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?