Chinese International Students at SAIS Caught in Crosshairs
Haoning (Zoe) Guo
On August 11, 1872, 30 Chinese boys embarked on an unprecedented journey — they crossed the Pacific Ocean, traveling from Shanghai first to San Francisco and eventually arriving in New England to begin their scheduled fifteen-year American education. Distributed in the small towns of the Connecticut Valley, these teenage boys were the first cohort of Chinese international students in the United States. Four batches of 30 children were sent out in consecutive years, and by 1875, a total of 120 young children between the ages of 12 and 20 were studying in the United States. These trailblazers were sponsored by the Qing Dynasty’s Chinese Educational Commission, whose sole mission was to train a number of promising kids in fields like shipbuilding, coastal survey, and designing and manufacturing of machinery and ammunition. Plagued by internal rebellions and external aggressions, Qing officials deplored the insufficiency of technical skills in China. They saw the Commission as a means to groom a generation of Western-trained youths who could restore China’s dwindling imperial glory.
150 years later today, however, the picture looks drastically different. Chinese international students in the United States are no longer driven by a grand mandate to obtain technical knowledge for their homeland. Nowadays, an increasing number of them are pursuing non-STEM degrees. Children of a radically different China constitute an academically and socio-economically diverse community, scattering in all majors from natural science to the humanities. Unlike the stereotypical perception of the Chinese nouveau riche driving high-end sports cars and wearing designer clothes, many Chinese international students are of modest upbringing, and their families scrambled to pool resources to invest in an education in the United States. According to a survey report on Chinese Students’ intention to study abroad, students coming from a household with an annual income of more than RMB 800,000 (approximately USD 110,356) account for just 4.03% of the sample group. 40% of the respondents come from middle-class families with an annual income between RMB 110,000 (approximately USD 15,174) and RMB 200,000 (approximately USD 27,588). The inaccurate and stereotypical snapshot of a crazy rich Chinese student group undermines the true diversity of the students coming to the US.
The reasons for their journey to the United States are equally diverse. Some of them see American education as an alternative to the ultra-competitive gaokao at home — the annually-held standardized college entrance exam in which over 10 million students compete for admission into Chinese universities. Others may carry the high expectations of their parents to obtain a diploma from a world-class institution, as Western credentials are still seen as symbols of status. Many times, they feel obligated to see their expensive overseas education be paid back while aiming to make a name for themselves. Yingyi Ma, Professor of Sociology in Syracuse University and author of Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education, has characterized these feelings as the duality of phenomenal ambition and anxiety widely experienced by Chinese international students. Altogether, they now represent the largest share of international students, accounting for one of every three in the United States.
Among the SAIS study body in Washington, DC, international students make up 37% of the full-time students, with China being the top country of origin. In an institution renowned for international relations, the challenges that Chinese students encounter are multifold. Undoubtedly, the confluence of language and cultural barriers remains one of the largest obstacles. Coco Ren, a first-year MAIR student at SAIS who recently came to the United States, spoke about her frustration with her American peers. Coco attributes it partly to her difficulty resonating with American culture, saying that she does not understand why “sitcoms such as Friends are so viral” and why “happy hours are so frequent.” To Coco, the glaring reality is that Chinese international students end up socializing with “mostly our [their] own people ” and “drift away from the larger student body.” Professor Yingyi Ma has coined the term “protective segregation” to characterize the coping mechanism that many Chinese international students resort to alleviate their academic and social struggles in a foreign land.
Against the backdrop of the deteriorating US-China bilateral relations, there are peculiar challenges that Chinese international students experience at SAIS. The strategic competition between the United States and China is inadvertently manifested through the academic discourse at SAIS. Sometimes, Chinese students find themselves caught between geopolitical crossfires and struggle to relate to the perspectives of their fellow classmates, especially on controversial and sensitive topics such as Taiwan, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea.
Under the US-China rivalry narrative, their identities as individual international students pursuing higher education overseas are conflated with their country of origin. Rhetoric tarring Chinese international students as foreign agents is not unheard of — President Trump once remarked that “almost every student [from China] that comes over to this country is a spy.” The Trump-era policies which make it difficult for Chinese students with STEM backgrounds to study, live, or work in the United States are still in place today. Overcoming all the ordeals to get admitted into American institutions finally, Chinese international students are disillusioned with this disheartening reality where Sinophobic prejudice and discrimination masquerade as patriotism amidst great power competition.
Simultaneously, with the tightening political environment back home, some Chinese students undergo self-imposed censorship. Coco comments that there are times she has felt “caution against speech” in fear of either “antagonizing American students” or “causing unnecessary trouble upon returning home.” Trained under the different educational systems of two countries vying for global leadership, Chinese students may perceive a binary decision to either wholeheartedly embrace American ideals or loyally defend their home country’s ideology. With populist nationalism surging in China, Chinese international students are vulnerable to resentment and hostility from their compatriots and are accused of being ungrateful or unloyal. Under China’s Zero-Covid Policy, Chinese students traveling home are suspected of carrying the virus and sabotaging the public health efforts in the homeland.
The young boys under the Chinese Educational Commission assimilated to the culture of their adopted home with remarkable ease. Still, the Commission unexpectedly faltered, to the dismay of these ardent admirers of the Western educational systems. The pilot program was terminated in 1881, just nine years after its commencement, and all the young boys about to enter their technical training were abruptly recalled home amidst the changing dynamic of US-China relations. Upon returning to Shanghai, one of these Americanized Chinese boys wrote that “a sea of faces was looking down on us, but no friendly recognition, no kindly smile greeted our forlorn band.”
The plight of these 19th-century predecessors bears an uncanny resemblance to the feelings of contemporary Chinese international students, who struggle to find their own voice between the growing xenophobia in their new home in the United States and the rising nationalism in their homeland in China. Their educational and cultural idiosyncrasies inhibited their full immersion into American society, and simultaneously precluded the acceptance by their ancestral land, which now considered them to be indoctrinated by the West.