Understanding Chinese Students on US Campuses

By Siqi Tu

Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education by Yingyi Ma. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

In the past fifteen years, the increasing presence of Chinese international students in US colleges and universities has been hard to ignore. A less visible change is that these students are getting younger. From 2005 to 2015, undergraduate enrollment from China rose from 9,304 to 135,629. Since 2014, there have been more undergraduate students than graduate students coming from China. These trends, which Yingyi Ma analyzes, are tied to dramatic social change in China, including the growing number of upper- and middle-class families who gained wealth through new white-collar jobs and surging real-estate values. Her book Ambitious and Anxious is a much-needed and timely description of how this group of Chinese college students navigates American higher education. 

The book is the first comprehensive sociological analysis of Chinese undergraduate students in the United States and covers multiple stages of their study experience: before arrival, after arrival, and looking back at their experiences and ahead to their future careers. Through rich data, it debunks several stereotypical images of Chinese international undergraduate students in the media and the academy: the excellent and ultra-diligent students, the “ethnically suspect” and unassimilable students, and the “second-generation rich” (fu’er dai) students. Instead, she shows that students from urban China are of diverse academic backgrounds and, in some cases, diverse class backgrounds, although students from working-class families are still a small portion of the whole population. Going to US colleges and universities has increasingly become a popular way for Chinese students to opt out of the National College Entrance Examination (Gaokao). 

The author uses a mixed-method approach to present a nuanced analysis of the privileged but diverse Chinese student population, including an online survey of 507 participants from fifty institutions, in-depth interviews with sixty-five students from the online survey, and fieldwork in nine high schools in six cities in China. The survey data, though not representative of all Chinese students in the United States, demonstrate patterns of students’ preferences, including their choices of academic majors and whether they want to stay after completing their degrees or return to China. The in-depth interviews provide further insight into students’ thoughts about their academic experiences. The integration of quantitative and qualitative data covers the broad scope of the students’ experiences without losing the storytelling dimension.  

Ma brings students’ agency back into the narrative of lived experiences of Chinese international undergraduate students and proposes a “paradigm shift” to contextualize that agency and “take into account the educational, social, and cultural backgrounds of international students” rather than focusing only on their assimilation. As its title indicates, the book argues that this new wave of Chinese students embodies “the duality of ambition and anxiety” rooted in pressure to preserve or enhance their social statuses. This duality is evident throughout the book. These Chinese students are ambitious about getting into higher-ranked institutions, gaining a global outlook, choosing the “right” college major, combining the best aspects of American and Chinese education, and putting their educations to good use when pondering whether to stay in the United States or return to China. They are, at the same time, anxious about navigating the unfamiliar admissions process, not being able to make American friends easily, discovering their passions and dreams, fitting into American classrooms, and dealing with the increasingly anti-immigrant political environment. Through this duality of ambition and anxiety, the author documents the struggle of Chinese international students to reconcile two distinctly different educational systems and societies. She thus emphasizes the importance of efforts toward mutual understanding by American and Chinese students, as well as by professors and administrators.

An example of the common struggles Chinese students face is what the author calls “protective segregation”—Chinese students hanging out among themselves. Ma unpacks the cultural differences, apart from the obvious language barriers, between Chinese and American students. Chinese students often feel marginalized socially and culturally as they adapt to a different way of socializing in US colleges and universities. Some of those surveyed found party culture and its associated activities, such as drug use and drinking games, “distasteful.” Zhong, one Chinese student, reported that his close American friend finds Chinese students speaking Chinese together in public spaces “very uncomfortable and offensive.” Also, this generation of Chinese students has grown up in a relatively economically prosperous China and feels “insulted” when their American peers are oblivious to social changes in China. The author proposes some institutional efforts to establish mutual understanding, such as supporting Chinese international students’ participation in campus organizations.

Ma describes the hostility toward Chinese students as “neoracism,” a variant of racism based on language and cultural barriers or country of origin. However, the phenotypic differences among Chinese international students, other East Asian international students, and East Asian Americans are hardly distinguishable. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China, has contributed to an increase in hate crimes against both Asians and Asian Americans. The author does not engage much with ethnic or racial identities in her analyses of Chinese international students’ perceptions of discrimination and making “American” friends. It would be interesting to learn whom these Chinese international students consider American and how they feel that they fit into the ethno-racial landscape of US society. 

The author shows with empathy the diverse educational trajectories of Chinese international students and acknowledges the value of international education and cultural exchange. I wish she had offered critical reflections on two fronts: first, whether Chinese international students reinforce their class advantage relative to peers at home through an American education and, if so, how that contributes to anxiety in China around class maintenance and social inequality; second, whether the efforts of US colleges and universities to welcome and integrate the largest group of international students—Chinese students—are commensurate with their reliance on tuition revenues from them. Addressing the first question would consider the role of international education in reproducing global inequality, while addressing the second would engage critically with the neoliberalized and internationalized education market.

The past year witnessed a deteriorating US-China relationship amid the pandemic and the trade war. It is unclear whether the Chinese international student population in the United States will keep growing and whether the Biden administration will be friendlier to international students than the previous notoriously hostile administration was. Ma’s book provides a humanizing portrait of an understudied student population. As such, it is an instructive book for scholars of education and sociology interested in international student mobility, professors who want to know more about their Chinese international students, and policy makers and higher education administrators who are making efforts to welcome these students. 

Siqi Tu is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Ethics, Law, and Politics of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. She studies international student mobility, elite education, and the global middle class. Her work has been published in Social Problems, Metropolitics, and the Journal on Migration and Human Security. Her email address is [email protected].