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

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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."


Many students shrug off the incongruity of choosing a Western education at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars a year and resisting the ideological environment that comes with it. For them, the primary draw of an American education is the socially recognized prestige that brightens their job prospects. Serena Zhang, a Georgetown junior from Shanghai, said she applied to U.S. colleges because she considers herself "qualified for them" and "they bring more opportunities." She beamed as she recounted working alongside a senior boss in the American consulting firm that employed her, something she feels would be "hardly possible in China without a connection." Although she grumbled about the "arbitrary and alienating" U.S. media coverage of China, she said it was "unnecessary to dwell upon the details."

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As a student in the United States, I yearned for a forum to talk and share thoughts on events back in China: an earthquake in Sichuan, the Olympic Games in Beijing, a Uighur uprising in Xinjiang. But the silence of the campus Chinese community, initially disappointing, became almost suffocating. So I turned to Western media, hoping its open civil discourse could help me make sense of my country. The daily headlines on China gave me feelings of liberation as well as unease: "On Our Radar: China's Environmental Woes," "In Restive Chinese Area, Cameras Keep Watch," "Behind a Military Chill: A More Forceful China."

While it was a relief to finally be able to access direct knowledge on these sensitive domestic issues, as someone who grew up in a middle-class family in suburban Beijing, I had difficulty connecting the Orwellian China described in western media to the one I recognized. Then, working at the New York Times Beijing bureau, I witnessed a different side of China. As I picked up phone calls from petitioners who had fallen ill working in toxic factories and interviewed a Uighur intellectual who was hunted by the government for his "separatist tendency," their narratives muted the defense of China I had long muttered to myself. It saddened me that the powerless in China had to resort to foreign media to find a voice. It depressed me when I pictured my non-Chinese college friends skimming these headlines, shaking their heads at my country.

Though many Chinese students come to the United States to absorb ideas from a society that encourages free exchange of opinions, this much-admired quality can become thorny when the discourse centers on China. To make peace with these criticisms, they are learning first to make peace with themselves.

Joy Zhuang, a graduate student majoring in international relations at Syracuse University and an intern at American Enterprise Institute, loves American television dramas. They helped her learn the language as well as the society before she came here to study, she said. Her favorite was "Boston Legal," which she explained shows her "the collision of different values in America."

Zhuang, interested in the development and function of NGOs, maintains a blog titled "I Study NGO Management in America," where she posts reflections on this topic and others. In July, after a high-speed train wreck left 40 people dead in eastern China, she wrote a post pressing the country's state-controlled media for greater transparency. "I would rather have rumors than have lies," she wrote. In the fall, as Occupy Wall Street kindled popular protests across the United States, Zhuang stopped by Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., to watch the demonstrations. "I always believe people's grievances should be channeled instead of blocked," she reflected. "In China, even when the government makes large moves such as demolishing and relocating rural villages, it never gives the residents a chance to speak and just settles everything with money."

Zhuang is an unwavering proponent of dialogues and free expression, though American discourse about China has at times tested her patience. "Foreign policies toward China only enters mainstream discussion in America in recent years," she said, "because now it needs help from China." She added, frustrated, "On the one hand, [America] praises China for the role it plays on the international stage. On the other hand, it tells its citizens about China's investment in clean energy and technology and argues that America needs to do more in order to not fall behind. That's not the way you speak about a friend [in Chinese social norms] ... it hurts feelings."

She especially dislikes when Western voices predict China's political doom. She is still bothered by an American teacher's comment, while lecturing on China's aging population, that the nation will "get old before it gets rich." She bristles at mass media speculations on the possibility of an "Arab Spring" toppling the Communist Party in China. "If you ask Chinese people, they will tell you all they want now is, for example, free media. But America always calls for 'the collapse of the Communist Party' or 'a multi-party system.' It's too radical." Zhuang believes that gradual change will take place in China through its burgeoning civil society, which she said Western media tends to overlook.

When Lawrence Guo, a soft-spoken, bespectacled boy from the bustling city of Tianjin, learned about Liu Xiaobo winning the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, he deliberately avoided both Chinese and American media coverage of the prize. He did not want to "be trapped in one side of opinions," he explained. He maintains that democratic reform should proceed cautiously. "I might sound like a Chinese bureaucrat," he chuckled. "Human rights is indeed a sensitive topic in China, but that doesn't mean no one in the government wants to improve the situation. Western governments are pushing it too hard, so it's counterproductive."

Guo, like Zhuang, embraces public debate in America and takes advantage of the vibrant campus environment. Now a second-year student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) with a concentration in Latin American studies, he is learning Portuguese. ("Democratic reforms in Latin American countries do not follow a smooth trajectory either," he did not forget to add.)

"Sometimes I think [discussing political matters] is just the government's means of living. It's their job." Guo tries not to take the U.S. government's criticisms of China personally. "America is not only attacking China, it's also self-criticizing all the time." He also separates these criticisms from the opinions of the people he interacts with in daily life, whom he thinks are quite friendly to China. In his class at SAIS, China mostly comes up in the context of its economic miracle, which evokes admiring remarks from his classmates. "It makes me feel proud to be a Chinese," Guo recalled, smiling.

Zhuang, too, tries to reason away the angst she can feel on hearing harsh American criticisms of China. "I am not a Chauvinist, and I have a strong sense of morality. If our government does things wrong, it should be criticized," she said. "But as a Chinese, I cannot disconnect myself with this identity, and sometimes I still feel upset." Difficult as it is for her to digest these criticisms, she eagerly swallows them all. She faithfully attends every roundtable discussion about China her think tank hosts and tracks the event calendars of other major political institutes in Washington. She is grateful that such discussions exist for her to roam into. "Among my peers in China, if you care about anything deeper, they will say, 'Come on, why are you so idealistic?'" she said, lifting her tone to imitate their air. "Being in America actually makes you feel better. People don't judge."

Zhuang's friend Andy Liu, a former Chinese Central Television anchor who just completed his master's in public diplomacy at Syracuse University, described his feelings toward China and America in human terms: "China as my birthplace feels like my parent, whom I can't choose but naturally love. America is like someone I'm dating, with whom I experienced crush, disappointment, and finally settled into a mature relationship." To achieve this inner balance, Liu has had to distance himself from his Chinese perspective. "I can now observe China as a third party, a skill I have intended to learn. Of course my attachment to China maintains, but now it's the difference of seeing it inside or outside Lushan."

Liu was referring to a Chinese poem by the 11th century poet Su Shi, who encapsulated the science of perspective in verses now recited by every Chinese elementary school student:

Sideways a mountain range, vertically a peak.
Far-near, soaring-crouching, never the same.
No way I can tell the true shape of Mt. Lushan,
Because I am standing in the middle of this mountain.

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Helen Gao is a freelance writer based in Beijing.

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