Introducing Tales from the Chinese Diaspora

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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.

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