese student named Michael Liu (no relation), 17, now a junior at Bullis. The two boys bonded over their passion for League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle game that is wildly popular in East Asia and among the 27 Chinese students in Bullis’ high school, nearly all of whom play it. Even in the realm of gaming, a clear line divides the Chinese students and their American peers. “We play League, they play [Call of Duty],” said Michael Liu, referring to a popular online first-person shooter.
Integration is something of a holy grail for the U.S. private schools that accept Chinese students. Schools like Bullis feel it is only through integration that Chinese students can get out of their American high school experience what they came for: that is, better English and real cultural competency. For this reason, Bullis, like an increasing number of its peers, has decided to put an upper limit on the number of Chinese students it accepts. (They say they will cap the percentage at 10; schools with similar policies tend to put caps between 10 to 15 percent.) McGovern, of NAIS, said schools have had to “become intentional” about balancing enrollment. “You could fill the school with Chinese students but they wouldn’t get an American-style experience,” she said.
The pressure to maintain what McGovern calls a “healthy mix” of American and Chinese amid the ever-rising tide of applications from China is shaping admissions departments across the country. The Woodstock Academy, a private day school in Woodstock, Connecticut, sets quotas to ensure their Chinese students receive an American-style experience. Woodstock’s international program started with three Chinese students in 2009; it now has 90 Chinese students, comprising about 9 percent of the student population, and administrators say they want to keep their Chinese student population between 8 and 12 percent. About 75 percent of those students live with host families, while the rest live in two converted houses with a full-time dorm parent, an increasingly popular solution for day schools.
Amy Favreau, director of admissions at Woodstock, said the Chinese students have been a great addition to the school. She is particularly impressed by their studiousness: “They work very, very hard, and it’s refreshing.” But she said she and her colleagues have to spend considerable effort trying to get them to make American friends. “They don’t need to be told to go study,” Favreau said. “That’s not a struggle. But sometimes they need to be told, you’ve got to join a club, you’ve got to try something else.” Favreau said this kind of practice is necessary for the students’ future success. “Their goals are to attend a U.S. university, and in order to do that they need some level of socialization.”
But not everyone agrees that a high percentage of Chinese students is a barrier to learning to thrive in the United States. Arroyo Pacific Academy, a private day school of 200 students in Arcadia, California, is 70 percent Chinese. Robert Nguyen, the school’s director of admissions, believes that being surrounded by other Chinese actually makes the Chinese students at Arroyo Pacific more willing to come out of their shell. Six or seven years ago, when the school had just five Chinese students, they spoke only with one another, Nguyen said. He said that when the Chinese student population is so small, each Chinese student feels like a “token member” — uncomfortable and out of place. But now, he said, in after-school clubs, the Chinese students “feel like they belong.” He describes it as a kind of strength in numbers: The Chinese students feel less intimidated about speaking English to their American peers, and less shy about asking for help.
Still, Nguyen admits that not all of the Chinese students assimilate. Some Chinese students don’t integrate, Nguyen said, because they don’t take American high school seriously — the Chinese at Arroyo Pacific tend to be extremely affluent, he said, and a small contingent of Chinese students has been sent to Arroyo Pacific because their wealthy parents realized their unmotivated children would not succeed in high-pressure high schools in China. Nguyen likened it to any given East Coast prep school: “You have the wealthy ones that party and shop and the dedicated students.”
At Bullis, the transition from a handful of Chinese students to what Wendy Sturges, assistant director of admission, called a “full-fledged international program” has not always gone smoothly.
The admissions team once interviewed a student by phone only to discover that the person who showed up in the fall was someone else. And they found themselves constantly scrambling to find host families. In 2007, when Bullis had just two Chinese students, one lived with the headmaster, and Anita Havas, director of international student services, said she has hosted more than a dozen Chinese students through the years. She is currently host mother to Hong and another girl from Beijing. With the exception of a couple of students who live with family friends, all of the Chinese students at Bullis live with host families. But this may soon change: To accommodate its growing Chinese population, Bullis’ board has included the construction of a dormitory for Chinese students in its 20-year plan.
Bullis administrators admit to having spent many hours over the years trying to puzzle out the lack of what Havas calls “cross-pollination.” Like every other director of admissions who spoke to FP, Havas said Chinese students tend to stick together. In a bid to encourage cross-cultural bonding, the Bullis administration has tried a peer mentor program and even a beginning-of-freshman-year wilderness orienteering trip. Although there are notable exceptions — administrators speak of a Chinese student who joined the football team and another active in theater — it remains the case that the vast majority of Chinese students sit together at lunch.
This fall, Hong has had a number of classically American high school experiences that she thought she’d never have. As a representative of her class, she was compelled to attend the school’s homecoming dance. And, in accordance with her official duties, she attended her first football game. “It’s actually pretty fun,” she said. “I don’t really understand football, but I just enjoy screaming with people together and eating hot dogs.”
Of all the Chinese students, Hong is among those who Havas has identified as the most successful cross-pollinators. Like Liu and Michael, Hong said she initially had trouble finding things to talk about with her American peers, because of her lack of knowledge about American culture. Then, one day at school, she noticed a girl wearing a T-shirt from the fantasy-horror TV series Supernatural.
The girl turned out to be Maggie Whatley, 16, a sophomore. The two girls became fast friends, bonding over their shared passion for superhero movies and the TV series Sherlock, whose star, Benedict Cumberbatch, is beloved in China. These days, they have sleepovers with a couple of other friends almost every other weekend. Last year, when Whatley sensed Hong feeling homesick, Whatley threw Hong an Avengers-themed surprise birthday party, complete with a Captain America cake.
Whatley admitted that being such close friends with a Chinese student is rather rare. Most of her American peers, she said, show little interest in interacting with Chinese students outside of class. “I feel like a lot of people don’t talk to them because they’re worried they won’t understand or the conversation will be bad or not interesting.” Hong said she admires Whatley and her other American friends. “People have something they are good at, they have passions and interests, that’s what I don’t see a lot of in China,” Hong says. “In China we learn the same stuff. You don’t have the opportunity to choose your own interests.”
Still, Hong said she spends most of her free time hanging out with other Chinese students. Hong, Thomas Liu, and Michael Liu, along with two other Chinese students, sit together every day at lunch. The five have a WeChat group, where they make jokes and plan weekend outings. Most of their outings consist of a movie preceded by Chinese food at one of Rockville’s numerous Asian spots. Aside from their parents, all of the students say that Chinese food is what they miss the most.
“I think we know every single restaurant in this area,” Michael Liu said.
While it sometimes seems the nature of the relationship between the world’s two largest economies is only beginning to be understood, the experiences of Lydia and her Chinese friends at the Bullis School, where Sino-American relations play out on a microscopic level, show that mutual understanding is far from impossible. The differences between Chinese and Americans are significant, but they are not fundamentally unbridgeable. If Lydia understands this, it is less because of her bicultural experience than because of the lesson all high school students eventually learn: You can’t force friendship.
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