The New Chinese Dream

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Photo by Jason Liu.

250 Church St., home of Yale’s East Asian Languages and Literatures Department, is a brick structure behind Timothy Dwight College. It’s easy to miss: the porch is on a side path off of the main road, and the building looks more like a residence than a Yale structure. I walk past it twice before I find the entrance.

“Qing jin!” Shucheng Zhang calls out when I knock on his office door. Please come in.

I step inside, and Zhang, looking up from behind his desk, realizes that I am not one of his colleagues. He stands up quickly to shake my hand and apologizes in English for the mistake.

I had emailed Zhang, a lector in the EALL Department, asking to speak with him about Chinese graduate students’ and professors’ experiences at Yale. He would love to, he replied — and P.S., did I speak Chinese?

Zhang came to Yale in 2012, after stints at other American universities, including Harvard, MIT, and Brown. He immigrated to the United States in 2006, when his wife took a job teaching Chinese at Harvard. They have lived in the States for nearly a decade; they have two young sons, aged 1 and 3, born and raised here; they have, in almost every way, set up a new life, and have no plans to return to China in the foreseeable future. Still, when I agree to conduct our interview in Chinese, Zhang looks relieved. Our conversation is a struggle for me, the girl who quit Sunday afternoon Chinese school at age 12, but it’s a boon for Zhang.

My parents immigrated to the United States from China over twenty years ago, at a time when leaving the country for America was seen as the surest road to success. Only the best of the best were able to make it to America: young, ambitious people who g raduated from the top universities. Even then, success was not guaranteed; my mother, who studied linguistics at China’s premier university, Peking University (“the Harvard of China”), spent years nannying and waitressing before eventually taking a job in information technology.
Twenty years later, China has transformed into an economic powerhouse, and, now that they have wealth and resources in their own backyard, many of its well-educated young people no longer see America as the ultimate destination. But graduates of China’s best universities still flock to the United States in search of education and careers. What brings these Chinese citizens to the U.S., and how do they adapt to the American life they find upon arrival?

**

The walls of Zhang’s office are bare, except for some Chinese vocabulary written on butcher paper and two maps, one of the world and one of China. A well-stocked bookshelf holds a framed picture of his two sons.
Zhang, like my parents, attended Peking University. He went to law school there as well, and were he to return to China, he says plainly, he could secure a job in law that would pay much more than he earns as a teacher here at Yale.

The money would not be the only benefits if Zhang went back. If Zhang were to return to China, he would not have to write down key English vocabulary words every time he goes to the doctor, looking up the proper words to describe how he feels. He would not have to place personal ads in the newspaper looking for English language tutors. He would not have to ensure that the reporters who want to interview him about his accomplishments can speak his language.

But Zhang loves teaching Chinese at Yale, and his kids have grown up in the United States. “Once you’ve been here for a long time and have a household and kids, there is a sense of stability,” Zhang says. “To go back — I’d have to restart. It would be a great inconvenience. The change is too great.”

Of course, he admits, he already undertook a great change when he decided to come to America in the first place. But the opportunity seemed worth it: a career, an exciting new location, and a country where the air and water are clean and the schools are not too high pressure.

So was he chasing the same American Dream that my parents were looking for? Not quite.

Chinese people, Zhang says, don’t have a need for the American Dream anymore. What was once a far off dream — a house, a car, financial independence — is now within reach for many Chinese who stay in China. America, once seen as the best way for people to improve their lives, is now more of a vacation spot. They now have their own “Zhongguo Meng”: the Chinese Dream.

“People won’t be as crazy to come here anymore, studying the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) every day or breaking up with their girlfriends or divorcing their husbands,” Zhang says.

**

For the most part, Guojun Wang, a fifth-year EALL Ph.D. student, is happy here. He finds the intellectual environment at Yale stimulating and the work engaging. A significant challenge, though, is his long-distance relationship. Wang’s wife is also pursuing her Ph.D. in America, but she is studying at a university in the Midwest, over 800 miles away. Wang tells me that this kind of separation is the norm for many Chinese couples in America, because it is often difficult to find jobs or Ph.D. programs in the same place.

“Both studying and being far away from each other, it’s not easy,” he says, his voice matter-of-fact. “This kind of long-distance love is very common. It’s a challenge to everybody.”

What is appealing about coming to America, then, if it entails large cultural differences and separation from loved ones?

Soft spoken and a bit shy, Wang studies late imperial Chinese literature. He completed his undergraduate and Master’s degrees at Beijing Normal University, one of China’s top universities, and upon graduation was offered a job teaching language and literature at one of the best high schools in China. Ultimately, however, he knew he wanted to come to America to further his education.

Wang explains his decision by citing the West’s long tradition of interdisciplinary study and respect for the humanities. “In China, if you tell people you are studying philosophy or literature, many of them will say, ‘What’s the use for that?’” Wang says. “When I was in high school, the situation was that the worst students in the class would study the humanities.”

This phenomenon, while not exclusive to China, is magnified tenfold in a country where technological progress and economic development are at the forefront of the public consciousness. The world of academia in China was heavily influenced by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, when scholars and thinkers were criticized and persecuted, and today the humanities are still considered by some to be second-rate disciplines. The Western style of thought fits Wang better, he says. When he talks to his classmates about his literature research, he feels perfectly in his element.

Yet culture shock may exist in the classroom as well, says James Tierney, director of the English Language Program at the Yale Center for Language Study. His Chinese students’ learning styles sometimes highlight differences between Western philosophies of learning and Confucian philosophy, which is devoted to mastery and tradition and demands close reading of texts. Some of Tierney’s Chinese students, who would never dream of skipping a paragraph of their reading, are surprised when their native-English-speaking classmates, some of whom have only skimmed the assignment, speak up freely in class.

The idea of speaking up in class was completely foreign to Rong Fan, an archaeology Ph.D. candidate who arrived at Yale last June. “In China, we just sit and listen to our professor, who will speak, speak, speak all the time and not allow us to interrupt,” she says. “But here everyone who has an idea can just shout it out. I can never get used to that.” She pauses. “But I have to.”

**

Before arriving at Yale, Fan was nervous about adjusting to American social life. She had been told that Americans valued their privacy and didn’t like to engage in each other’s lives. She was happy to find that the Americans she met were friendly, welcoming, and more than happy to invite her to their parties. Her American friends have been an integral part of her transition to life here. But, she says, lowering her voice slightly, sometimes she does feel lonely.

“I think sometimes I prefer the Chinese style of friendship,” she says, describing how in China it is the norm for people to call up their friends in any moment and drop by their houses. In America, she feels that she needs to tread more carefully. “I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because everyone here has their own life. It’s easy to make friends here, but it’s hard to engage deeply.”

The loneliness is compounded by the fact that coming to America inevitably meant that she, too, had to leave people behind. Her parents are still in China, as is her boyfriend. Fan would never ask her boyfriend to come to America to be with her — he has a job at the Chinese National Museum, she says proudly. If she were to consider going back to China after completing her degree, it would be for him. That is a big “if,” though; jobs and funding for archaeology are much easier to come by in America, she says, whereas in China she would be under pressure to work in technology or other more lucrative fields.

“A Chinese archaeologist’s dream is to be here,” she says.

**

The process of adapting is slow, and it can be difficult. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
“At the beginning it was very difficult to speak out in class, but I’m getting used to it now. It’s tricky. I don’t know how to find the perfect time,” Fan says. “Maybe when everybody’s in silence,” she adds, giggling.
I contacted nearly a dozen Chinese faculty members and graduate students for this piece, because I was afraid people would not want to tell me about their process of cultural assimilation. Here at Yale, where we talk so much about the pressure to always appear in control, I didn’t think anyone would want to acknowledge difficulties adapting.

I was happily surprised when not a single person said no. They didn’t just agree to be interviewed — they were eager, even excited, to tell their stories. The reason, I found, was that they do not think their experiences have been difficult. They acknowledge obstacles, such as the language barrier, but overwhelmingly, they feel welcomed and comfortable.

Still, from an outside perspective, it may not appear that they are fully assimilated. They freely admit that their friends are mostly Chinese, and outside of the classroom, they speak Chinese more often than English.
Maybe, then, we need to redefine what it means to be assimilated. Maybe assimilation doesn’t mean eating hamburgers and dancing the night away at GPSCY. Maybe it means carving out one’s own niche at Yale, which is itself just one corner of America. Finding comfort in the familiar does not preclude a desire to experience the unfamiliar. 250 Church St. may not be the heart of campus, but it is still a part of Yale. Although the members of Yale’s Chinese community may not have assimilated in the way we usually envision it, they still see Yale as their home.

“I think the fascinating part about America is that here they give us equal opportunities to express our ideas,” Fan beams. “Everyone has the chance to be themselves.”

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