Like (most) American undergrads, Chinese students come to college for one reason – to learn.
By: Jordan Deschenes
I. “I have a younger sister and an older brother, Leo” – Seamus DiCaprio
Small-framed with black hair, he wears suede-tipped shoes and Wayfarer-style eyeglasses. He goes to the gym a total of four times a year, or “once per season”. Seamus DiCaprio occasionally rides his roommate’s old Bart Simpson-style “cruiser” skateboard back from class to their apartment in North Amherst, but it’s going to be winter soon.
In his home city of Shijiazhuang, China, Zhenxing (振兴) decided on a name to call himself when he went to the United States. He had a certain American actor in mind when he made his decision…
“Oh, have you met my brother?” DiCaprio often asks this rhetorical question to those he meets for the first time. He’s joking, referring to Leonardo DiCaprio – most are unapologetically intrigued by his name.
As an undergrad at UMass Amherst, Seamus DiCaprio represents a relatively small circle of Chinese students who have been exposed to Western culture in the city.
In the 2013 school year, 886,552 international students studied in the United States, or four percent of higher education students, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report. Massachusetts ranks fourth in the country in total number of international student enrollment, with around 51,000 statewide in the 2013/14 school year, a 10.2 percent increase over the previous year. Of this total, 30 percent are Chinese internationals.
Out of institutions with the highest number of international students in the Massachusetts, UMass Amherst comes in fifth with 2,343, behind Northeastern, BU, Harvard, and MIT. Data provided by the UMass Amherst Office of Institutional Research affirms that 609 of these students are undergrads – 240 of which are Chinese.
This number of undergraduate Chinese international students has roughly quadrupled between the 2012 and 2014 fall semesters. This sharp increase is part of a rather large retrospective trend – in 2006, there were only 9 undergraduate Chinese international students at UMass Amherst. In the fall 2014 semester, 240 were enrolled.
Most children in China make the decision to study relatively early in their lives. For those growing up in the city, students are more inclined to study internationally than those in less-populated towns. DiCaprio and his family came to a mutual decision that he would attend university in the United States shortly before attending high school.
He’d been learning English for his entire educational career, starting in his home village of Donggangtoucun in China’s northern Hebei province, where DiCaprio’s father worked in the coal industry. Donggangtoucun is a village in the town of Jiazhuang (贾庄镇), in the subdistrict of Kuangshi (矿市街道), in the mining district of Jingxing (井陘礦區).
After moving to the capital city of Shijiazhuang before middle school, he was immediately enamored with the millions of others around him – and what they were talking about: the West. Among a graduating class of around 800, DiCaprio spent his entire high school career with the same classroom of around 60 students.
DiCaprio is grateful that his family moved into the city environment of Shijiazhuang for the betterment of he and his sister’s educational future. As the capital city of Hebei, Shijiazhuang has a population of over ten million. The wealth of knowledge and money in this new environment excited DiCaprio – it exposed him to Western culture.
DiCaprio was exposed to American culture on a greater degree while in Shijiazhuang – whether it was Hollywood films, American fashion, basketball, or just in conversation with classmates. Among other popular Chinese hobbies (that aren’t so popular in America) like badminton, karaoke, and betting on soccer, Western influence was still present – in branding.
After meeting more students with similar Western interests, DiCaprio knew he made the right decision.
II. “They want to seek knowledge”
For junior undergraduate Kaili Lu, branding was at the forefront of his job in Shanghai. A bit shorter than the average NBA point guard, Lu really stands out among most. He’s wearing a sleeveless Ralph Lauren puffy coat.
Lu came to the United States with his educational and career goals at the forefront of his foreign investment. By the age of 23, he was at the top of his position working for ITE, a leading British international exhibition company as a project manager. Lu’s job entailed renting exhibition booths at conventions to buyers like Coca-Cola, advertising and selling their product’s name.
Before he made his decision to study in America at the age of 26, the idea was always an option while living and working in Shanghai. Like DiCaprio, he moved out of his apartment outside of the city into a high-rise in Shanghai. Unlike DiCaprio, Lu was forced to move out by the government. He didn’t mind. The factories that locals used to work in and live near had been abandoned – business moved into the city.
“It was for the development of the city. The city took the apartments and restructured them. The government wanted to move residents into the city,” he said, taking a sip of his Coke. “We were compensated with an apartment in a Shanghai high-rise.”
After his promotion, Lu decided that moving to the United States was the right choice for his career. In Shanghai, Lu considered his position at ITE “a really money- earning job,” where he got paid in commission.
Despite his financial success in Shanghai, Lu lacked the resources needed to contact larger-scale manufacturers for expositions around China. Internet restrictions limited his ability to gain collective access to the rest of the world. Study abroad agencies offered a chance to get around those restrictions.
Lu decided to join the hundreds of other undergraduate international business majors at UMass to network and learn the in and outs of American business laws. After more than a few trips to the Boston Expo Center (among other conventions), Lu has been enthralled with the creative, yet “very ordered” business practices of American businesses.
Lu has learned first-hand the importance of understanding American policies and establishing connections. If he goes back to Shanghai, Lu claims that he would have a better chance of obtaining a higher-paying job than someone who has never been to America.
“Nothing fell short of my expectations here at UMass,” said Lu, three years into his undergraduate degree in computer science. “The ones who want to study in America stand out in China – they want to get around internet restrictions, they want to seek knowledge.”
III. “It’s Friday, we’re just here to have some fun!”
In October, Lu was appointed the new head of the UMass Amherst chapter of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA). Aside from being funded by the Chinese government, it’s like a Registered Student Organization on campus. Lu organizes events for the entire Chinese international student population at UMass and Amherst College.
Although he’s been in the position for a short time, Lu already has a New Year’s Party lined up for the Chinese international students who will be staying in Amherst over the holiday break. Lu believes that his experience as an international student and with businessmen testifies as to why he was appointed to the position.
The latest event organized by Lu really demonstrated his marketing ability: a singing competition modeled after the American show “The Voice.” Actually, the name of the event was “The Voice UMass”. On a Friday night, Lu was able to reserve Herter Hall auditorium 227 to host the event.
Clad with professional spotlights, a formal stage set-up, as well as a panel of over ten judges, contestants were treated like starts as they sang Mandarin in the limelight. Of course, for the rest of the over 200 Chinese internationals in the audience, it was ultimately a casual place to hang out.
“Tons of Chinese students go to UMass,” said Jian Lin, a UMass student waiting for his girlfriend. “It’s a Friday, so we’re just here to have some fun tonight!” he exclaimed.
Some contestants were well prepared while others read song lyrics from their iPhones at the request of friends. From one contestant’s English rendition of “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus to popular covers of Beijing alternative rock songs, the audience clapped with encouragement for even the most out of key contestants, showing that overall – they’re there just to have fun and take a break from their studies.
Just as American students fall into certain clothing trends, Chinese culture is no different. Adidas pants, shoes, and shirts were everywhere. Many of the male students in the crowd wore the same Ray Ban eyeglasses as DiCaprio.
As Lu controlled the spotlight on the left side of the long judge’s table, contestant #9 Jessica, of Emerson College, stepped on stage. A high soprano, she belted out a powerful melody that overshadowed her rather shy stage presence. At the end of the performance, her friend, Jon, from UMass Boston, ran on stage and gave her a rose, followed by a hug.
“I wanted to share the joy of giving her a flower for the first time,” he choked, nearly out of breath, “It really means a lot to her.”
IV. “12-hour schooldays were normal”
For parents in large cities who are able to send their children to America, the potential for success outweighs the cost of such an endeavor. Education is a big deal for every Chinese citizen’s childhood. At what would equivocate to a high school level in China, Lu and DiCaprio remember that 12-hour schooldays were normal.
The National Higher Education Entrance Examination 普通高等学校招生全国统一考试 (Seamus pronounces it as Gaokao), is a “feared and stressful” test issued nationwide that students prepare for during their secondary education. It’s similar to the SAT, (but not privately owned.)
At $900, it’s relatively cheap; every Chinese student is required to take it at the end of his or her public education to determine what level of higher education can be provided by the state. With such a large population, every eligible student’s participation is mandatory. It’s somewhat like voting – every test-taker counts, no matter what their final score will look like.
The way Lu sees it: American education fundamentally touches upon two aspects left out in Chinese schools – interpersonal communication and problem solving. At UMass, many courses are organized to incorporate group-centered activities, something most Chinese students have had trouble adjusting to.
From his experience in the country, and as Director of International Student and Scholar Services, Ken Reade has seen the difference in culture from that in America.
“China is a collective country, everyone thinks for each other, where in America, people generally think for themselves,” Director Reade said. “They are not blessed with giant houses – in many highly populated cities, the 1-child policy is implemented. Still, Chinese mothers can’t imagine the idea being a single mother, like many in America.”
Going abroad is an independent endeavor for Chinese undergraduate’s families. As undergraduate students, Lu and DiCaprio used to have to obtain “F1” student visas on a yearly basis.
At the annual summit for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations during the summer, President Obama and China’s president, Xi Jinping, came to an agreement to extend visas for students (F1) and businessmen and tourists (B1B2) visiting both countries. B1B2 visas are now valid for up to 10 years.
Reade believes that the new visa legislation comes as a form of convenience to Chinese international students currently studying in the U.S., who needed to renew their visas every year, prior to the new law. For students, visas will be valid for up to five years, greatly alleviating the huge and costly hassle for Chinese families looking to renew a visa every summer.
Lu considers himself a “non common immigrant” – he is paid by the government to study and run the CSSA. For other undergrads, Lu has noticed that the majority are self-funded, as they cannot obtain federal aid. Only Chinese students wishing to study in graduate school are granted scholarships, while doctors are given a “full-ride” as it’s called in America.
DiCaprio was able to study in the U.S. with help from friends and extended family.
V. “The Melting Pot” is still stirring
On the same Friday night that “The Voice Amherst” took place in Herter Hall, something else was going on in the Student Union – an Epic meeting.
A true demonstration of Chinese and American cultures melting together – the Epic Movement is an on-campus to “encourage, promote, and foster, the spiritual, emotional, and social health of Asian American students…about the person of Jesus Christ,” according to its website.
That night, Epic was joining with another Jesus-centered RSO on-campus, CRU. Epic is non-denominational, but most members still practice respectively. The event started with an “ice-breaker”, where students made three lines, asking three respective students at the front a single question. The goal was to guess what this person was thinking. If the line guessed correctly, they hoisted the person up in the chair.
Josh Raskin held the event’s main speech, a pastor at the First Baptist Church of Amherst who helps CRU. Raskin noted that Christianity is growing in China at the second-highest rate in history – the first being after the crucifixion of Jesus. Epic is geared towards Asian Americans, but provides an opportunity for students of all ethnicities.
For one Chinese-American, Benedict (Ben) Li, 19, living in America with a Chinese family made him curious of his cultural homeland. Li was brought to Wakefield, MA by his parents from Hong Kong in 1998; he was a little over four years old.
“My childhood was very ‘Chinese-fied’. At home we spoke Chinese, with dinners, gatherings and other things like that,” Li says. “I had most of dad’s family in America and my mother’s in Hong Kong.”
Like Lu, Li has an impressive history in academics, athletics, and even social activism. While attending a Chinese piano academy in Boston, Benedict took up Tai-Chi, Staff Martial Arts, and Chinese calligraphy. He did all of this for three years, before the 8th grade.
One event in the 6th grade changed the way Li saw himself – he was bullied throughout his six years in elementary school, which eventually lead to the suspension of a student. At the time, Wakefield had a population that was “about 95 percent white.” Li was one of only two students at his school of Asian descent.
“It was a pretty big point in my life, honestly,” he revealed. “The following years were much brighter. I met some friends at the time who were sort of in the bullied group as well. Some have drifted away, others have become my best friends.”
With his Tai-Chi master, he took a trip to China to teach impoverished children to read and write English. Every three years, he and his family would visit his mother’s family in Hong Kong – and take a much-need “vacation.”
As a freshman, Li has had little exposure to the CSSA during his few months on-campus, but he’s started working with the Asian-American Student’s Association as a publicist. Any of the flyers seen around campus that bear the AASA name were designed by Li.
“I’m the type of person who does flyers and ads and such. Since joining the AASA, I’ve met a lot of new people and friends,” he says. “Also, I am really into design, as I am on marketing (duty) at my work place – Sylvan Snack Bar – where I design most of the flyers as well.”
Lu sees the Chinese international experience as a “salad bowl” and “melting pot” situation. The less-social majority of international students represent a heterogeneous clash of culture, a “salad bowl”, where “the cultural divide is easy to see,” according to Lu. Those who choose to assimilate into American culture represent a “melting pot.”
“The United States is an immigrant country, this has been the basic idea for hundreds of years,” says Lu. “There are two types of students that I see after graduation, and the small percentage of ones who stay here truly want to become Americanized.”
Although Li has only been on-campus for a little over three months, he’s noticed the “tight” Asian community around Northeast residential area. The AASA office is located in the basement of Worcester Dining Common, located adjacent to the residential area. Above the office, Worcester’s “Oak Room” is filled with Asian students, eating a selection of their favorite meals from home.”
Li has observed that a high number of Asian-American students live on-campus in Northeast residential area, where both American and foreign students know has a large Asian population (both American and international). Worcester Dining Common is conveniently located immediately next to Northeast dormitories – and for good reason.
Worcester’s dining selection has a heavy emphasis on Asian cuisine; in the “Oak Room,” sushi, stir fry, dumplings, pork rolls are served every day – unlike on a periodic basis among the other dining commons on-campus (Franklin DC offers a stir-fry station after breakfast).
Here are some quotes from some people out of Northeast on a Tuesday afternoon:
–Aakanksha Gupta, sophomore, Noida, India
“I think there are a high number of students from Asia here (Northeast). In Worcester, definitely.”
Joo Young Park, freshman, Seoul, South Korea
“Yeah…there’s a really large Asian population on campus! I wanted to live in Southwest actually, but my friend was living in Northeast already. He’s also from Seoul, so I just decided to live here anyway.”
Irene, 50, Worcester Dining Common employee, Hong Kong, China
“I’ve been working here for over 10 years. I can speak Cantonese and English, but can still communicate in Mandarin.”
Sam, Franklin Dining Common Chef, Hong Kong, China
“Me? I’ve worked in the restaurant business for over 35 years in America. I’ve worked at UMass for around 9. Cantonese, Mandarin, English – I can speak them all.”
Dicaprio lived in Southwest Residential Area during his freshman year – the towers felt much like the high-rises back in China (although they were filled with American college students). He didn’t get much of a view though; he was placed in a basement dorm with a small window. During his sophomore year, DiCaprio got a little higher – he lived on the 4th floor of Washington Tower. At the heart of Southwest, he knew he would be exposed to American culture on a daily basis.
“Those who really want to live and breathe America: these students have their own unique kind of culture environment with them. They refer to American culture more than Chinese, although – they are certainly not exclusive to it,” observes Lu.
In Brandywine Apartments, he’s found a place that’s quiet and with a friend. He won’t be interrupted when talking to his parents at midnight, where they are just eating lunch back in Shijiazhuang. He’s not too concerned about the other Chinese students on campus.
“I just need my own personal space,” Dicaprio says.
VI. “Strange habits”
The People’s Republic of China has the largest population in the world. China is busy, but America is busier – according to Lu. He helps students with everyday necessities, such as improving their English or figuring out the exchange rate.
“It’s kind of hard to understand the very busy environment in the US,” he said. “I took this position because I wanted to help Chinese students quickly and safely enter the culture.”
Gabriel believes that the concept of “privacy” is very different between China and the United States. As most households traditionally have been, Chinese children grow up living with their entire family on the same property. DiCaprio and Lu both remember discussing their problems with their entire families on a daily basis: a lifestyle truly based upon household kinship – a stark contrast to the stereotypical “dysfunctional family” in America.
Dicaprio’s home, a Pingfung (literally, flat-house) was small, and open-aired in the center, but enclosed on four sides. In the center, he remembers a small garden with a tree. The Pingfung also contained a separate “higher” house where his grandparents would stay on occasion.
Some parts of culture are just anomalies to those of different backgrounds. Chinese students are among many other countries that view some aspects of American culture as undesirable.
Although they are aware of the Dunkin Donuts restaurants dotting Massachusetts, Dicaprio, Li, and Lu all do not drink coffee. In his business experience abroad, Lu has noticed that coffee is an essential part of an American business meeting (for those who choose to drink it). In China, cigarettes have a somewhat similar role. One indication as to how things are done at business meetings in the States is the aroma of coffee filling a room, rather than the smell of tobacco.
“I’m not addicted,” says Gabriel. I smoke cigarettes like businessmen drink coffee.”
According to a New York Times report published in April, there are more than 300 million smokers in China – 30 percent of adults and around 50 percent of all men. In the United States, 18.1 percent of the population smokes, or 42.1 million people. DiCaprio noted that cigarettes are just as cheap as a cup of coffee in America.
Social media is another difference that comes to mind when weighing cultural habits between the U.S. and China.
Facebook is banned in China. Instead, online interaction is limited to Weibo, a small number of microblogging sites owned by different companies. The most popular is Sina Weibo (新浪微博), owned by Sina Corporation.
Dicaprio has a Facebook in America, but uses Weibo more. Weibo provides a way for him to stay connected with the (limited) social world in China. We Chat is a Chinese smartphone application that almost every young person with a mobile device in the country uses. Americans prefer good old-fashioned texting. Both of these methods have been subject to forms of censorship.
Xinhua, China’s state-run media agency, recently reported a government crackdown on the “misuse of idioms”. It read, “idioms are one of the great features of the Chinese language and contain profound cultural heritage…and great aesthetic, ideological, and moral values.”
“They’ll never stop the puns!” DiCaprio said of the story. “Politics don’t affect me directly. When politics start affecting me, then I’ll start caring about them,” he said later.
When it comes to politics, DiCaprio is less informed than American students. Like puns, there are limited forms of political freedom of expression online in China. Director Reade commented on the historical implications of political expression in China, reminding that generations ago, “you could be killed or imprisoned” for speaking out.
Like political debates, DiCaprio rarely involves himself with another aspect of American culture – drinking culture, one of many activities that Chinese students consider “strange habits,” in the words of Lu.
In the United States, the 21 year-old age minimum to drink, possess, and purchase alcohol has put the substance on a pedestal among young people. Alcohol is still a social norm in China and in an overwhelming majority of countries around the world, where the drinking age is 18 or lower.
Bottom line – it’s tough for Chinese students to accept the drinking culture in America where alcohol consumption is a primary concern among young people. Accordingly, alcohol safety is placed as a high priority in the America – youth drinking in secrecy is liable for risky behavior.
“A waste of time” – for DiCaprio, this is exactly how he feels about the party culture in America. He’s repulsed by the idea of paying someone to buy a “30 rack” of Bud Light to split with a friend over the weekend – he prefers imported wine or champagne.
VIII. “I really don’t want to go back…”
Chinese undergraduate students are turning away from America. Other countries are offering a better deal – before and after graduation day.
“Other countries offer tuition and board rates for less money, they’re offering more lenient residency laws, and most importantly – no wait time for work visas. Some are even looking north to Canada,” says Director Reade. By his estimate, around half of Chinese internationals studying in America choose to go back to China after graduation.
Although DiCaprio represented a rather small percentage of his graduating class studying in America, he didn’t bother applying to Ivy-League schools.
Combined with a slim chance of acceptance, all international students are subject to international tuition and board rates at public universities, and a selection of private institutions.
“I wanted to study at NYU, but it was more than my family could afford,” said DiCaprio. “I’d rather be happier studying in NYC, you know, cause I’m so used to it (the city). Most kids who study abroad are from the city; towns and villages have no money.”
For many international undergrads, schools like UMass are not their choice. In fact, UMass is one of many second choice schools for international students, especially Chinese students. Unlike UMass, many of the Ivy League schools around the country must respond to such a high demand of foreign students wishing to study at an undergraduate level.
Some – including Harvard – have been sued this year for allegations of racism regarding Asian undergraduate applications (even among Asian-American citizens). Rebuttals argue that schools with such small undergraduate student populations cannot respond to the volume of undergraduate applications from Asia, as they are unable exceed what their school’s facilities are capable of.
Director Reade agrees, but with skepticism.
“There’s a big debate among universities around Massachusetts and the entire country as to whether they are recruiting internationally for the sole purpose of diversity, or are they also recruiting for they money?” says Reade. “Schools want to have a cross-cultural student body, but what do they have to support such a population?”
In America, it is relatively easy to obtain a student visa for a Chinese citizen. On the other hand, when it comes to permanent residency, this involves a whole process that most Chinese internationals just don’t have time for. According to Reade, China is one of several countries, including India and Mexico in a retrogressive “holding pattern,” where applications for permanent residency are backlogged due to “sheer volume” of applicants.
By de facto, China has a large population of workers looking to immigrate to the United States. For work permits, the number of HIB visas available to Chinese internationals is now capped at 65,000 a day. H1B visas require an employer’s pre-approval before applying, and must be applied for multiple times in one issuance.
“There’s a ‘formula’ in Washington to decide this process and help those looking for citizenship ride the ‘pipelines’ of the U.S immigration system. In truth, some countries are fed-up with the U.S.”
While Lu has already expressed the advantage of having an American education when looking for a job in China, DiCaprio is one Chinese international who has no interest in returning to the country to live there permanently. He’s considered London if New York City is too expensive.
This might have something to do with a Facebook post in November, with the first two sentences reading: “I am gay. There it is.”
“Repressed norms are the same almost everywhere,” says Reade, referring to experience as a London study abroad program advisor for American students. “China is no different in terms of acceptance of nontraditional culture that differs from the ‘standard’.
As a study study abroad program advisor years ago for American undergraduates looking to study in London, Reade noticed that some students “came out” after living in the city. Reade believes this is normal – a city environment like London or New York provides much more tolerance and support for nontraditional culture than a small town or village.
For DiCaprio – he’s still worrying about paying the rent for next month and figuring out what he’ll do with his one-year visa extension after graduation, let alone coming out to his parents. Although he still loves his culture, city, and family and friends back home, one thing is for sure:
“I really don’t want to go back and live in China,” says DiCaprio.