Siwen Z. Minero

GlobalEd Partner & Consultant Siwen Z. Minero, Ed.D., has over 10 years of experience in higher education settings – focusing on global competency development, international student and scholar advising, curriculum development, student career readiness, student engagement, and design thinking strategies. As a researcher, she focuses on and writes about a wide range of topics; from…

The Promise of International Education

International students’ meaning-making in their transnational context is a complex landscape. International education holds much promise for bridging nations, expanding worldviews, and creating global citizenship (Gacel-Ávila, 2005). Assuming the goal of international education is to promote constructive discussions and exchange of ideas across the globe, having an open mindset and a willingness to engage in critical and perhaps difficult conversations is a necessity. This applies to the international students themselves, the American students, and the faculty.

Appreciating the complexities of Chinese students’ experiences and positions can help minimize the deficit discourse that American faculties and students hold about China and Chinese students…”

For all Chinese international students (CIS) who embark on the journey of studying in a Western higher education institute in pursuit of an alternative education, life, and career, the quest requires much bravery and endurance for facing the unfamiliar challenges, linguistic, cultural, emotional, intellectual, procedural (such as visa issues), among many others. Yet, the China-U.S. relationship in the U.S. is increasingly viewed from the perspective of national security, and with it, suspicion. Appreciating the complexities of Chinese students’ experiences and positions can help minimize the deficit discourse that American faculties and students hold about China and Chinese students, and enrich their “perceptions of, provisions for, and relations with Chinese students”(Heng, 2018, p. 33). This means that such difficult conversations would have to also include American students to disabuse them of the “shallow knowledge” of China that is perhaps stuck in the past. This also means facilitating such difficult conversations between students from mainland China, and students from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, Tibet, and Xinjiang, regions of Great China where they may not necessarily self-identify as politically, socially, culturally Chinese to find common ground in interrogating their cultural past and facing aspirations in the future.

Who are the Chinese international students in the U.S.?

In China, studying abroad has become an aspiration for many middle- to upper-class families. Nearly 34% of international students in the U.S. are from China, making up the largest source of international students in the U.S., a six-fold proportional increase from about 2005, over the past 15 years (Institute of International Education, 2009; 2019). China’s economic boom in the past few decades has allowed families to prioritize their economic resources, and sometimes with tremendous sacrifices, to send their children outside of China for higher education. The U.S. has consistently been one of the top destinations.

As international students are receiving increased attention as higher education institutions (esp. those seeking to internationalize) favor enrolling tuition-paying international students for the economic benefits in addition to the traditional diplomatic, intellectual, and intercultural values that they bring to the  host institutions and communities (Altbach & Knight, 2007), scholars are reporting that the institutions are not doing enough to understand the experience international students and, consequently, not innovating their services or curriculum sufficiently to respond to their needs (Bista & Foster, 2011; Choudaha, 2017, as cited in Heng, 2019). This is manifested in being viewed as a problem to be addressed, and their voices left out of conversations around “international student experience” (Heng, 2017).

International exchange promises providing opportunities for innovative exchange of perspectives across cultures (Gacel-Ávila, 2005). Sustained, positive relationships with and interests from host country members are theorized to promote positive experiences for international students(Hendrickson et al., 2011; Hotta & Ting-Toomey, 2013). Yet, international students, particularly Asian internationals reported the lowest level of satisfaction (Garrett, 2014) and a higher level of discrimination by professors, university staff, and classmates compared with non-Asian peers from predominantly European backgrounds (Glass et al., 2015; Hanassab, 2006). Studies also reported students feeling isolated and expressed hostility towards members of the host country where they studied (Andrade, 2006; Lee & Rice, 2007), and that structured support is essential for CIS to cope with cultural stereotypes, and unequal sociocultural relationships (Zhang, 2021).

Emergent research suggest that international students may be particularly vulnerable to experience various kinds of anxiety and stress as they adjust to their new sociocultural context, yet we know less about how CIS access and interact with others in the U.S. higher education context, while at the same time, making sense, negotiate, and sometimes reconstruct their cultural identities.

Highlighting Student Voices

To understand how CIS experienced tension about different perceptions of China between theirs and those in their sociocultural context of U.S. higher education, I conducted a qualitative interview study, recruiting 20 CIS in two American universities in a major metropolitan city between 2018-2019. Students in my sample were, on average, 20 years old, and had been to the US for three years. Most of them double or even triple majored for a totality of 14 majors, primarily were in humanities and social sciences, few were in applied sciences. Of the 20 students, 16 were female. Through my analysis, I identified four themes that helped highlight the tension that CIS experienced: conflicting understandings of Chinese culture, contrasting ideas about development, different perceptions of individual-state relationship, and competing viewpoints on sovereignty.

The first area where students experienced tension were conflicting understandings of Chinese culture, particularly the depths and width of culture. Student perceived certain questions about cultural practices, such as traditions, rituals and preferences as demonstrative of benign ignorance on the part of their American peers, but welcomed inquiries about China. For example, Wang[1], a junior who studies Art History and Architecture described her misbelief when her American friends asked her about origins of Peking opera. In her description, she was taken aback by the extent of the misconceptions and unfamiliarity of her peers on China’s linguistic and cultural diversity. She fretted:

Chinese Opera… it’s Chinese! But they would ask me if it’s from Japan…They don’t even know that we have it. Maybe they thought that China learned from Japan instead? It’s ridiculous.”

Students in the sample also highlighted another area of tension to be contrasting ideas about development. Before coming to the US, students learned about the US “through TV shows and movies”, and expected affluent lifestyles and world-class facilities. Yet they expressed their disappointment as they observed lackluster infrastructures (roads, bridges, etc.) and unsophisticated travel system they saw in the U.S. which presented a sheer contrast to the cities that these students come from by comparison: smart, modern, and convenient. But perception of China in this theme, however, was not reciprocated. They instead faced questions that reflected an outdated understanding of China’s development today. For example, Ming, a senior who studied Finance, recalled a comment from a Chinese American student during class, who described his experience in China from when he was young: “I was in a Cultural and Linguistics class, where a second generation Chinese American said he went to China when he was in junior high, and the restroom was incredibly dirty, he said the toilet was ‘just disgusting’. This made me really uncomfortable.”

Ming expressed her discomfort and felt hurt when the comment came from a Chinese American student, who she expected to be an ally and whose misconception against China was particularly surprising. The description of China’s restroom hygiene – or lack of –  from a long time ago lead to her frustration on the failure of the other student to recognize a progressive duality (poverty vs. economic development) that exists in China’s rapidly developing story of modernity.

For some students, they really struggled with questions or statements that vilifies China’s priority to maintain social order. This leads to another area of tension to be different perceptions of individual agency for people in China. And as previous  studies have documented, students internalized these critiques of China as if were directed at them as individuals without any agency in an authoritarian regime. This lead to students reacting defensively. A student named Lin expressed her belief that her American peers were projecting a view of the Chinese government as controlling, and projected this view of the country to her as a Chinese person. She said: “Whenever they talked about freedom of speech, they would say China had censorship and would block everything – block Facebook, block Google – they just made me feel like that I’m (someone) from a very closed up country.” Like Lin, other students felt the perception of China from her peers focused not just on what was not allowed (censorship, “block Facebook, block Google”), but also de facto perceived China’s way of governance a form of mind control. In this way, individual action was completely dependent on governmental policy, and Chinese people like herself were simply too paralyzed to even realize, or act on any form of agency.

Students in my study reported feeling intense emotions and described the fourth area of tension, which is competing viewpoints on sovereignty. Students reported that prior to coming to the US, they had not expected being challenged over the autonomy of any particular regions in China. For example, Rong, a senior in philosophy and psychology said: “They think Tibet and Taiwan should be independent… but for me, the idea that Taiwan and Tibet are part of China is just part of me, deeply rooted in my stomach. Taiwan is part of China, and Tibet is an inseparable part of China. I was surprised by how just because some Americans agreed with Dalai Lama’s religious ideology, they agreed with his political stance. They should be treated separately.

Like other students in this sample, Rong had spent the majority of her schooling in mainland China – therefore went through the patriotic education campaign. Unlike her American peers or professor who may believe the issue of sovereignty is up to the people who live in the area. To her, the idea that places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Tibet are inseparable parts of China is “part of” her, and “deeply rooted” in her stomach. In this way, her perception of sovereignty, which aligned with that of the Chinese government, saturated her life and is deeply bound up with her national identity.

Main Takeaways

My findings showed the heterogeneity in the CIS’ interpretation of responding to perceived criticisms of their home country and its culture. Many students repeated a mantra: “the more/farther you leave, the more you love your country” (??????), suggesting the salience of national identity may increase after moving to a new country. This also affirms the result of existing research, as students came to the disillusioned conclusion that the US was no utopia and had its share of problems, and that they would always be seen as foreign (Hail, 2015). Some students took offense at questions that reflected misconceptions of what China is, including stereotypes of cultural practices and stagnant development, while some others found criticisms of what China does, such as its way of governance (domestic) and claims of sovereignty (global). The variety in the nature of these questions means that one cannot label these students as simply nationalistic, irrational, or acting as tools of Chinese government in advancing its global dominance.

My findings revealed that the tension that students experience does not only come from cultural misunderstanding, differences in values, or lack of language ability but also occurs as part of a struggle on the part of themselves to act as unofficial ambassadors and to defend the national reputation and assert loyalty to one’s nation in the new context. The areas of tension that students identified are primarily situated in what China is, including different perspectives on culture and development, and what China does, which is primarily on the conflicting ideas of individual agency and views on sovereignty (global). As China is going through unprecedented economic, cultural, social, and psychological processes, what it means to be Chinese both inside and outside of China is being reconstructed and renegotiated in ways that are historically and culturally specific. These negative connotations of portrayal of China led to powerful emotional reactions on the part of the students. In a separate post, I will explore how students manage challenged cultural identity by examining the different typologies of response that they used, as well as the discourses that they accessed to defend and renegotiate their cultural identity in the context of U.S. higher education.

Particularly poignant is existing research showing that the majority of the Chinese international students will actually return to China and potentially take on important positions in academia, technology, business or government (Hao et al., 2017). If the American universities are indeed committed to support the large numbers of international students they enroll, and educators are serious and committed to strengthening individuals’ capacities in their positive change making, then universities and educators must be more attentive to pluralizing perspectives of international students, and use culturally appropriate tools and pedagogies to create opportunities (i.e., forming meaningful relationships with host students, providing opportunities to participate in reflection or perspective generating activities/clubs/coursework without directly referencing their country’s problems in areas that generates most tension.) while they are in the U.S. to facilitate these students’ success as future leaders in an even more globalized and integrated world.

References & Further Reading

Altbach, P. G., & Knight, J. (2007). The Internationalization of higher education: Motivations and realities. Journal of Studies in International Education, 11(3–4), 290–305.

Andrade, M. S. (2006). International students in English-speaking universities: Adjustment factors. Journal of Research in International Education, 5(2), 131–154.

Gacel-Ávila, J. (2005). The Internationalisation of higher education: A paradigm for global citizenry. journal of studies in international education, 9(2), 121–136.

Garrett, R. (2014). Explaining International student satisfaction: Initial analysis of data from the International Student Barometer. i-graduate International Insight.

Glass, C. R., Kociolek, E., Wongtrirat, R., Lynch, R. J., & Cong, S. (2015). Uneven experiences: The impact of student-faculty interactions on international students’ sense of belonging. Journal of International Students, 5(4), 353–367.

Hanassab, S. (2006). Diversity, international tudents, and perceived discrimination: Implications for educators and counselors. Journal of Studies in International Education, 10(2), 157–172.

Hao, X., Yan, K., Guo, S., & Wang, M. (2017). Chinese returnees’ motivation, post-return status and impact of return: A systematic review. Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, 26(1), 143–157.

Hendrickson, B., Rosen, D., & Aune, R. K. (2011). An analysis of friendship networks, social connectedness, homesickness, and satisfaction levels of international students. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 35(3), 281–295.

Heng, T. T. (2017). Voices of Chinese international students in USA colleges: ‘I want to tell them that … .’ Studies in Higher Education, 42(5), 833–850.

Heng, T. T. (2018). Different is not deficient: Contradicting stereotypes of Chinese international students in US higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 43(1), 22–36.

Heng, T. T. (2019). Understanding the heterogeneity of international students’ Experiences: A case study of Chinese international students in U.S. Universities. Journal of Studies in International Education, 23(5), 607–623.

Hotta, J., & Ting-Toomey, S. (2013). Intercultural adjustment and friendship dialectics in international students: A qualitative study. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 37(5), 550–566.

Institute of International Education. (2009). Open Doors 2009: Fast Facts: International students in the United States.

Lee, J. J., & Rice, C. (2007). Welcome to America? International student perceptions of discrimination. Higher Education, 53(3), 381–409.

Zhang, S. (2021). Voices of Chinese International Students: A critical understanding of their experiences in the United States [University of San Francisco].

[1] All names of students referenced in this article are pseudonyms.

Photo by Stephanie Hau on Unsplash


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