Opinion: What to Make of the News about 8,000 Expelled Chinese Students?

It’s time to update our collective image of Chinese students.

by Muge Niu

中文版

A few days ago, a report from an education consultancy about the expulsion of Chinese student in the U.S. made it into my social media feed. Many news articles quoted one figure from the report: around 8,000 Chinese students were expelled from American universities last year.

Many people find the number shocking, but it turns out it never once appeared in the actual report. The organization analyzed some 1,600 surveys and estimated that 3% of all Chinese students studying in the U.S. had been expelled. In a subsequent interview, the spokesperson multiplied that percentage by the official headcount of Chinese students — 275,000 — and got 8,000. This type of back-of-the-envelope math is hardly reliable. The interpretation of the statement in American and Chinese media is quite interesting nonetheless.

many American universities (especially public ones) have been admitting more Chinese students for the sake of tuition, but haven’t figured out a way to screen and serve the growing population.

The issue highlighted in American media is that due to budget slashes, many American universities (especially public ones) have been admitting more Chinese students for the sake of tuition, but haven’t figured out a way to screen and serve the growing population. Their Chinese counterparts, including People’s Daily Online, focused more on who the expelled students are and why they were expelled. One theory pointed to the low grades and academic dishonesty of this small population, and concluded these are results of fundamental flaws in the Chinese education system.

In fact, there is no data to prove Chinese students are more likely to cheat. Even the best students make mistakes under tremendous pressure. In 2012, about 200 students of an intro political science class at Harvard University were probed for cheating and more than half were suspended for a semester due to collective cheating on a take-home exam.

Even though they focused on different aspects of the story, both American and Chinese media treated the expulsion of Chinese students as news. But let’s face it, expulsion based on low grades or academic dishonesty is written in the school policy of community colleges and Ivy Leagues alike. Many students fail to get through the transition period from high school to college, lose motivation and fail the first year. So why is the 3 % expulsion rate of Chinese students such a big deal?

In the end, this story has been blown out of proportion by long-lasting stereotypes of Chinese students shared by both countries.

In the U.S., the stereotypical image of Chinese students is your glass-wearing, ambitious, smart nerd, who discusses math problems in the library as if there is nobody else is around, but rarely makes a sound during class discussions. The Atlantic article quoted one source who said some colleges are “addicted” to Chinese students, because they are hardworking, have good grades and pay lots of tuition. In China, it is often taken for granted and boasted about that our students usually outperform American students in subjects involving math or science. This makes the idea of expulsion based on low grades hard to swallow.

But it’s also harmful. Under the stereotype of being hardworking, obedient and intelligent, Chinese students’ problems with academic and social life tend to be ignored or suppressed.

The first problem is ESL. Many American universities make English-as-Second-Language courses (ESL) prerequisites to other courses. Compared to students from Europe and many other parts of the world, Chinese students’ English isn’t very good. Even those who come from good high schools in China often lack experience of researching and writing papers independently. Memorizing an entire book of SAT vocabulary (many did to get into American universities) isn’t necessarily helpful in ESL classes.

Even those who do very well in classes of their majors sometimes fail to meet English requirements. For instance, students at University of California-San Diego must pass an English test called SDCC before sophomore year; otherwise they must leave. In the survival guide for new students, UCSD’s Chinese student club wrote: “How to pass SDCC? To be honest, this is a mystery.”

How to pass ESL sometimes does feel arbitrary. In my first year of college, I took one semester of ESL. The class of 12 students comprises of two or three Korean students and the rest were all from China. Our lecturer had to make an explicit rule to not speak Chinese in class. At the end of the semester, three Chinese students and one Korean student failed. The Korean student failed because he missed too many classes.The three Chinese students didn’t fail because they put in no effort or had a bad attitude, but because their essays weren’t good enough.

The communication between ESL faculty, staff and Chinese students is sparse and often flawed with misunderstandings derived from cultural and language differences.

ESL is also the most complained about experience within the Chinese student circle. One class jokingly said they considered donating a huge clock to the department after graduation (In Chinese, “Giving a clock” sounds like the phrase “attending upon one’s death” and is therefore considered unlucky).

In addition to language,the psychological wellbeing of Chinese students also tends to be ignored. I often hear Chinese students complain about feeling isolated, rejected and unable to fit in when it comes to social life. Those who were “cool kids”in their home country find themselves slow to respond to jokes, struggling to understand what others are talking about, and unable to command much attention of their own. Their charisma has little or no effect here.

Chinese students who try to get out of their “comfort zone” and socialize with American students often grow tired of the repeated rejections, and retreat to the familiar circleof Chinese students. A guy who leads the Chinese student club at his university told me he chose to hang out mostly with Chinese students because he can’t be a leader among American peers. Inability to integrate causes different levels of anxiety, and often leads to a limited social life.

Meanwhile, Chinese students face tremendous pressure in areas unknown to their western peers: the pressure to find jobs and get their visas sponsored after graduation; the pressure of studying a major because of their parents’ wishes rather than their own intrinsic interests. Even though most universities provide psychological counseling, a lot of Chinese students I know would rather suffer insomnia or turn to videogames and alcohol than take advantage of these services. Stigma and the inability to communicate feelings accurately with English are both viable reasons.

In the end, expulsion is an extreme consequence. Most students manage to graduate despite the above issues. But it’s essential that both countries understand the 275,000 students studying in the U.S. vary a lot in terms of family background, age,interest and ability. Chinese students nowadays are no longer the elites studying on government sponsorships like those who came decades ago, nor are they all studying engineering, business and natural science. It’s time to update our collective image of Chinese students.

Like students from anywhere in the world, Chinese students aren’t immune to procrastination, social anxiety and academic pressure. Some of them need help from the school and their parents to get through the difficult transition from high school to college. ESL and international student services should improve communication with Chinese students and realize the role cultural difference plays in teaching and communication. The “Chinese student” group has become too big and too diverse for any single stereotype. In short, it’s time to lose the tainted glasses through which we see Chinese students.

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