For Chinese Students in the U.S., a Haunting Death

Lu Lingzi's tragic passing shakes a community.


A photo of Lingzi Lu, a Chinese graduate student studying mathematics and statistics at Boston University, is seen outside the Marsh Chapel before a memorial for the third fatality of the Boston Marathon bombings in Boston, April 17, 2013. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Lu Lingzi was fairly typical for a 23-year old Chinese woman. Shy and petite, she was fond of taking photographs of her many culinary creations, pics she would then post on her Sina Weibo microblog account. Lu's many friends described her as vivacious, intelligent, and determined. She clearly had a bright future.

On Monday, Lu became one of three people who died after two bombs ripped through the Boston Marathon, an event which Lu and her best friend Zhou Danling attended as spectators. Zhou survived her injuries. Lu did not.

The news of Lu's death has torn through her native China, occupying  the attention of both the state-run media and the country's army of web users. At a glance, the story is little more than a simple tragedy: an innocent life snatched away in an act of senseless violence. But Lu's death touched a raw nerve within the Chinese population because of this fact: She, like many others from her country, had moved to the United States to pursue a graduate degree. 

Each year, several hundred thousand foreign students enroll in American graduate school programs, and nearly a third of these come from China -- a country in which studying in the United States is a common aspiration. Even the children of China's top leadership -- including President Xi Jinping, whose daughter studies at Harvard under an assumed name -- typically serve a stint at an American university, where they bolster their skills and connections for future use back home. For American graduate schools, Chinese students are attractive for one major reason: they often pay full tuition, allowing schools to extend generous financial aid packages to lure lower-income students. Within China, language schools preparing students for American entrance examinations are abundant in every major city, and increasing numbers of government-owned schools have begun offering special courses designed to send  students abroad. It's safe to say that, in major Chinese cities, most college-age students are either planning to study abroad or know someone else who is.

For that reason, Lu's death hit home for a lot of people. On the day her identity was revealed, Ella Chou, an analyst at the Brookings Institute (and former Atlantic guest-blogger) who studied at Harvard , encountered a flurry of panicked blog posts from Chinese students studying in the U.S, many openly musing about returning home. In response, Ella wrote on her blog:
[Lu] came to this country with as much hope and dreams as you and I did -- a life so beautiful and so full of promise, only to end so abruptly! The impact on her family and loved ones will never go away. And as for the rest of us, the terror that seized upon us may inevitably make us question the American society, and the choices we (and in some cases, our parents) made to come here. But we must be stronger than we've ever been. We must be better than we've ever been. If we allow the violent extremism and terrorism to shake us and terrify us, then they would have won. Even though we are on a foreign land, we have each other and we have our school communities.
When I reached Ella by telephone, she told me that Chinese students increasingly view the United States as a dangerous place. "You have the Connecticut shooting, and the permissive gun laws, and then with the Boston bombings, people just get really freaked out and start talking about going home," she said.

Ultimately, though, China's legion of students in the United States are put off by a far more threatening menace: immigration laws. A recent report by the Council of Graduate Students revealed that the number of Chinese applicants to graduate programs in the United States fell by 5 percent in 2012, after years of double-digit growth. In addition to the usual problems of finding decent work in a bad economy, employers willing to sponsor work visas for Chinese nationals are few and far between, leaving many graduated Chinese students in the lurch. As a result, more are considering countries like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand that have more flexible immigration laws. So while the United States' reputation for violence may deter a number of would-be foreign students from arriving, its immigration laws -- the subject of contentious national debate -- that will have a more lasting impact.