Between two worlds: A Chinese student in the US

So where are all the friends?

Around the world, 3.3 million university-level students study abroad. The biggest number come from China, and the most popular destination is the United States. What are their lives like?

In this guest posting, Yeran Zhou, an 18-year-old from Shenzhen in southern China, reflects on his first semester in the U.S.

Mr. Zhou blogs for the Daily Illini, a student newspaper at the University of Illinois.

On August 14, 2010, I boarded a 14-hour flight to America, leaving China for the first time.

I had never been to America before, but people always said I would fit in, mainly because I argued with my  teachers and insisted I wanted to be a filmmaker. So when I was 10, my parents had sent me to weekend classes taught by foreign tutors. After school I spent all my pocket money on pirated Hollywood DVDs and watched every episode of Friends. Soon I concluded that America was a rich and cool country with lots of kids like me.

In ninth grade, I got a taste of how life would be if I stayed on in Chinese education when I took the Zhongkao, a two-day-exam to determine which high schools we could go to. A year of test cramming exhausted me. Upon graduation, the principal told us a harder, crueler test – the  Gaokao – awaited us in three years. And that was when I decided I had to go abroad.

My high school in Shenzhen had a tradition of sending students overseas. Every year some would come back and tell their stories. They said that Chinese students in the U.S. were notorious for only hanging out with each other, but “it can’t be helped”. So when I arrived in America, I was eager to set myself apart from my Chinese peers. I took literature classes, went to dance parties, learned Ultimate Frisbee and blogged for the college newspaper. In other words, I couldn’t wait to be American.

But as it turned out, movies and sitcoms didn’t prepare me for everything in America. In the first week on campus, I was shocked by everyone’s fear of being labeled “antisocial”. Closing the dorm doors was strictly forbidden, and eating alone was to be avoided at all cost. In orientation, there was “Speed Friending”, an activity that turned my brain into an alphabet soup of names and faces.

Back in China, things had worked very differently. Our class of 40 students spent every day together for three years. No one was anxious to make new acquaintances, but everyone always had a couple of intimate friends to talk to.

My old Chinese friends had discussed politics and philosophy, but my new American friends exchanged puns and jokes. American humor was a mystery to me, so a few anxious giggles were usually my only contribution to their conversation. But eventually I discovered that Americans weren’t that hard to impress. “In China there’s no minimum drinking age and I used to get drunk after class,” I would remark casually, and watch their jaws drop.

Meanwhile, the classes were showing me America in a new light. My law professor was infuriated by how often American lawyers put the wrong people in jail. A large part of my literature class was devoted to all the bad things America did to women, immigrants, Native Americans and black people. During discussions my classmates confessed that they somehow felt guilty about being American and growing up in an all-white neighborhood.

I was exhilarated. After all those years spent in a Chinese curriculum, hearing people criticize their own country in class was liberating. With this new freedom to think for myself, I grew more curious and confident every day. I also discovered a passion for books and writing, and spent night after night reading in the library. 

I was adjusting to life in America, but it came with a price. In order to distinguish myself I shunned my Chinese peers, who mostly stayed to themselves. Often I pretended I didn’t speak Chinese at all. One month into the semester, I hadn’t made a single friend from my own country, yet the newspaper editor asked me to blog about Chinese students in America. So I set off to reconnect with my Chinese classmates.

For weeks, I sought them out at coffee shops, in cafeterias, and even on a Chinese social networking website. They told me they were isolated, troubled or sleep-deprived.  Some were terrified of reading and writing assignments. Others were frustrated by not being able to fit in. 

A senior engineering student, for example, told me that it was his father who had made the decision to send him abroad, who chose his school and major, prepared all the paperwork and even wrote the application essay. After coming to America, he avoided all contact with non-Chinese people and spent most of his time alone in the dorm room.

Like him, many Chinese students had been sheltered all their lives. Schools and parents had protected them from life’s choices and uncertainties. Then, suddenly, they found themselves in America, alone and unprepared, caught in a swirl of incomprehensible foreignness.

At the end of my first semester, I no longer tried to pretend to be the same as my American friends. But neither could I say that I truly understood my Chinese peers. So I decided to keep on writing, to tell the stories of my Chinese classmates that they wouldn’t otherwise tell, so that one day the world around me might reconcile.

 Useful links

 OECD work on education, the internationalisation of tertiary education and international migration

 OECD Insights: International Migration

 OECD work on China

The OECD’s Chinese-language site – 网站(中文)

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  1. Bravo! Please keep writing. I loved your post. I, too, studied abroad and am a big advocate of the strength it can bring to one’s outlook. I’m a bit opposite from you in that I went from Illinois to France, not the same level of cultural adjustment, I admit, but an adjustment nonetheless. I look forward to checking out your blog and hope you’ll contribute to this one again soon.

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  3. Thanks for this vision of life on a US campus from a Chinese perspective. Brilliant piece – nicely written and eye-opening. Keep writing about this and other issues: you breathe life into the unspoken.

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