China U

For Chinese Students in America, a Transformative Journey

"The world has somehow shifted," wrote one of the hundred-plus surveyed by FP.

BEIJING, CHINA - JULY 18: (CHINA OUT) Students graduate during a ceremony held for 3,768 master and 898 doctorates being given out at the Tsinghua University on July 18, 2007 in Beijing, China. China faces a major challenge in meeting its goal of creating nine million jobs this year, according to Tian Chengping, Minister of Labour and Social Security. Approximately five million college graduates, the largest number in history, will enter the job market this year, in addition to surplus rural labourers swarming into cities for work. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - JULY 18: (CHINA OUT) Students graduate during a ceremony held for 3,768 master and 898 doctorates being given out at the Tsinghua University on July 18, 2007 in Beijing, China. China faces a major challenge in meeting its goal of creating nine million jobs this year, according to Tian Chengping, Minister of Labour and Social Security. Approximately five million college graduates, the largest number in history, will enter the job market this year, in addition to surplus rural labourers swarming into cities for work. (Photo by China Photos/Getty Images)

Never before in history have so many Chinese students studied at so many American universities. As recently as the 2004-2005 academic year, only 62,523 Chinese students were studying in the United States; by 2015, just a decade later, according to the Institute of International Education, that number had grown to over 304,000, meaning almost one in every three international students in the United States hails from China. Yet this huge and still swiftly growing group — 10.8 percent more Chinese students came to the United States in the 2014-2015 academic year than in the previous year — remains opaque to many observers.

To learn more, Foreign Policy surveyed 187 Chinese students, mostly between the ages of 18 to 24, who are current students or alumni of U.S. universities. While they answered a variety of multiple choice questions — results are available here — they also had the opportunity for long-form comment about what their experience stateside meant to them. The results were often intimate and revealing, depicting for many a personal journey that led them to becoming more liberal and idealistic. Many also added that they found higher academic life in the United States to be more demanding than at most Chinese institutions.

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 survey’s first open-ended question asked students to describe how their study abroad experience in the United States has changed them and received 140 responses. Survey respondents overwhelmingly described their time in the United States as making them more “open-minded.” This seemed especially true as respondents compared themselves to friends and family who stayed in China and did not study abroad. Numerous Chinese students wrote that their friends back home seemed relatively passive and conservative. “At Bryn Mawr I was always trained to think critically and independently, whereas my peers in Chinese universities tend to see things black and white, often posing moral [judgment] on other people’s choices,” wrote Ellen Li, a student at Bryn Mawr College, a women’s liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. “In addition, my friends in China tend to have a strong longing for a secure and comfortable life that doesn’t require much personal effort.” Numerous respondents echoed this sentiment. “I can see that my perspectives are broader and I am more open-minded and liberal,” wrote Quanzhi Guo, a sophomore at Colgate University in New York. “I love to try new things, and when I tell my parents or friends about them, they will usually just say cool or wow, but they will never take actions [sic]. I see myself more as the administrator of my whole life, while they live more passively.”

Many respondents also indicated that they had become more idealistic during their time in the United States. Exposure to a U.S. educational culture that emphasizes personal fulfillment and social impact seemed to rub off on Chinese students, who said they had become motivated more by passion and less by pragmatic considerations like stability and financial security. “Going to a school located at the center of Silicon Valley makes me interested in using technology to solve critical problems and change the world,” wrote one student at the University of California, Berkeley. “I’m more ready to take action to have an impact in the world compared to my friends in China, who are mostly thinking about graduate school.”

Kankan Xie, a Berkeley graduate student, wrote that most of his friends who had stayed in China had “become very business-minded because of the rapid socio-economic changes happen[ing] in recent years,” noting that many of them had started their own companies or opened investment accounts during China’s booming economic growth. But “those coming to America to study,” he concluded, “are comparatively more idealistic (sometimes naively).” Another respondent remarked that the “prestigious American university graduates are so used to [rhetoric] like ‘we are going to make a change’ or ‘we can make the world a better place.’” But that’s something that Chinese students, the respondent noted, “usually don’t expect themselves to do. They are more concerned with their own lives and short-term gains.”

Respondents overwhelmingly said they were drawn by the quality of American education, with over 77 percent listing it as their primary reason for studying abroad. The Chinese education system is certainly known for being extremely demanding throughout high school, as millions of students compete for coveted spaces in good Chinese universities. But much of the cramming is based on rote memorization rather than critical thinking, and after the gaokao, or college entrance exam, academic life slows down to a more leisurely pace. Those who have earned university acceptance spend much of their collegiate years casually attending classes and participating in social events, making up for the years spent slaving over textbooks. So upon entering an American university, some students were surprised to discover that the U.S. college experience can be extremely academically rigorous. “Although universities here have much more tolerant atmospheres, their demands are much harsher,” wrote one survey respondent. “There’s a lot of homework to do every week, and a lot of reading that can’t be ignored. Add in the rich extra-curriculars, and there’s a lot of pressure. My classmates back in China have a lot more free time, but here it’s all about studying.”

Many respondents seemed to thrive in their new environment, and some felt that a more holistic approach to education, assessment, and success was nothing short of liberating. “My decision two years ago to study abroad has truly changed my life,” wrote one. “In high school, I was a very introverted person, and even more self-hating, because my grades were really bad, and in China, grades are everything. If your grades aren’t good, other skills and [types of] excellence can’t find an opportunity for expression. After I came to the United States, I felt the biggest difference was that instructors didn’t make you study, but worked with you to identify your interests, then helped you deepen it in your chosen subject.” The new approach made a big difference. “After I found my interests, I went from a negative attitude to even studying in my free time. I’ve gone from being a student unable to envision a future — one who got an 8 out of 150 on one high school math test — to a club president, an award recipient, and a student at the number one public school in America, U.C. Berkeley. Studying for two years in America has given this all to me.”

The second free-response question on FP’s survey asked students what they thought about recent Chinese government warnings against too much exposure to (vaguely defined) “Western thought.” While China encourages study abroad, state-led attempts to fight Western ideological “infiltration” have become increasingly pronounced under Chinese President Xi Jinping, and in January, China’s education minister decried university curricula that “disseminate Western values.” Some survey respondents expressed frustration or irritation at their government for opposing ideas such as democracy and freedom, but most agreed to some extent with the government position, stating that some Western values, while good, were not necessarily a good fit for China. And, perhaps surprisingly, a number expressed that their time in the United States had changed their mind — from opposing the Chinese government’s position to supporting it.

In fact, the lion’s share of survey respondents expressed cautious approval for an official rejection of Western ideology. Most admitted to a general admiration for Western thought but said they believed such ideas were simply inappropriate for China. “Western thought certainly has areas worth learning from,” wrote one student at Indiana University Bloomington, “but because national conditions are different, such thought is not suitable for use in China.” The student also stated that he believed his opinion to be widely held in China. “I haven’t actually noticed that the government has directly attacked Western thought,” wrote Yu Mengling, another IU Bloomington student. “I think that the Chinese government takes the best of Western thought and leaves behind the dregs. Because while Western thought is progressive to a certain extent, some of it doesn’t fit China’s national situation.”

Despite China’s state-fueled nationalism and strict censorship — or perhaps because of it, given that online controls are hardly popular among most Chinese — some in China hold a rosy view of the United States, seeing it as a land of freedom and opportunity. But for some Chinese students studying stateside, seeing the United States up close and personal, with both its strengths and its very real flaws, has led them to reconsider formerly negative views of their own government. “I have a different attitude when I complain about the government,” wrote one survey respondent. “When I lived in China, I complained about high taxes and a censored Internet. I felt the Chinese government was ineffective, infamous, a paper tiger. But living in the U.S. and coming into contact with the administrative and legal system and people from many countries, I’ve discovered that complaining about the government is widespread in every country, no matter how strong it is. Every country has its own problems, and the severity of those problems isn’t lessened because a country is strong. Because of that I’ve lost my self-hatred for being Chinese.”

Other students felt disillusioned by what they saw after arriving stateside. “Some of my peers thought [the United States is paradise] and they don’t like Chinese government,” wrote a respondent. “But I support [the] Chinese government especially after I got the chance to see the ‘freedom’ created by [the] US government.” (The student didn’t elaborate.) Another IU Bloomington student, who indicated on the survey that her time in the United States had given her a more negative impression of both China and the United States, wrote that she “partially approves, partially disapproves” of the Chinese government’s opposition to Western values. “After I came to the U.S. to study,” she wrote, “I discovered more of the drawbacks of current Western democracy. And while I developed a deeper understanding of the disadvantages of China’s political system, at the same time I also realized its advantages.”

To be sure, some respondents, though a minority, evinced a lack of fondness for Chinese authorities’ opposition to Western ideas, attributing it to propaganda or to Communist Party worries over its own legitimacy and desire to stay in power. A student at Claremont McKenna College, a liberal arts college in California, wrote, “I consider it to be a classic case of government [propaganda and] state nationalism, driven by a need for legitimacy by the Chinese authorities.” A student at Berkeley expressed a similar opinion: “The Chinese government’s opposition to Western thought arises from its lack of confidence in its legitimacy, as well as its need to maintain political stability.”

Because FP‘s investigation centered on an optional online survey, participants were entirely self-selecting, and the response pool was relatively small for statistical purposes. But the responses were largely united by a shared sense of newfound freedom to live life on one’s own terms. “I don’t really fit the expectations of a Chinese girl in my home country, both physically and socially,” wrote Alex Shi, an alumna of Boston University. She related how three of her best friends in China had once informed her that, if she wanted a boyfriend, she should “lose 30 pounds, don’t talk too much, and don’t let him know your English is good” until later in the relationship. “For a long time I would reflect on myself and think, ‘Do I really talk that much? Do I actually intimidate guys? Am I that unattractive?’ And then I came here,” she concluded. And “the world has somehow shifted.”

Photo credit: Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation is Foreign Policy's China channel, focusing on internal sentiment and media analysis. Twitter: @tealeafnation

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