When Beijing native Amy Sheng ’16 first came to Yale, she considered farming with the pre-orientation program Harvest — foregoing Orientation for International Students, the traditional route for Yalies from abroad. But that was not why Sheng’s Chinese friends and family gave her quizzical looks.
They could not understand why she would want to leave a city setting, even for a few days.
“Everyone I talked to was very befuddled by the idea of Harvest. I come from an urban city, so they were wondering why I wanted to work on a farm, what Yale was thinking,” Sheng said.
Sheng’s story speaks to a certain culture shock experienced by students from China — but it is also the only example of culture shock she could cite. Her relatively easy adjustment to life in New Haven reflects the increasingly gentle transitions many Chinese students experience when they study in American universities.
China is the largest contributor of international students to Yale University. Over the past nine years, the number of international students from China enrolled in Yale College has more than doubled, rising from 30 to 61 since 2004. At the same time, the overall international population in the College has risen a smaller 34 percent.
According to Chinese students interviewed, the increasing Chinese population at Yale runs the risk of self-segregation.
“The Chinese are a rather large community,” said Pek Shibao ’15, an international student from Singapore. “They can go around and have a separate identity.”
But while finding comfort in each other, many Chinese students also feel comfortable in the American educational culture.
Of the Chinese undergraduates at Yale interviewed, almost all had previous contact with American education, often during high school while preparing to enroll in American universities. That experience, they said, was critical in mitigating their eventual academic and cultural transitions in college.
Moreover, students said Yale draws a unique set of Chinese students who, through a combination of Yale’s admissions criteria and their own self-selection, stand out from other successful Chinese students for their spunk and independence — something that serves them well in a liberal arts atmosphere far from home.
THE GREAT WALL OF DREAMS
Chinese student experience in the U.S. recently made headlines in China, when a man using the pseudonym Lu Jun — who had studied film editing in the U.S — went public with criticisms of his time in America. Chief among his complaints was his disdain for American nightlife, as he told stories of individuals on the streets conspicuously handling drugs and smoking marijuana.
To Lu, this marked the death of his American Dream, leading him to turn back to his homeland with renewed loyalty.
“My idea of the Chinese Dream is to build a country in which each of us is willing to work hard … without firearms, drugs, cold and superficial relationships, strife or discrimination or lazy and ignorant people,” Lu said.
Despite Lu’s sentiments, Chinese students continue to flock to the U.S. According to the Institute of International Education, Chinese students comprised nearly 30 percent of foreign students in the U.S. last year. A study by the Chinese Ministry of Education found that the U.S. is the top destination for self-financed Chinese students.
At the core of the Chinese student experience on campus is a student club, Chinese Undergraduate Students at Yale (CUSY), that some say both cushions and complicates the transition for Chinese students.
“I think CUSY is kind of like a secret society,” joked Scarlett Zuo ’16, who does not participate in all group events but has many friends involved. Students in the organization, she said, often take the same classes, study together, share similar extracurriculars and, of course, speak the same language. According to Zuo, if you are a Chinese student at Yale, you are automatically considered a member of CUSY.
Chang Liu ’14 said that at the beginning of each semester, CUSY students commonly send out emails to a panlist asking each other what courses to take. Andrew Wang ’16, a Chinese-American involved in the Chinese-American Student Association, called CUSY “exclusive,” noting that the group tends to not participate in pan-Asian events.
But some said that though CUSY can be occasionally “cliquish,” in most cases it simply functions as a support group. Andi Wang ’17 said CUSY is special to him in that it provides access and connections to upperclassmen and alumni.
“[CUSY] is the best you can get for a Chinese student organization,” he said.
At other schools, Wang said, things are very different. In a high school tour of American universities, he found that many of Yale’s peer institutions had Chinese groups with stricter attitudes. A friend at Brown told him that an action as simple as choosing to have lunch with non-Chinese students could be seen as impolite by the Chinese community.
Wang said Yale students are different — they are naturally better at determining how to juggle spending time with fellow Chinese students and branching out to different cultural and student groups.
“Chinese people at Yale just have that balance,” Wang said.
Though most students interviewed are willing and capable of embracing American social traditions, they still find it challenging to step outside of their comfort zones. Making friends with Americans, for instance, may be a surprisingly difficult task.
Yupei Guo ’17 said she believes American and Chinese people have different models of friendship: While both cultures value close relationships, Americans are comfortable in more superficial relationships, attending parties or getting together casually.
It took Chang Liu ’14 a semester to realize she had to take initiative to mingle with others.
“Personality is not a big thing in China,” she said. “But in America, you have to build a sort of social capital. You have to make a good first impression.”
TALKING OUT OF TURN
In a 2011 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, China-raised Jiang Xueqin ’99 argued that a Chinese education does not prepare its students to study abroad. From his experience as the principal of a top Chinese high school, he found that most Chinese students are cultivated not to possess three traits necessary for success in America: empathy, imagination and resilience.
“That’s why the toughest question you can ask a Chinese student is also the easiest you can ask an American: “What do you think?” he said.
Students interviewed said academically, the challenge for most Chinese students is speaking up, voicing opinions and having confidence in themselves.
While Liu has become comfortable speaking and writing in English, she still has difficulty with assignments that require creativity and personal reflection. A creative writing course like “Daily Themes,” she said, would pose a challenge because her emotions are still locked in the Chinese language. However, even if given the chance to write a personal essay in Chinese, she said that she still might have difficulty because she was not taught to think reflectively in China.
Sections and seminars are also intimidating for most students interviewed, as their Chinese backgrounds did not give them many opportunities to candidly express their opinions with such authority.
“In China you really weren’t encouraged to speak up in class,” Liu said. “You were always worried that you were going to say something wrong or embarrass yourself, and the teacher wasn’t going to be happy.”
This mindset is not just limited to students from China. Yuki Hayashi ’17, an international student from Japan, said Americans are extremely willing to proclaim their opinions while the Japanese are not. Even Zuo, who considered herself an opinionated and talkative person before arriving at Yale, had difficulties sharing her thoughts in class, where she would have a “gut feeling” to talk but worry about what her professor might want her to say.
During her first semester, Zuo took “Great Big Ideas,” a college seminar led by then-University Provost Peter Salovey and Adam Glick ’82. It was in this course, she said, that she grew to understand that participating in class means saying what you feel in addition to what you think.
“We have to express ourselves instead of complying to some invisible or invented authorities,” she said.
But Sheng said her admissions interviewer for Yale, a veteran of the admissions process, told her that Yale seeks a very specific type of Chinese student — one who, like Zuo, is drawn to inspiration and innovation.
Qiuyan Jin ’16 said the type of Chinese students currently at Yale are very different from Chinese students at other schools, as well as from the ones drawn to Yale ten years ago.
About a third of the Chinese students in the class of 2016 participated in the humanities-centric Directed Studies program, marking a radical departure from the perception of Chinese students as science- and math-oriented. To Jin, this diversity owes itself both to the type of student Yale attracts and who Yale chooses to admit.
“They look for students who survived the Chinese education system — people who survive with an independent mind, but also people who did well without losing their sense of self,” Sheng said.
Experiences in the U.S. prior to college helped many prepare for life at Yale.
When Jin participated in a high school exchange program with a private all-boys school in Washington, D.C, he knew he would try to study at an American university — something that he says is incredibly desirable, and increasingly affordable, for China’s rising middle class. In Jin’s eyes, the experience at the private school prepared him for the social diversity he would later find at Yale.
Similarly, Guo said her earlier years in the United Kingdom prompted her think about attending college outside of China. She initially hoped to return to the UK for her university education, but after visiting some colleges in the United States tour during a Model United Nations (MUN) conference, she fell in love with Yale.
MUN played a strong role in exposing both Guo and Zuo to Western education. Zuo said MUN introduced her to the concepts of public speaking and expressing personal ideas in an academic setting.
Zuo also said she was socially well prepared for her time at Yale. She always knew that she would study abroad for her undergraduate degree, she said, as her father attended college outside of China and her mother was dissatisfied with her unresponsive students as a college professor. But in 2010, she attended Yale College Summer Session, during which she went through what she called a “rehearsal of American college life.”
Having witnessed the general social openness of America through the summer classes, Zuo arrived at Yale in 2012 ready to recognize and embrace American life without judgment or surprise.
“I realized that being different is an asset. It’s valuable, not just for myself, but for others,” Zuo mused. “I’ve never been happier that I’m Chinese or [that I have] spent my first 18 years in China than I am right now.”