When my father was a graduate student at Loyola University in Chicago, two distinct things marked his day: the “L” and instant noodles. It was 1998 in a studio apartment in Rogers Park below the Red Line. Every night, the sounds of the train woke him up. Every morning, he got up after a restless night and made himself some ramen. After those three years, he never wanted to look at instant noodles again.
At that time, it was almost unheard of for Chinese students to go to the United States for undergraduate study. Instead, everyone suffered through the dreaded gaokao, the Chinese college-entrance examination. For four consecutive days in June, thousands of Chinese high schoolers sat in stuffy classrooms with no air conditioning, sweating and exerting themselves in subjects like mathematics, physics, and English to get one single score high enough to earn a coveted spot at a top university. Most students who did go abroad were graduate students, and many of them stayed in the new country.
The scene today is a little different. The majority of students in China do still take the exam. They study for years in preparation and wait for weeks afterward in anticipation of receiving a number that determines their future. Students are accepted to a college based on how highly they ranked the school and the single weighted score, which they may not even know before submitting their preferences. The convoluted and capricious ranking system may allot them a spot at their last-choice college.
Many, however, now have the option of bypassing that system, with exceptional talent or a significant amount of money. Some apply to a foreign-language school where students can apply to universities abroad instead of taking the gaokao. Others test their way into “experimental” classes at top public high schools, which are fiercely competitive but have high success rates of getting students into Western universities. Those with more disposable income can skip Chinese high school altogether and attend a private boarding school abroad, such as Andover or Exeter in New England. Students from wealthier families usually have a better chance of going abroad because they can hire tutors, take test-prep courses, and afford the high tuition of American private high schools and universities.
In recent years, the number of Chinese nationals studying abroad has increased dramatically, surpassing India, South Korea, and other countries in the number of students sent overseas. According to the Institute of International Education, China was the top sender of students to the United States in 2015, with 304,040 students—an 11 percent increase from the previous year. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), for example, has seen a sizable increase in the number of Chinese students, from 37 enrolled in the undergraduate college in 2000 to 2,898 in 2014.
Studying in the U.S. has a big price tag. This has led to a disproportionate representation of the wealthy and elite from China on American campuses. Public universities, suffering from a loss of funding after the 2008 financial crisis, have looked to international, and particularly Chinese, students for a full-tuition boost to their budgets. Chinese nationals, like all international students, pay out-of-state tuition and fees: $46,000-$53,000 a year at UIUC. While some financial aid is available to international students, there are vastly fewer funds, and most universities are not need-blind in their admissions processes for applicants from abroad. In the 2014-2015 academic year, Chinese students’ tuition and fees alone injected $9.8 billion into the American economy.
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By 2008, when my father returned to China for the first time, many of his friends in Beijing had grown quite wealthy. Some had sent their children abroad for college. One friend even bought some land and sheep and moved to New Zealand to live out his bucolic fantasies. (It didn’t last.) My father returned wondering if he made the right choice to go to the U.S., where our family lives a modest existence compared to his peers in China.
A month after my father’s visit to China, my cousin—who grew up in Beijing—came to Chicago to attend boarding school. Located in an affluent neighborhood on Lake Michigan, Lake Forest Academy has its own private woods, bike paths along a scenic river, and streets named Yale Lane and Harvard Avenue lined with mini-villas. My uncle and aunt chose the school from a selection of brochures provided by recruiters from several private American boarding schools. With grassy football fields and numerous graduates attending Ivy League universities, Lake Forest Academy stood out from the rest.
Since 1978, economic reforms have led to China’s astronomical economic growth. China’s GDP increased from less than $150 billion in 1978 to $8,227 billion in 2012. In 2015, China outnumbered the United States in its number of billionaires. Chinese millionaires and billionaires not only invest in American businesses, but they also send their children abroad for school, where their wealth is often displayed in exorbitant fashion. An education abroad provides a status symbol in China, where most of the students return after their studies.
Attending college abroad has now become a fundamental and expected experience of many Chinese students seeking prominent careers abroad and even in China. One of my Chinese friends told me this time abroad is called dujin, a “golden vacation” that also improves job prospects. Many of the Chinese international students I spoke to agreed that a foreign degree was worth a lot on a resume back home.
Largely gone are the days of penny pinching and ramen eating. Instead, many Chinese international students are extravagant consumers in real estate, travel, entertainment, fashion, and other industries. While not every student is ostentatiously wealthy, this new group is certainly better off than their predecessors from 20 years ago. The wealthiest and most visible of the group have attracted attention and criticism. Videos reveal wealthy Chinese students driving Ferraris and buying up mansions. High spending seems requisite for China’s nouveau riche, or fuerdai, in their transition to American college life. One particularly biting article referred to wealthy Chinese women studying in the U.S. as “cash heifers.” While in America, they buy entire season collections of Chanel, spend thousands clubbing, and bring several suitcases of luxury goods home each year.
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When my cousin first arrived at Lake Forest Academy, I accompanied him to his orientation. I spoke to a few school administrators, asking them about the school. In the middle of the conversation, one counselor asked, “and how are you enjoying the U.S.?” Taken aback, I responded, “I’ve liked it for the past 10 years that I’ve lived here.” The counselor, visibly embarrassed by her assumption that I, too, had just come from China, apologized and walked away.
I wasn’t offended by the question. I’m used to ruder reminders of my Asian face, such as catcalls of “Konichiwa” or even nonsensical words. I get frequent questions about where I’m really from, to which I answer “China” because it’s the truth. Yet, people in China instinctively recognize me as huaqiao, an ethnically Chinese person living outside China.
But the administrator’s question did give me pause. It made sense that she would think the relatives of the new Chinese students were also recent arrivals. Of course, the perfect Chicago accent might have tipped her off. There are plenty of Asian American students at Lake Forest Academy. Was it the circumstance that made her assume that I was not American? What happens to the perception of Asian Americans when a campus is seen as becoming “saturated” with Chinese nationals?
To answer this question, I created a survey, which I sent to my Chinese American friends. My 111 survey respondents flooded me with stories of how they have been affected by this development, especially being mistaken for, or assumed to be, Chinese international students. My respondents did not identify much culturally with the Chinese nationals on campus. Instead, they identified more with their Asian American friends despite having different ethnic and cultural identities. However, while Chinese and Asian Americans may perceive themselves as having disparate identities from Chinese nationals on college campuses, they are not always seen as separate groups.
A friend at Columbia University said she felt a “visceral need” to distinguish herself from the Chinese students in her program, because her non-Chinese classmates did not consider her American. They made statements like “I wonder why no American girls do econ Ph.D.s,” even though she was one of several Asian American women completing the degree. Another Chinese American student at Tulane University was rejected from a project group because the others believed she was an international student who “wouldn’t pull [her] weight due to [her] ‘bad English.’” As more Chinese nationals come to American campuses, it seems easier to forget that Asian Americans exist outside of this one subgroup of prominent foreigners.
There seems to be a growing awareness of, and animus toward, Chinese nationals on campuses that has in turn impacted Asian American students. While universities and local economies have certainly reaped the economic benefits of this large population of Chinese international students, it may have come at some cost to the Asian American community’s claims to Americanness. In all the media musings about rich Chinese foreigners on campus, the Asian American community’s response to this phenomenon has remained largely unexamined.
Growing up Asian in America, I experienced a blend of cultures that continues to shape my identity not just as Chinese, but as Asian American, an identity that strengthened during my time in college when I befriended many Asian Americans. The collective history of predecessors as immigrants, be they parents or great-great-great-grandparents, resonated so deeply that it created kinship. That history is marked by exclusion, alienation, and violence, but the pan-Asian identity that emerged is also one of strength and pride.
In a book review of Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian-America, Oliver Wang, an associate professor of sociology at California State University-Long Beach, noted the “wry paradox” of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. The act made possible the continual transformation of Asian America by constant waves of new immigrants, for whom Wang contends “‘Asian America’ has no meaning.” When asked whether they considered themselves “immigrants,” the dozen Chinese nationals I surveyed answered “no” or “unsure.” But whether they are seen or see themselves as Asian Americans, these new arrivals are embedded in Asian America, which encompasses all people of Asian descent living in the United States. And the responses toward them affect the community as a whole.
At the University of Iowa, a racist Twitter account sparked social activism among Chinese international students. The now-deleted account, UIasianprobz, solicited pictures of Asian students “doing the crazy things they do! No racism intended.” The university administration remained silent until the Chinese students mobilized and demanded a better response to issues international students face. Working with other students, they successfully called for mental-health services, more cultural diversity and awareness in the classroom, and programs to create a more integrated campus.
This incident shows that Chinese international students have the potential to be a powerful mobilizing force for the Asian American community. When I suggested that Chinese nationals in America didn’t engage in questions of race and concerns of the Asian American community, a law school friend from Beijing disagreed with my characterization. She said studying at Amherst College showed her for the first time what it means to be a minority, to see racial and class tensions. It made her realize that she wanted to work on these important issues. And she isn’t the only one. For every fuerdai taking his vacation, there is someone whose life changed thanks to a liberal-arts education, someone who became a feminist, someone who became an activist.
Their significant economic contribution on campus and in the local economy has given Chinese international students the clout to effect change and stand with the Asian American community, if they so choose. Their contributions could be crucial at a time when the Asian American community is engaged in serious soul searching, prompted by the recent debates over Peter Liang, affirmative action, and Donald Trump. Others seem to agree with me. My survey respondents largely answered that they feel positive about more Chinese students studying in the United States. It’s the conflation of all Asian students with Chinese nationals that they vehemently challenge, not the presence of Chinese international students on campus.
Being Asian American can seem a paradox. It is at once an assertion of Americanness—of belonging to a society that has always been a little suspect of faces and names like mine—and an embrace of a heritage that traces back to a courageous journey across a vast ocean. It is a celebration, not an identification foisted on us as a grouping mechanism and a marker of foreignness. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice to define what it means to be Asian in America, to choose it as the sole identity or one of many. And for me, this identity is shaped by the new arrivals on campus.
I have had this experience many times: a chance meeting with a Chinese student followed by a warm invitation. As I sit in a karaoke bar or around a dinner table, listening to them talk in a language I’ve spoken all my life with slang that I don’t quite understand, I am learning and absorbing. It’s always a little awkward at first, but our interaction begins a process of adapting. Just as they learn what it’s like to be Asian American, I am learning to change my own conceptions of China, of an ancestral homeland that itself is rapidly changing. It’s an education for me, and a fundamental one at that.
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.
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