Clash of Civilizations: The Confusion of Being a Chinese Student in America

The way Americans talk about China can often seem hostile, frustrating, or altogether irreconcilable with the world as a newcomer from China knows it

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Wang Chengdong, a Chinese student in Missouri State University's Executive MBA program, works in a library study room / AP

Every September, the price of a flight from China to a major American metropolis like Boston or New York soars. In addition to the usual stream of business managers and tourists shuffling between the two countries is the annual inflow of young Chinese, girls in ponytails and boys in sneakers, headed to their American colleges. Backpacks hiked up on their shoulders and suitcases rolling behind, they carry transparent plastic folders with neatly arranged sheets and pamphlets showing their first destination on the new soil: Yale University, Hamilton College, University of Wisconsin Madison, University of South Florida, USC School of Cinematic Arts.

In the past decade, China has witnessed an explosion in the number of citizens studying abroad, a 21st-century manifestation of a deep-rooted Confucius value that emphasizes education. Even before they enter high school, children of middle class families from cities across China start to see liuxue -- studying abroad -- as the default choice. They devote hours of their class time to preparing for American standardized exams from the SAT and GRE to the International English Language Testing System, often scoring in the top quartile. In 2010, nearly 130,000 Chinese students studied in the U.S., a 30 percent increase from the year before. Having surpassed India, China is now America's top source of international students.

I jumped on the wagon myself in the September of 2005, traveling to far-away Massachusetts for the last two years of high school. After the initial elation of reaching my long-strived-for goal cooled and I figured out my way around the language barrier, I realized that there were bigger hurdles than language for a Chinese student in America. China and its rise were receiving more attention and discussion in the U.S. First as undergraduate in Connecticut and then as a New York Times intern in Beijing, I plunged into the China-related discussions, hoping to gain an alternate, more comprehensive perspective on my home country. But I often find myself wrestling with an instinctive compulsion to take China's side, a feeling not unfamiliar to many Chinese students in the States.

American political discourse -- and American criticism of China -- can clash, sometimes painfully so, with the more closed and more uniformly nationalistic social norms Chinese students are accustomed to. Their desire to share in American prosperity and their admiration for its fair social values are often complicated by a defensiveness of their homeland, instilled in them by a nationalistic atmosphere back home and compounded by an American tendency to talk about China in ways that can sometimes sound condescending, even hostile. Reconciling these feelings and gaining a balanced perspective can turn out to be much more difficult than, for example, the GRE vocabulary section.

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On American campuses, Chinese students often steer clear of political debate, something they likely had few encounters with during their single-track life path prior to their arrival in America. Students now in their late teens or early 20s missed their country's brief period of relative political pluralism in mid-1980s, which was ended by the violent Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Instead, they grew up in the pragmatism-defined 1990s, which propelled citizens to trade political rights for material affluence. Champions of China's lopsided education system, they devoted after-class hours to hone their quantitative skills and memorized verbatim their history and political science textbooks to pass the humanities exams.

After a lifetime of experiencing conformity as the social norm, Chinese students are sometimes amazed by the politically charged conversations and expressions common in America. The night Barack Obama was elected president, I watched from my dormitory balcony the carnival-like celebration at my college courtyard, reading the banners and listening to the chants, fascinated by the burst of energy. The scene felt strange yet familiar -- I recalled the joyous parades when Hong Kong returned to China and the cheering crowds when the Olympic committee announced Beijing to be the host city for the 2008 games. But the differences became clear when this political energy took other forms in America. "When I started reading American news, it was incredible to see the two parties throwing rocks at each other," April Sun, a native of Liaoning province in northeast China and a graduate student in education at George Mason University, told me. "I thought, 'How could you have disagreement in front of the public?'"

Amazement aside, the majority of Chinese students, busy adjusting to the new environment, spare little attention to American political bickering as long as their homeland is not involved. However, as America's attention shifts toward China, they often find themselves caught between two more or less opposing ideological camps.

Chinese students typically choose to withhold their opinions for fear of remafan ­-- causing trouble. When Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010, liberal intellectuals in mainland China held underground celebrations and threw secret banquets (despite the government's attempt to block them), while Chinese students in America seemed to remain eerily silent. "We shouldn't talk about it," a Chinese student at Yale University told me in a private message at the time. "We should focus on studying and doing things we can do. Truth comes from practice." The habit of self-censoring, common among China's post-1980s youth, can feel both frustrating and bewildering, even to some within the generation. Jiang Fangzhou, a 23-year-old Chinese writer, calls this phenomenon an "active effort to maintain status quo." These students, she said in an interview with the Financial Times, "dare not stray from the orthodoxy for even one millimeter when they are still 10 meters away from crossing the line."

Though their silence on politics could be mistaken for nonchalance, it's anything but. When a fellow Chinese student in the U.S. deviates from the political orthodoxy, the otherwise quiet community can sometimes erupt. In April 2008, a month after a bloody clash between ethnic Tibetans and Han Chinese in the Tibetan city of Lhasa, a Duke freshmen named Wang Qianyuan became a household name among the Chinese community in America. During a confrontation between Tibetan and Han Chinese students during a pro-Tibet vigil on campus, she agreed to write "Free Tibet, Save Tibet" on one Tibetan student's back. Witnessing the scene, her fellow Chinese schoolmates lashed out, calling her a traitor and ostracizing her.

"They said that I had mental problems and that I would go to hell," she writes in a personal account published by the Washington Post. "There's a strong Chinese view nowadays that critical thinking and dissidence create problems, so everyone should just keep quiet and maintain harmony."

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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