In the fall of 1850, the wide-eyed, 22-year-old Yung Wing, class of 1854, arrived at Yale, prepared to embark on his undergraduate journey at a campus populated by white Protestant males. Born into a poverty-stricken family in southern China, Yung had dropped out of school at age 12 to support his mother and four siblings. Pure coincidence led Yung to America, but a heavy financial burden weighed on the young Chinese Christian. He turned down a full ride offered to him by missionaries, which would have required him to return to China and serve as a missionary himself upon graduation.
“A pledge of that character would prevent me from taking advantage of any circumstance or event that might arise in the life of a nation like China, to do her a great service,” Yung recalled in “My College Days,” the fifth chapter of his autobiography, “My Life in China and America.” “To be sure, I was poor, but I would not allow my poverty to gain the upper hand and compel me to barter away my inward convictions of duty for a temporary mess of pottage.”
Overwhelmed with financial and academic pressure, Yung had to “sweat over” studies until midnight every night during his freshman year, which caused his health to deteriorate and eventually led to a one-week leave of absence.
Contemporary stereotypes tend to portray Chinese students as better in math, but Yung showed “utter aversion” to the subject, especially differential and integral calculus, which he “abhorred and detested.” In fact, Yung performed so poorly in math that he feared Yale would dismiss him. Much to Yung’s relief, his talent in English earned him several top prizes in composition and membership in Brothers in Unity, one of the two campus debating societies. He also pledged and joined the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity.
Yung graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Yale in 1854, making him the first Chinese student to receive a degree from an American college. He later organized the Chinese Educational Mission with the Qing government and devoted his life to bringing more Chinese internationals to American classrooms and lecture halls.
While both Yale and China have undergone rapid changes since Yung was an undergraduate, his legacy is carried on by generations of Chinese internationals who have crossed the Pacific and stepped onto Yale’s campus ever since. How has the demographic changed over past decades? How are Chinese Yalies today similar to — or different from — those who came before them?
THE GOLDEN GENERATION?
Chinese international students in the United States are no strangers to media scrutiny, especially over the past few years, as China’s increasing wealth makes studying abroad a viable option among many middle-income Chinese households. But with greater visibility comes greater controversy. A March 2016 article in The Wall Street Journal, titled “Heavy Recruitment of Chinese Students Sows Discord on U.S. Campuses,” discussed the struggles of “made-in-China” students experiencing cultural and language gaps. According to a 2015 report by the Institute of International Education, Chinese students accounted for 31.2 percent of all international students in the United States.
The makeup of Chinese international students has shifted not only in number, but also in wealth. A New Yorker article titled “The Golden Generation” went viral in February, detailing the extravagant lives led by Chinese students who are sent to America by their uber-rich parents. The wealthy second generation — children of the Chinese “nouveau riche” — is referred to as “fuerdai” in Chinese and has been a sore point among the Chinese public. The word carries a negative connotation, implying mindless consumption and eliciting resentment toward the wealthy few. While the phenomenon was initially restricted to China, it began to spread to American campuses as “fuerdai” students headed to the West for college.
In a December 2015 op-ed in the Columbia Daily Spectator, Columbia undergraduate Jasmine Bernstein Yin described her experience with the changing image of Chinese students in America. The controversial article opened with a statement that discussed many Americans’ impression of Chinese in the country, and explained how, despite their glamorous appearance, the “Chinese elite” feel lonely deep inside.
“Our boarding-school backgrounds, our posh accents, our stylish outfits — in my experience, American students are often astonished by us Chinese internationals,” the column began.
Enclave, extravagance, exclusion — do these perceptions apply to the small group of Chinese internationals at Yale too? Perspectives from current students and alumni of Yale’s Chinese community suggest a more diverse story.
DIVERSITY WITHIN DIVERSITY
The Chinese Undergraduate Students at Yale is a student organization that serves as a home away from home for many Chinese students on campus. It provides a space for meeting other Chinese undergraduates, socializing and making friends who share the same cultural background.
“CUSY remains a very central community for Chinese students just because of how much we share in common,” said Scarlett Zuo ’16, a history major from Beijing who was the former vice president of CUSY. “For me, CUSY is special because even though I have friends from the United States and other parts of the world, they won’t necessarily understand all the things I feel as a Chinese. CUSY [members] are the only people who are potentially capable of fully understanding who I am.”
The small size of the Chinese student population on campus makes CUSY a tight-knit community. According to 2015–16 CUSY President Andi Wang ’17, a staff reporter for the News, the organization has around 60 total members every year, with roughly 15 Chinese students in each class. Yale has admitted 16 Chinese students to the class of 2020, according to a list of students that the Admissions Office shared with CUSY, Wang said. Yale inevitably loses a few prospective students to other schools every year, Wang said, but the average number of 12 to 15 students per class has remained stable for the past few years.
Leah Phinney ’04, assistant director of undergraduate admissions who covers mainland China and other regions in Asia, deferred all questions to Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan. Quinlan did not return requests for comment as of Thursday night.
Wang, Zuo and other CUSY upperclassmen interviewed agreed that while CUSY continues to be a welcoming and cherished community among Chinese undergraduates, the increasing diversity of backgrounds and interests of each incoming class has led the younger students to seek out other communities and extracurricular pursuits.
“In the past, Yale [recruited] heavily from Beijing and Shanghai. But I think starting from our year or the year after us, Yale has recruited many more kids from other cities,” Wang said. “It has become really diverse. That kind of synchronizes with the diversity of academic interests.”
Wang added that there are now students from Shenzhen, Taiyuan, Jiujiang, Jiuquan, Shenyang and other locales in China that are not as well-known internationally as Beijing and Shanghai.
Qianyi Qin ’17 also noted the increasing geographical diversity among Chinese students at Yale. She added that the change came after economic development in non-“top tier” cities. She maintained, moreover, that studying at Yale should not be a privilege solely for students from large cities.
A student from Shanghai herself, Qin said her knowledge of China only covers the “tip of the iceberg.” Socioeconomic structures in China differ from city to city, and having a variety of Chinese students at Yale will broaden other Yalies’ understanding of the complexity of modern China, Qin suggested.
Besides geographical diversity, academic interests among Chinese students have also expanded beyond traditionally popular subjects such as mathematics and economics. Economics remains a popular major among Chinese students, Wang said, but his class of Chinese internationals also includes art, architecture, history and science majors.
“When I first came here, CUSY was a really tight community,” said Christina Zhang ’17, former vice president of CUSY. “People would eat with each other regularly. They even had an [economics study] group — people took classes together and did homework together. From my year onward, however, people are spreading out their interests and have more friends outside [of CUSY].”
Zhang added that CUSY is distinct from her other activities on campus. She described it as a place where Chinese students feel “comfortable” and come together to help and influence each other. For example, Zhang noted that she came to Yale as a biology major but was introduced to architecture through an upperclassman in CUSY. Zhang has since declared her major in architecture.
COUNTERING MEDIA PORTRAYALS
Because of the increasing geographical and academic diversity among Chinese internationals, many interviewed said the heterogeneous community does not fit under one common banner, contrary to what mainstream media might suggest.
Amy Cheng ’19, a staff reporter for the News, said she hasn’t encountered any instances of Chinese students forming self-contained groups at Yale. With a total of about 60 Chinese undergraduates on campus dispersed across 12 residential colleges, Yale simply does not have a community of Chinese students sizable enough for them to “form a flock.”
Haichuan Luo ’15, who transferred from Connecticut College to Yale after his sophomore year and is currently a first-year student at Duke Law School, said he was not surprised by the narrative of insularity framed in major national publications, as people generally tend to bond with those from similar backgrounds — particularly when they are in a foreign setting away from home. Indeed, Luo said, he had observed such a phenomenon at Connecticut College, but not at Yale.
Shuyu Song ’19, a staff reporter for the News, said the relatively small number of Chinese students has prevented the formation of any potential Chinese student enclaves on campus. She added that every Chinese student she knows at Yale has his or her own friend circle comprised of both Chinese and non-Chinese students.
Although Chinese students at Yale hail from a myriad of backgrounds ranging from business elites to suburban working class families, none interviewed said the profligate lifestyle led by the Chinese “fuerdai,” as depicted in national media, plays out at Yale.
Yifu Dong ’17, a student from China, said the image painted by Yin in her op-ed for the Columbia Spectator is “ridiculous” and does not apply to Chinese undergraduates at Yale.
“I don’t think the description fits anywhere,” Wang said, echoing Dong’s sentiment regarding the Spectator op-ed. “I think the author just wants to attract attention. I don’t think it’s anywhere near accurate.”
But even if such a phenomenon may not exist at Yale, Qin said she understands why it might occur elsewhere. Away from home and from parental control, wealthy Chinese students in America have free rein over financial decisions, Qin said. However, she warned against making sweeping statements about Chinese internationals at U.S. colleges.
“Any sensible person will know that there are different Chinese students. There is no homogenous Chinese face,” Qin said.
Moreover, Qin said she does not understand why there is “such great fuss” about wealthy Chinese students in America. They are free to do whatever they want, as long as they do not harm other people, she added.
“What makes Yale’s Chinese students different is that [Yale’s] philosophy for recruitment is different,” Dong said. “The state schools want [Chinese] money, because the Chinese students are paying full tuition. Yale doesn’t need our money, and they can be thoughtful in the selection process. The kids they take — most of them fit in really well.”
ASSIMILATING INTO AMERICAN CULTURE
Zhang’s dream after graduation is to work at a nongovernmental organization that focuses on humanitarian architecture. She hopes to travel around the world, especially to developing countries where she can make a difference with her work. Zhang said she might consider returning to China later on in life, but only after she gains an international perspective first.
For Zhang, assimilation into unfamiliar cultures comes easily as part of her own personal development.
“I think assimilation is a thing that happens naturally. Architecture is a very international field, and I don’t specifically try to stick with either Chinese or American people,” Zhang said. “I make friends in the field I’m interested in, and the friendships happen naturally.”
Cheng said adapting to the Yale environment was not difficult because of her prior experience of living in the United States from age 10 to 12. She added that her exposure to Western culture and values at a young age familiarized her with ideas that might otherwise have sounded foreign.
Michael Gu ’17 said the nature of assimilation depends on a Chinese student’s personal preference. Some Chinese students at Yale are far more aware of their roots and of Chinese culture and history, Gu said, and for them, it is natural to feel more connected to China.
Individual friendships also matter, Gu added. While Gu has connected well with other CUSY members, he has also found meaningful friendships outside of the Chinese community, such as in his fraternity, Chi Psi.
Gu, who studied in the U.S. through an exchange program for a year in high school, said America has been part of his “transformative years.” Since coming to Yale, Gu said, he has been able learn more about not only American culture but also about China from an American perspective.
“It’s a paradox,” Gu said. “On the one hand, the experience provides you with an opportunity to assimilate. But on the other hand, it also gives you a chance to self-reflect and be more aware of your own culture.”
Wang said Chinese students in general have done “an increasingly good job” at assimilating. Like Gu, however, he added that assimilation ultimately depends on each individual’s goal. For instance, Wang said he came to America because of the promise of a better education, and assimilating into American culture was not a top priority for him.
“I really do not go out of my way to assimilate, but the part I can appreciate, I appreciate,” Wang said, adding that he is proud of being Chinese. “I know why I’m here, and it’s not for becoming American.”
Wang said he might stay in the U.S. for graduate school after Yale, but his eventual plan is to return to China.
Zuo said she has imagined what her life would be like if she stayed in China for college. In the end, Zuo explained, Yale is an American college, and attending Yale means overcoming cultural shocks and barriers. Like Wang, Zuo is proud of her Chinese identity and plans to head back home in the future.
“I still feel very Chinese, and I don’t want to become an American. Not because I can’t adapt to the customs here — I have a lot of friends and feel happy living here, but ultimately there is another aspect of my identity that is distinctly Chinese and perhaps can only be understood by other Chinese,” Zuo said. “That’s why I feel CUSY is so precious.”
Zuo said she feels a sense of responsibility to give back to her country, its culture and its people. Still, Zuo acknowledged that not every Chinese student thinks in this mindset, and she noted that the decision to stay or return can be a difficult one.
In comparison to Yung Wing’s days at Yale, Zuo said the landscape of Chinese internationals today tells a vastly different story.
“Yung Wing’s experience is so different from ours. He was the initiating force behind the Qing government’s program [to bring Chinese students to American colleges], but it was a failure at the end, much to his dismay. Most of those kids did not want to go back to China,” Zuo said. “It’s very different now.”