It’s Graduation Season. Time to Go Back to China?
After years Stateside, many Chinese students find it hard to choose between vastly different countries.
More than 300,000 Chinese students now study in the United States. China’s swift economic growth has created a burgeoning middle class, meaning that more families can afford to send their children abroad to study. Many in China view the U.S. education system as the best in the world, making the United States the top destination for Chinese students leaving home to study abroad. But upon graduation, Chinese students face a choice. Do they remain in the United States to work, or do they return to China? In this ChinaFile conversation, current Chinese students in the United States and recent graduates discuss how family, freedom, and opportunity play into the post-graduation calculus. — The Editors
Yuanbo Liu, economics major at Middlebury College:
This is not an either/or question. Many of my Chinese friends in U.S. colleges picture themselves working at jobs that allow them to stay connected to both countries. In fact, many Chinese students recognize this combination of Chinese background and U.S. education as an important competitive advantage over their domestic competitors in the Chinese job market. I also believe people value different things at different stages of life, and for most of us, we are going to feel the need to reconnect with China at one point or another.
A recent development to watch is that as the number of Chinese students in the U.S. increases every year, U.S. education (especially at the undergraduate level) by itself carries much less prestige than it did five or 10 years ago. In response to this change, many Chinese undergraduates have an incentive to stay longer in the United States trying to get into graduate programs in better schools, namely the Ivy League, or to acquire professional experience that enhances their profiles. While many students look for opportunities to work in the United States, things are not always in their control. Working visas for international students are granted through a lottery system. I have heard stories where out of a group of 25 Chinese students applying for working visas, only two or three win the lottery and earn the legal status to work Stateside. In other words, although many Chinese students would like to work in the United States during their early career, only a few succeed due to regulatory constraints.
Beyond employment opportunities, cultural and social factors also matter. Many of my friends find U.S. values and lifestyles very attractive, but also value their Chinese origin and cultural heritage greatly. Sometimes, it is quite difficult to choose or balance between these two very different cultures. An extreme example is that some of my friends in the LGBT community have made up their minds to make every effort to stay in the United States, as they are not willing to go back into an environment where they cannot be comfortable with who they are due to the lack of legal and social support. It breaks my heart to know that their identities have become the primary hindrance that keeps them away from home.
I am lucky that I am not forced to make an either/or choice like my friends do, and I can afford to be greedy and try to stay close to both countries. I do, however, have to figure out a way to balance between the cultures and traditions that I was born into at home, and the values and ideas that I picked up abroad. And that might be a task more difficult than deciding if I want to travel with a Chinese or a U.S. passport.
Jianqing Zhang, ChinaFile intern and former student at Shanghai International Studies University and Dartmouth College:
I agree with Liu that we all are going to reconnect with China at one point or another. It was my trip abroad that made me realize how much I love about China. The twinge first came with the lack of authentic Chinese food abroad. Then the feeling of being unable to stay with my family and close friends, and the impact of cultural differences began to show. I have never given up the option to return to China at some point, but it’s becoming harder to decide when.
Recently, the Chinese middle class has been experiencing growing pains. The outflow of capital and people signals insecurity about the future. The slowdown of the economy, the pollution of the air, water, and food, the increasing suppression of civil society, and the undermining of the rule of law are major factors that cause fears and underpin the uncertainty about my going home.
I can’t deny that China probably presents more opportunities for my personal career. Stereotypes and prejudices against Chinese people exist here. Moreover, there are many restrictions on foreigners who want to work in the United States. With so much risk entailed in hiring a foreigner, it’s not difficult to imagine why most employers don’t sponsor work visas.
The more time I spend in the United States, the more I feel I am in a conundrum. I enjoy the political freedom, the cleaner environment, and the open-minded society here. The overseas experience makes me more humble and tolerant. But I also miss my family and friends in China, where I feel a true sense of belonging. Perhaps for the sake of my young child, I will stay in the United States for now, where he can at least have a clean blue sky.
If people cannot vote by hand, they vote with their feet. This is why people flocked from East to West Berlin before the Berlin Wall was erected and why many Chinese parents send their children to the United States for an education. Of course, such a decision is not overtly political. The act of leaving home almost always entails personal loss and emotional pain, but the collective decision to leave — be it fleeing the borders, going abroad for school, or sending wealth abroad — suggests that the potential benefits abroad outweigh those at home.
Most Chinese students in the United States come from middle class and wealthy backgrounds, and their parents are relatively successful in China. The underlying reason why Chinese parents still choose to send their children abroad is because they do not want their children to copy their success, for they do not want their children to bear the same physical, emotional, and moral costs of that success.
Therefore, if given a choice, most individuals and families from China who prefer a U.S. education to a Chinese one should at least seriously consider further personal developments in the United States in the long term.
In the short run, however, I believe that keeping an open mind is a better decision than choosing to go back to China or remain in the United States before figuring out exactly what to do after graduation. A liberal arts education equips me with few specific pieces of professional know-how but rather gives general skills that can potentially be valuable in many fields. I consider it important to do work that puts my skills to effective use, hopefully benefiting others and shaping my own character. As a rising senior at Yale College, there are many options ahead.
But I do realize that having choices is a luxury. Of the 120 Chinese children in the Qing dynasty’s educational mission to the United States in the 1870s, 22 went to Yale, but many of their college careers were cut short by the Qing government’s sudden recall of the mission. A few managed to escape and remain in the United States, but most returned to China. Then, instead of valuing this Western education, the Qing court distrusted the Yale students. Although some of them contributed to China’s modernization, their potential was far from fully realized.
We have reason enough to believe that we live in a much better era, but in terms of choosing the environment we want to be in for our lives and our careers, maybe it will still come down to an either/or question. Fortunately, I don’t have to answer this question immediately after graduation.
Jieqian Zhang, Google News Lab Fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting:
My answer to this question took a sharp turn over my two years at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley — from “I will definitely return to China” to “I’d prefer to stay here.” My major concern is what is the best for me if I want to tell great stories.
Journalism is all about telling lesser-known stories to the public. As a young journalist, I have always wanted to report on China. Before coming to the United States, I interned at a state-owned media outlet in China and later worked as an associate news producer for foreign media. From my personal experience, I have seen stories about China either misinterpreted or killed by self-censorship. That’s the reason why I chose to go to graduate school and study journalism myself, because I believed I could do a better job.
Even though I studied in the United States, my focus has always been on China. I have reported on China’s foreign investment, China’s human rights situation, and labor rights violations in China. My thesis is about the gay community and HIV in China. After all, I grew up in China and know it well.
I have been amazed by how foreign countries such as the United States are interested in what is happening in China. During my two years here, I was able to get to know many Chinese documentary filmmakers, photographers, videographers, and young journalists like me. They have their documentaries, photo essays, or articles published in U.S. media. Many of these stories are very unlikely to be seen in Chinese media. Media censorship is just one obstacle standing in front of me if I want to go back. Protecting my sources is another. Take my thesis on the HIV epidemic in China as an example. Many of my sources refused to be on camera, or even just talk to me for fear of the story being published in Chinese media. (Foreign media was not a problem for them.) Their main concern was their safety should their identities have been exposed.
I used to think the best way to report on China was being in the country where all the stories happen. Now, I still believe the stories are in China, but I’d rather stay out, maybe in the United States, where I have a better chance to have my work published.
Image credit: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images