Richard Xie (BSBA ’23) received an honorable mention in the 2019-2020 Dean James E. McLeod First-Year Writing Prize for his essay, “Campus Diversity: Chinese International Students amid American Exceptionalism.” Xie was one of more than 100 entries. This is the first year the award is open to non-Arts & Sciences students, and the sixth year the competition has been held. A ceremony will be held in the fall to honor Xie and the other winners. Xie’s essay follows in its entirety.
Campus Diversity: Chinese International Students Amid American Exceptionalism
In 2018, Chinese international students accounted for roughly 30% of all international student population in American colleges (Han), which makes this group the largest among all international students. Correspondingly, Chinese students, through tuition fees, room and board, and other consumptions, contribute an equal proportion to American GDP, approximately 9.8 billion dollars (Barta et al.). Despite coming in large numbers, however, this group of students does not seem to integrate very well in American society. Abelmann and Kang’s research on media portrayal of Chinese students highlights media’s negative reception of the students (385), and Teng’s research emphasizes that Chinese students feel un-welcomed and misunderstood by Americans (841). Perhaps the strongest evidence comes from Cheung & Xu’s research on Chinese students’ intention to return to China after graduation. Their results suggest that Chinese students who choose to stay in America do so because of better career development, and consider political and social factors far less significant as reasons to stay in the US (1619).
In some ways, these data seem to suggest that Chinese students come to the US mainly for financial benefit and professional skill development, and not for loftier ideals such as learning from the democratic system or the practice of free speech. Indeed, that is the rhetoric of certain media reports who portray the majority of Chinese students as passive diploma-seekers who, in return for their money spent on tuition, want only the coveted overseas diploma and work experience, and are hence uninterested in learning from the American values and political mechanisms. However, such narratives not only devalue Chinese higher education as inferior to that of the US, but also manifest a narrow perspective which says that the students from China come to the US for financial gains only (Abelmann & Kang, 392).
Unfortunately, when stories with a single perspective like “the Chinese are not interested in American culture” are told repeatedly, they tend to become facts. The American students who believe in this narrative will view their Chinese peers with prejudices they may not even know they have. In the words of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie, such a single story eliminates the possibility of a fair, well-rounded representation of the Chinese students. It ignores, as so many single stories do, another perspective which is the possibility that the Chinese may have come to the US with open minds, ready to embrace and learn from the American culture; yet they do not feel accepted, and find their values and belief systems underappreciated. As a result, they do not prefer the American society over that of China. While there may be other reasons that Americans overlook this possibility and instead opting for the “profit-seeking Chinese” model, this essay focuses on the argument that it is the belief in American culture’s superiority over all others that induce this single narrative. This argument is introduced as American exceptionalism by Suspitsyna and Shalka in their research (299); in essence, American students who hold this unconscious mentality may portray the Chinese difference in a negative light, and alienate those who seem unable to conform. Such beliefs limit the Chinese students’ expression of talent and skill because it does not foster a positive environment where their differences are valued.
Evidence of this belief can be found in previous research done on how American media reports view the Chinese students. Suspitsyna and Shalka’s extensive research focus on articles relating to Chinese international students that have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education (“the CHE”). Their work filtering through four years’ worth of the academic newspaper echo Abelmann and Kang’s finding that the US media tend to describe China and its citizens in a binary fashion (293). In one instant, the media portrays the Chinese students as beneficial to the US as a profitable market and friendly to American values, and in another the same demographic is seen as fraudulent in applications to college and a threat to the organization of US society. Ruble and Zhang, in their research, posit that the lack of real-life interactions makes it hard for Americans to learn much about the Chinese. With what little, and often exaggerated, information they have from the media, American students cannot possibly know all the fine nuances of the Chinese culture and learn about them as equal humans. As a result, American students can only assign various characteristics, or stereotypes, to people from that particular group (Ruble and Zhang, 32). Therefore, as Abelmann and Kang aptly put into words, “[the Chinese are] ‘superior and inferior’ to Americans but never comparable.” (385) This view of Chinese people puts the demographic on either end of the spectrum, yet it is quite unlikely that the Chinese culture is superior or inferior to the American in every way. However, the binary stereotypes constructed by the media are powerful enough to induce Americans to see the entire Chinese population in very narrow ways.
Further, Suspitsyna and Shalka argue that these views are mainly negative ones, a view in accord with Ruble and Zhang’s research, which indicates that negative stereotypes pacify human anxiety when interacting with a new culture (32). They raise the example of the stereotype of Asians being the “model minority,” a title that is deceivingly complimentary: although generally seen as equally successful, the Asian minority is not generally perceived equal in status by the white majority. This stereotype exists, Suspitsyna and Shalka argue (291), to highlight the attempt at imitating the American way of life. Jamaican sociologist Stewart Hall, in his lecture Negotiating Caribbean Identities, establish a similar point: the guest minority often attempt to assimilate to the host majority and can get very close without succeeding, that is, to be a part of the host culture (8). This imitation, however, serves to signify the superiority of the host culture, and by emphasizing the Chinese choosing to study in the US in increasing numbers, the media intends to elevate American superiority in education.
Suspitsyna and Shalka raise a second example, Chinese as international students, which receive more blatant demand to look up to the US standard. The Chinese students in this example are no longer the model minority, but put in stark contrast to the Americans and are described as quiet, socially withdrawn, and self-congregating, and are thus drastically different from their American peers. Such a stereotype is not only proposed by Suspitsyna and Shalka, but are in many other papers focusing on similar topics (Teng, 841; Ruble and Zhang, 32), proving it to be a relatively common description of Chinese students. This difference is then characterized as a “problem” that needs to be “fixed” in order to have a thriving campus community (Suspitsyna and Shalka, 299-230). Such thinking exhibits an overgeneralization that is typical of negative stereotypes. Summarily putting all Chinese students under one bracket is a result of the binary thinking and depersonalization, as it assumes every person within a group shares a certain trait without considering individual differences. Second, the difference is seen as a problem instead of an opportunity. To approach differences as problems show that the universities are looking for a thriving campus community where there are no conflicts, no differences, and students who share similar hobbies. However, such campuses do not foster diversity, which is recognized for being important for innovation and success by bringing many perspectives on one issue. So instead of trying to mould the differences into harmony, the universities should look for ways to build the newcomers’ confidence so that they are willing to speak up and contribute their ideas in whatever way they choose.
To give a more concrete idea of how much American exceptionalism is prevalent around where this paper is written, the author sent out a survey to American students at Washington University. From 38 responses, the survey seeks to gauge several indicators relating to stereotypes, attribution of causes to differences that exist between the groups, and overall implicit American exceptionalism from an American perspective taken on average.
First, the survey asks the participants to assign identity to stereotypes. By constructing two fictional characters Lily and Tiana, the survey gives them contrasting, stereotypical personalities. Lily is quiet in class, socially withdrawn, and congregates with Chinese students, while Tiana is more engaged both in class and socially, and congregates with American students. Participants, who are all American, clearly identify Lily as Chinese and Tiana as American, and believe that Tiana has a more pronounced American identity than Lily has a Chinese identity.
(1 = very unlikely, 5 = very likely, n = 38)
|Lily is Chinese||Lily is American||Tiana is Chinese||Tiana is American|
These results show that the average American student at Washington University agree with the stereotype of a disengaged Chinese student. This conclusion is further supported when the same participants are asked specifically on each trait: class participation and social cohorts.
(1 = very rare, 5 = very frequent, n = 38)
|Chinese students in-class participation||Chinese students socialize with American students||Chinese students socialize with Chinese students|
These results agree with the general stereotype above, which indicates American students at Washington University perceive Chinese students to be relatively quiet in class and self-congregating.
Based on the participants’ stereotypes, the author then measures to what degree the students at Washington University may possess American exceptionalism. The author does this in two separate ways: first, the survey asks if participants believe it is Lily, the Chinese stereotype, or Tiana, the American stereotype, whose behavior ought to change in order to promote diversity on campus. The author posits that if participants possess higher degrees of American exceptionalism, then as they believe American behavior is superior, participants will choose to change Lily’s behavior over Tiana’s, and that is indeed what it is found.
(1 = very unhelpful, 5 = very helpful, n = 38)
|Chinese change behavior for diversity||American change behavior for diversity|
Therefore, the results suggest that participants believe the Chinese have greater responsibility in changing their behavior to promote diversity. This is in close accordance with one article investigated by Suspitsyna and Shalka in the CHE. In the article called Selecting the Right Chinese Students by Jiang, the author argues that American universities ought to choose Chinese students who can contribute to a “thriving” campus community over those who present tangible differences. It is this similar call for acculturating to the US with the belief that the American way is superior that led to students who believe they do not need to change; it is the foreigners who should change in order to become more like Americans. Chinese students, who are new to the country, may find it hard to adapt straightaway, and may thus be marginalized and their talents nowhere to be expressed.
The second way the author measures American exceptionalism is through asking participants to attribute the difference to different skill levels of communication and cultural differences. The logic behind these two questions is that it is assumed that because American exceptionalism does not believe other cultures are equal but different, it is impossible to think that differences can be attributed to a different culture. In the eyes of American exceptionalism, American culture is the singular one existing. It is a lack of knowledge of the existence of other equally rich cultures that leads believers of American exceptionalism to conclude that any differences must be based on the same American cultural basis, yet derived from individual deficiencies. And that is indeed the case here.
(1 = very unlikely, 5 = very likely, n = 38)
|Difference due to communication skills||Difference due to cultural differences|
The difference exists; it is slight, however, indicating that Washington University students in general carry some cultural blindness, but are aware that other equal cultures other than American exists.
My research shows that American students at Washington University, overall, carry the stereotypes that are common to many American college students (Teng, 23; Ruble and Zhang, 32), and they have traces of American exceptionalism as defined in this paper. They are not extreme in their stereotypes and beliefs, indicating that they are aware of differences of cultures. Nonetheless, the belief that differences are due to deficiencies, as well as the expectation for Chinese students to acculturate, contribute to a decrease in the minority’s willingness to communicate, and thus both parties do not realize the potential of an international exchange.
Now, both previous and my research shows that Chinese students, though seen as hardworking and smart, are not very outspoken (Suspitsyna and Shalka 291; Abelmann and Kang, 388; Ruble and Zhang, 32). This can be understood as Chinese students arrive at a completely new and different cultural environment. It is natural that, when faced with a challenging new environment, people are more hesitant to reach out due to perceived unpredictability and anxiety (Ruble and Zhang, 31). As Teng’s research states,
As [one Chinese international student] confided, ‘often times, we are really shy and afraid of a new environment, and we do not know how to initiate a conversation. If people can take the initiative, that would be really helpful.’ [Another Chinese student] also explained that her reservation in asking host peers out stemmed from a fear of rejection: ‘I do not know what are Americans’ thoughts of Chinese. They may think your English is bad so communicating with you is hard…. They may wonder: Why should I play with you, Asians?’ (Teng, 842)
Therefore, Chinese students who are new to America often lack the knowledge necessary to build successful social communication, and are likely to be less confident about themselves.
One way the Chinese students have been building their confidence is through the formation of ethnic enclaves. Such enclaves are usually believed by the majority as closed-off, secret societies that are hard to keep track of, and may present a threat to them. As a result, enclaves are typically portrayed as detrimental to the facilitation of diversity and are not worth investigating (Chen and Ross, 155). In Chen and Ross’s research on Chinese enclaves in American higher education, however, they examine deeply into the activities of the enclaves, and discover that it acts as a safe base from which Chinese newcomers can then choose to branch out of (167). According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, after satisfying one’s physiological needs (needs for food and shelter), one looks to satisfy the needs of love and belonging. These needs are characterized by friendship and family. To Chinese students who are new to the American culture and college campuses, therefore, their most immediate and comfortable source of companionship and family most likely come from other Chinese students (Chen and Ross, 168).
As a result, by providing such psychological basis for new Chinese students, enclaves effectively satisfy these students’ psychological needs. According to Maslow, only once the psychological needs are satisfied, that is, only once people feel supported and belonged, will they go on to look for achievement in the general sense (in classes, in social relationships); they will also now look for respect from other people. So the enclaves prepare the students as they are now equipped to go on further and explore the strange world that is the American campuses. To further illustrate this point, Mallinckrodt and Wang, in their paper Acculturation… of Chinese/Taiwanese International Students, interprets Ainsworth’s famous “Strange Situation” experiment and concludes that people who are more securely attached, that is, people who have a more stable and strong relationship with a safe haven, are likely to explore strange environments more extensively (421). In this analogy, then, strong ties to ethnic enclaves enable Chinese students to explore and better expose American students to their unique values.
Another way with which Chinese students can build their confidence is through serious leisure activities, according to Lee, Sung, Zhou, and Lee’s research. Such activities, which are time-consuming and organized, help participants hone their skills and meet similar hobbyists, thereby building a sustainable social network. An example of serious leisure activities taken up by Chinese students at American colleges is intramural sports. Members of intramural sports teams often share information actively outside of the sports context, which helps to build a small circle of friends. This circle of friends then is able to provide social support, which is shown to be significant in school adaptation, both academically and socially (Lee, Sung, Zhou, and Lee, 203).
Therefore, this paper seeks to assert several interrelated points. Going back to the start of the paper, it is shown that American exceptionalism, the belief that the American way of life is the best in the world, ignores other cultures that are equal in quality yet different and hence hinders learning when they meet, as it happens on American college campuses between Chinese international students and local students. It follows that, to facilitate diversity is not to promote homogeneity and adherence to the host culture, but to effectively encourage local students to recognize the value in other cultures and promote them to accept differences and inquire about them instead of ignoring them.
Chinese international students, as newcomers to the US, often require psychological assistance, and such assistance may be procured from fellow Chinese students in ethnic enclaves established on campus. Such enclaves often succeed in building a family and giving a sense of belonging to the international students, which builds confidence for them to explore the new setting.
Ethnic enclaves are not the only solution to address Chinese students’ needs in the US. There are other viable options such as intramural sports and group work in classes. As the overall organizing and governing body, the universities have the capability to give the new Chinese students something beyond the physiological needs. New students are often shy and self-conscious, hence a sense of belonging is significant in helping them become comfortable with who they are so that they are more confident expressing their differences. It is emphasized once more that differences represent value, not deficiencies. And it is through supportive networks and atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement that the value will be given its chance to improve campus diversity.
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 I will use the terms “Chinese international student” and “Chinese student” interchangeably in this paper to denote a college student born in the PRC and studies now in the US.