Introducing Tales from the Chinese Diaspora


Tales from the Chinese Diaspora is my work-in-progress honors project.

The theme of 留学——liuxue, or study abroad—was central to many of the stories I consumed while growing up in China in the 1990s. Fanciful tales of fiction, feature films and TV series and ostensibly true accounts in documentaries and memoirs alike planted in my mind all sorts of ideas about going to university in some peculiar foreign place. Thus, study abroad was an oddly familiar yet strange and exciting term to me, and not a reality until I came to experience it myself.

When I was younger, I saw study abroad as a mysterious privilege. This honored status went back to the 1870s, when the Qing Court sent 120 ordinary Chinese teen boys to the U.S. to learn Western skills; upon return, they were supposed to shoulder the responsibility of bringing the dying empire back to life. In the early 20th century, others subsidized by the government or by their affluent families carried on the tradition of going abroad and returning; many later became important figures in every field of modern Chinese life. Much later, in the early 1980s, those from well-connected families in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai began to find means to go abroad in a different sort of effort–to escape China’s seeming backwardness; and by the 1990s, the brightest students from top Chinese universities were leaving for graduate programs at prestigious Ivy League universities.

By the time I was preparing to go abroad for a college exchange year in 2011, study abroad was no longer a big deal. Pretty much everybody knew somebody studying in a foreign country. Now Chinese undergraduates, supported by parents of a rising middle class, were flooding into U.S. colleges, typically to burnish their credentials for a future career in business. After one term in the U.S., I decided to stay with the flood, and transferred from Arkansas to Iowa to complete my bachelor’s degree.

My project examines the varied results and repercussions of this influx of Chinese students to America, focusing mainly on the burgeoning population of Chinese undergraduates on the University of Iowa campus. Through a series of in-depth reports, I address issues of identity, freedom, the future plans of international students, the experiences of female students, the situation of wives of international students, and the misconceptions, misunderstandings, and structural and habitual barriers that tend to divide Chinese and U.S. students.

My TOEFL instructor back in Hangzhou, China, once commented that Chinese students going abroad these days are not as qualified as their predecessors. It used to be that only the brightest and best could study abroad—and only some of the best and brightest got the chance. Nowadays, it seems, anyone can manage to study abroad as long as family finances allow. Indeed, my generation of liuxuesheng – students studying abroad – has a somewhat shabby reputation. We are often seen as a spoiled group of fuerdai —rich baby boomers—living decadently off our newly affluent parents’ money.

In truth, the stereotype is just that – a gross and unfair overgeneralization. Today’s Chinese students abroad are far more diverse – economically, intellectually, geographically and personally – than those who have come before.

Over the course of a year of interviewing my fellow Chinese students across majors and classes, I’ve found that many are conscientious and high achieving. Most care a great deal about getting a good education and doing well. And while some have conventional outlooks and ambitions, among others there is no lack of idealism, curiosity and critical thinking. Motivations for coming to the U.S. are varied: some are seeking personal freedom, some a better quality of education and hopes for more mobility, many a combination, and some don’t know. A lot come just because their parents want them to. Some are academically ill prepared; some are brilliant in all respects. Certainly, there is that minority who drive BMWs or Maseratis, those who collect Louis Vuitton satchels or Roger Vivier shoes, some spoiled ones who can’t cook or do their own laundry and have no idea what they are in school for; but most are modest strivers struggling to grow up in an unfamiliar environment, and each one is an individual.

Being at Iowa and reporting on my peers has impressed upon me anew that people are complex. A gal with a collection of luxury designer bags worth a year of tuition at the same time may be intelligent and even profound. A Chinese who never talks to Americans isn’t necessarily a loner or a dolt. An ultra-Americanized Chinese can still be friendly and compassionate toward compatriots. And for all our stereotypes about U.S. students, they are no less complicated. Domestic students may ignore international students out of fear or ignorance rather than snobbery. Some academically successful students are socially awkward. Some who seem stupid or lazy may just be insecure. Some who party and drink hard may study a lot, too.

Such human complexity compelled me to continue writing about people and doings on the Iowa campus. And I felt it was meaningful to record the experiences of Chinese students at this stage—with the prestige and economy of China clearly on the rise and the U.S. seemingly on the decline.

We are the generation who grew up as coastal metropolitans when Chinese economic growth was skyrocketing. Unlike our parents and grandparents, we haven’t experienced traumatic political and social movements nor suffered painful dislocations that lodge in our memories. We don’t have the strong sense of national and cultural identity that motivated our forbears, and our feelings of obligation and patriotism are far more subdued. We don’t have to worry about feeding ourselves; we take studying abroad, and much else, for granted. Our attitudes, ambitions, intentions and experiences are far different than those of our predecessors.

Still, we face some of the same issues that Chinese abroad always have: language hurdles, cultural differences, the difficulty of developing meaningful connections with the locals.. We struggle between the push of wanting to leave China and the pull of wishing to return; the U.S. is not home, yet our sentiments for China are receding.

Doing this project has enriched my college experience. It has enabled me to meet new people, to understand more about both Chinese and Americans, and to think through issues that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Most importantly, the more I wrote about Chinese students, the stronger my sense of mission grew. By the time I was working on the last article, my purpose wasn’t simply to tell a good story; I want to be a good journalist, brutally honest and self-critical, while also expressing the needs and defend the interests of the misunderstood, often neglected and sometimes mistreated Chinese student community.

The challenges and quandaries facing Chinese students at Iowa have many causes, of course, and solutions lie with all involved. I hope Chinese students in the future will arrive better prepared both mentally and academically to engage and enjoy college life and gain an education worth the money their parents pay. I hope U.S. students can become more curious and open-minded, taking advantage of the proliferating international resources and global connections all around them.

I hope this university—and others facing similar circumstances—will come to practice and exhibit genuine concern for its international students that goes far beyond the revenue they generate. I hope the institution can develop and provide many more meaningful opportunities for conscious cross-cultural interaction and growth among all students.

And I hope that a century or so hence – presuming climate change does not preclude descendants – our successors will find much to learn, enjoy and cherish in reading our stories.

 Special thanks to Professor Judy Polumbaum who helped shape the introduction with assiduous editing.


Job prospects for Korean students affects enrollment

This multimedia package showcases job prospects for Korean students, the slowing down Korean student enrollment trends, and the Korean students as a share among international students in the U.S.

Mina Jang’s interest in the Unites started early. She watched a TV show about American teenagers when in high school, and had since longed for coming here. Now a University of Iowa junior from Busan, South Korea, said she still has that curiosity of life in the U.S., and hoped to stay here after graduation.

When she started college, Jang said, she didn’t dare to think about working in the U.S.

“I always think I’m afraid of staying here or working here because of the English,” said the communications and marketing majors. “But that was really an excuse for myself. At least I’m going to try.”

Jang isn’t alone. Millions of other international students are concerned about jumping through language hurdles. A bigger concern, however, is to obtain a working visa after graduation.

Jiyeon Kang, a UI assistant professor of communication studies, who originally is from South Korea, said although many Korean students considered staying as an option after graduation, the job market is bleak—not many U.S. companies are willing to sponsor foreign students H-1B working visas on top of a harsh economy.

“So either they are on the job market really briefly,” she said. “Or after learning about their friend’s stories of how hard the job market is, they give up and then go back to Korea.”

Unedited original interview 

Every year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services randomly granted 65,000 H-1B working visas to foreign nationals with a college degree, and 20,000 to those with a master’s degree or higher in the U.S. USCIS announced that it had received about 172,500 H-1B petitions during this years filing period starting April 1. The majority of them won’t  get the visa that would allow them to legally stay in the States after graduation.

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Just over 70,000 students from South Korea are enrolled at U.S. universities and colleges, according to the Open Doors report released by the Institute of International Education. They accounted for nearly 9 percent of international student population in the U.S. Many of them will have to return to their home country even if they wish to work in the U.S. due to visa regulations.

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414 students from South Korea account for the second largest international student group at the UI. Nationally, Korean students do not share a big foreign student market. Click here to view the entire interactive map of Korean student as a share of all international students by state. 

Jang—who said she wishes to work in the strategic communication and marketing field in the U.S.—said the reason why she doesn’t want to return to South Korea is that Korean companies require a high GPA, without considering other experiences, but she didn’t think her GPA would meet their standards.

“But in the U.S., people [are] more focused on what I did outside of school,” said Jang, who gets involved in various student organizations and loves participating in cultural events. “I think that’s really good for me, because I don’t have a good GPA right now, like not bad, but not that good.”

When it comes to male Korean students, another issue comes up – almost all of them have to serve in the military for 21 to 24 months.

UI senior SangHun Yang said most of his friends chose to return to South Korea and serve the military after freshman year, and then come back to finish college, completing military services .

Unlike his friends, Yang chose a different path — he is leaving in May to serve the military with one more semester left. Yang said he was afraid that lots of things would change after two years of military service.

“I just wanted to keep studying when I wanted to study,” Yang said. He came to the U.S. six years ago. “So I stayed here.”

Unlike Mina, Yang said he doesn’t have a strong desire for either staying or returning—he is fine with either way.

“If I go back to Korea, because I speak English, there will be a big advantage for me,” the accounting major said. “Because most Korean companies want people who can speak English, so there will be a big advantage that could increase my salary a little bit.”

He also misses families and friends back in South Korea—the closeness between people. Even though he has been in the U.S. for six years, working in an English environment still “scares” him, he said.

But if given the chance, he would like to work in the U.S., because employees get better benefits here, for example, more vacations and more free time spent with family, he said.

“But back in Korea, it’s like working, working, working,” said Young, who likes taking road trips in the U.S. “They want workaholics, I think.”

The overall Korean student enrollment in the U.S. has declined since 2009, partly because of their limited job prospects here, Kang said.

More importantly, she added, the Koreans have slowly demystified studying abroad after the first wave of Korean undergrads returned to Korea around 2009.

“In contrast to their initial expectations, they realized that a university degree in the U.S. does not grantee a successful job,” said Kang, who has been in the U.S. for 13 years.

Because Koreans have realized that this group of people doesn’t usually fit into the traditional Korean cooperated culture, and that they aren’t necessarily more creative and successful than domestic students, she added.

koren student enrollment trends

More infographic about Korean student enrollment trends here.


From Michelle Obama’s China Tour to Sweet and Sour Chicken

Michelle Obama recently traveled to China to promote educational exchanges.

On Weibo, the most popular Chinese social media platform, Obama’s outfits, places  she visited, interaction that she had with China’s first lady Peng Liyuan, were the most talked-about topics. Had I not been studying abroad in the U.S., I would  have been more interested in those lighthearted topics.

This time, I rather paid more attention to the real purpose of the trip. Obama called on U.S. students to study abroad in China, learn Chinese, connect to people there and understand more about Chinese culture. The message behind her calling must have a broader meaning — China is on the rise, and it’s important for the U.S. to learn about the country, its people and culture.

However, from a Chinese student’ point of view, it will be helpful for a better campus climate for international students at U.S. universities. More American students going to China means more cross-cultural understanding. After they return to the U.S., they are going to be more globally-minded and have a better sense of cultural awareness, which will improve future interaction between U.S. and international students.

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1,351 University of Iowa students study abroad during academic year 2011/12, according to the UI Study Abroad Statistics. Italy and Spain were the most popular destinations among undergrads. Only 3 percent studied abroad in China. With a large number of international students from China, while few U.S. students going to China, the educational exchange here is unbalanced.

There are of course some Chinese students who come to the U.S. just for a degree, not trying to learn about American culture. But most are trying hard to succeed academically and culturally. They come to this country half-way across the globe, at least stepped out with some degree of curiosity to explore.

It would be great if more U.S. students study in China in the future, so that when they come back, they would at least know that Sweet and Sour Chicken isn’t Chinese food.

UI International Enrollment and Study Abroad Stats Reflect A National Trend

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International student enrollment across the country has grown rapidly since 2006. The University of Iowa is no exception. The sudden growth of international students from East, Southeast and South Asia started the same year at the UI.

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As of fall 2013, more than half of the international students enrolled at the UI are from People’s Republic of China. Nationally, 40 percent of foreign students are from China, India and South Korea.

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In the meanwhile, Europe is the most popular destination for U.S. students to study abroad. 43 percent of UI study-abroad students went to Italy, Spain, United Kingdom and France during the academic year 2011-12. European countries hosted 44 percent of U.S. students last year. Not many U.S. students chose to study abroad in Asia.

More infographics on international student enrollment and study abroad statistics here.

UI Painting Major’s B.F.A show depicted life of Chinese students

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Mohan Liu‘s graduation exhibition was the most casual, playful and fun I have seen among B.F.A shows.

The theme of her show was Chinese students’ life in Iowa. She placed 13 paintings of Chinese students in mundane life in a huge bubble chat box against a black wall. In front of the main wall placed empty wine and alcohol bottles, which stands for her hobby.

Mohan’s exhibition was held last week. Everyday, she went to the Ark Gallery in Studio Arts Building where her show was, writing notes around the paintings, remembering her college life in both Chinese and English. Visitors and her friends also left comments on the wall instead of in a notebook.

Her painting instructors commented that the notes and chats boxes would took people’s attestation away from her works, but clearly everybody who attended the closing reception Friday loved them. Around 80 people went to the reception with flowers, food, gifts and hugs for Liu. American people didn’t read the Chinese comments, so Chinese students around translated for them.

The most striking note to me was the one that Liu wrote herself:

感谢我的大学生活。它让我学会了:做饭、独处、承受寂寞、一五二十、木匠、电焊、用英语骂人、疯狂购物、交朋友、玩骰子、狠心、坚强 & 舍不得。 Thanks to my college life. It enabled me to learn how to cook, stay alone, bear loneliness, be a carpenter, be a welder, curse in English, shop crazily, make friends, play dice games, be heartless, be tough. And I don’t want to leave college.

It was so sentimental. And I can relate to that very well indeed.

Thanks to Xinran Gu for allowing me to use three photos her took at the reception.