Lawrence Kuok: The real Chinese student story — a response to John Pomfret

Society & Culture

A response to “Chinese cash at American colleges is a massive problem.”

Ruize came to the U.S. when she was 19. She barely spoke any English and her only ideas of the U.S. were from the TV shows Growing Pains and Knight Rider. She attended Western Washington University as a supply chain management major. While she struggled at the beginning learning an entirely new language and culture, while having new subject matter, she would later become a process consultant for a Fortune 500 manufacturing company, where she would be promoted three times in three years. Today, at 29, she is about to matriculate to a top-10 M.B.A. program. As I interviewed her about her story, we first started speaking Chinese, and she was happy to oblige. But alas, even after my 20 years of learning Chinese, working at Microsoft China, working at a startup in Beijing, studying at Peking University, being a mini celebrity from one time competing on the Chinese TV show If You Are the One, and having the advantage of parents from Taiwan and Beijing, it was clear that her English was just far better than my Chinese — so I realized that I had better stick to English if I wanted to keep the pace and fluidity of the conversation.

After reading John Pomfret’s article published two weeks ago on SupChina, I believe that while certainly parts of it are true, it paints a misleading and ultimately incomplete picture of the Chinese student in America. I felt it necessary to share the overwhelming majority of stories that exist — stories like Ruize and many others that I will share.

To provide a quick recap — Pomfret’s article suggests that Chinese students go to the U.S. to study, do not assimilate into American culture, only choose to hang out with their countrymen, and only get in because universities are cash poor and Chinese students can pay the full tuition freight. He asserts,

These students end up hanging out with their compatriots, never making an American friend, and returning home with no appreciation of American civil society, its freedoms of association, speech, and religion, or its democracy. In fact, many I have spoken with can be openly hostile to Western values.

You can tell that story, but I prefer to stick with what’s actually happening in the vast majority of cases, not just hyper-headlined clickbait.

Chinese students are changing America

I work at Microsoft here in Redmond, Washington. I’m not a developer or a program manager here. I work in the business side doing M&A and Partnership on Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things. Working at Microsoft gives me the opportunity to work with some of the most brilliant scientists, developers, and program managers who come from China. For the last 10 years, Microsoft’s leadership has had many Chinese immigrants such as our artificial intelligence leader Harry Shum, and now Baidu COO Qi Lu, who was previously Microsoft’s EVP of Office and Skype. In the next layer of the organization, Chinese software developers, program managers, and scientists are changing the technology landscape with new breakthroughs in artificial intelligence or new devices such as Hololens. Most or all of these brilliant Chinese people who I meet started as Chinese students at American universities. Both the Chinese and Indian immigrant populations at Microsoft are as massive as they are impressive in their backgrounds — and this is true of nearly every prominent tech company in the world. For this article, I will stick with the Chinese, but to be sure, there is a large, prominent and equally impressive Indian population.

The original Chinese immigrant story

Before we go further, though, I would be remiss if we didn’t start with the first non-government-sponsored wave of Chinese immigrants, as they all have a similar story and it goes something like this. I’m not going to be talking about state-sponsored international exchange, as those tend to be a completely different experience and far fewer in numbers. I’m talking about ones who fled from a tumultuous nation in hopes of a better American Dream. Those Chinese students in came in droves to the U.S. following Nixon’s open-door policy, with a suitcase and a few hundred dollars in their pockets. While in China, they were the top few students of their schools and applied only to U.S. schools that would waive their application fee — they literally could not afford the $40 application fee, as one application would cost them 16 percent of their net worth. After being admitted, they didn’t choose the top-ranked university that they were admitted to, be it CalTech, MIT, or Carnegie Mellon. Rather, they chose the University of Illinois, Texas A&M, or Georgia Tech because they received a full scholarship and, more importantly, a small living stipend. During the day, they would get As in their math and science classes, while after class, they would have to TA and busboy at a local restaurant paid under the table to make enough money to afford room and board or just to have a moment of relaxation through a single slice of pizza and a beer on a Friday. That is the first-generation Chinese student story of the U.S. Of those immigrants, many are now retired, while some are now entrepreneurs, or middle to upper management at Fortune 500 companies in engineering roles. That story is often overlooked and rarely mentioned in the mainstream media. That was the story 20 to 40 years ago.

Today’s Chinese immigrant story

Admittedly, today’s students are very different and so Pomfret seems to want to recount the tales of fuerdai (富二代 fù’èrdài; children of those who became rich in the late 20th century) and guanerdai (官二代 guān’èrdài; children of officials) and stories of those students buying their way into American universities and cheating on exams or fabricating recommendations. To be sure, those stories are more interesting and easier to hate and therefore suggest there is a systemic problem. However, the overwhelming majority of Chinese students do not do that and their stories are closer to the stories from 20 to 40 years ago. The vast majority of Chinese come to the U.S. as undergrads or graduate students because they want to come to the U.S. They spend their life trying to assimilate into the U.S. and figuring out how the U.S. works.

While in China, they try to find an international teacher at their high schools or universities to write their recommendations to increase their credibility, while attaining top grades and top SAT scores. After being admitted, they struggle just to make ends meet. One girl from Microsoft named Brianna was a graduate from Mount Holyoke College where even after receiving a partial scholarship, she had to TA and work at the cafeteria in order to afford to pay for tuition plus room and board. Another previous M.B.A. student from UT Austin named Xuan had worked at a state-owned enterprise to save up enough money for his M.B.A. tuition.

When they’re in school, they become westernized in all things American. This is well illustrated by another female student, Michelle. Michelle’s best friends from her master’s program at the University of Arizona were a brunette named Alyssa from Houston and a blonde named Sherry from Denver. While in the U.S., she learned to cook a mean chicken-fried steak, closely followed the Seahawks, and is/was a bigger fan of The Hunger Games than me. While in the U.S., she never missed a Halloween party or Fourth of July BBQ, went to church, and even had a .22 Smith & Wesson M&P in her sock drawer for protection. She learned English the hard way — the way that many Chinese people do. She watched Friends. She listened to all 10 seasons of Friends over and over…and over again. As Michelle returned to China, she learned that she became too American for many local Chinese guys. She was labeled “too American for Chinese” and “too Chinese for Americans.” Pomfret tends to focus on the fact that Chinese people will always have Chinese friends, but stories like Michelle’s are the mainstream, not the exception.

To be sure, many Chinese students’ closest friends tend to be Chinese because only another Chinese student understands what they’re going through. They know what the road ahead looks like. So they know that as a Chinese student, getting an H-1B visa is freaking hard, and if they’re lucky enough to get sponsored, they have to work hard enough so that their company will sponsor them to Canada or Singapore to work for a year before coming back on an L-1 visa. Last year in 2016, 200,000 H-1B applications were filed and only 85,000 were accepted, so even the top Chinese students know that they have at best a 33 percent chance of getting their H-1B. And so, while they want to and do make friends with their Western or Indian counterparts, like all of us, they go to the path of least resistance. More importantly, their mind is hyper-focused on getting the job and staying in the U.S. Graduation, then OPT, then H-1B, then a Green Card. That’s the life of a Chinese student. It’s brutal. As for freedom of speech, assembly, and religion — like me, many Chinese people don’t feel the absolute need to bash their leaders on social media or to protest. They’re like the two out of every five Americans who didn’t vote.

Furthermore, many Chinese students — especially female students — really work hard to understand and be transformed by American culture. After living in the U.S. for a few years, they’ll have transformed, as Kaiser Kuo says, “really on top of their shit…they become cosmopolitan, savvy, and have dated a variety of people.” They’ll be very active with a few hobbies such as hiking or yoga and other clubs. While being in the states, the vast majority of Chinese students work their asses off and try to make the most of their American experience.

Make no mistake, Pomfret and others, that your average Chinese student who comes to America knows and learns orders of magnitude more than your average American that goes to China. They become much more American than Americans become Chinese. How many American students that study in China are able to speak their host country’s language 1/10 as well a Chinese student that spent the same amount of time in the U.S.? In fact, how many American executives go to China for years, and come back with a vocabulary of nihao (你好 nǐhǎo; hello), nage (那个 nàge; [I want] that one), and ganbei (干杯 gānbēi; cheers!), whereas Chinese executives in the U.S. speak and write phonetic English and can do complex business deals in English. Pomfret doesn’t use a comparison because it doesn’t help his argument. The playing field has never been fair and Pomfret’s argument exacerbates this reality and penalizes Chinese students for accomplishing nothing less than what really is spectacular.

Hard work to come to America

As I spoke with a Yale M.B.A. grad named Blaire, she recounted her tales of studying for the GMAT. Every day, she’d lock herself in a room for 10 hours to study because she knew that going to these institutions could provide her with the career and economic mobility that she wanted. While the quant section of the GMAT was relatively easy for her and more a matter of learning the American terms of quotient or perpendicular, she did every publicly available GMAT question for the verbal section. She knew that a 720 — which is the average at Yale SOM — wouldn’t cut it because she’s Chinese. She knew that she needed a 760+, which is scoring in the top 1 percent. Today, she’s a director of digital for a Fortune 500 retailer. Other Chinese students also tell me their painful experiences of studying for the SATs where they had to take New Oriental prep classes, but would also hibernate, memorize, and practice until they could get their targeted SAT score.

I don’t want to entirely dismiss John Pomfret’s reporting. I’ve met those students who are fuerdai, and their parents got their money from selling two homes in East Second Ring Road in Beijing and replacing them with a house in Medina and/or Clyde Hill as the student attends the University of Washington and got in by outsourcing the application. Many of them have only Chinese students as best friends, so what Pomfret says is not entirely untrue or fiction — it’s just incredibly incomplete and nonrepresentative. The vast majority of Chinese students come to the U.S. from a very middle-class family of doctors, lawyers, or middle management of state-owned enterprises, or have their own small or medium business. They send their children to the U.S. in hopes that their children can become bicultural and figure out the U.S., as the U.S. is still the geopolitical and soft power leader in the world. Furthermore, they come to the U.S. because their parents don’t want their kids to ever have to go through the gaokao (高考 gāokǎo; college entrance exam). Being a Chinese student is tougher than being a student in the U.S. Xuan recounted his time in Hubei when he would need to go to school and cram school from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, but when he got to UT Austin, he could finally have some fun. Ruize spoke of her high school the same way, as did Brianna and Michelle. Every Chinese student I have interviewed recalls a similar high-school life.

Chinese talent to supplement American shortage

In the U.S., we face a huge shortage of engineers. Every tech firm offers maybe $1,000 for a referral of a non-engineer, but will offer $5,000 or even $10,000 for a referral of an engineer. Chinese students are filling up the tech firms and helping fill this engineering gap. Every year China produces about the same amount of engineers that France has in total. Admitting more Chinese students to American universities means that many great minds will try to stay in the U.S. and work at American firms with American direction, and not go back to China to work at Chinese firms. This strengthens American companies and, in turn, America — remember, geopolitical strength is heavily predicated upon a country’s wealth and nothing has created greater wealth in the U.S. like the tech boom in the last 10 years.

As an American, I want the tech breakthroughs to be done in America, not in China, and that has and will continue to be done in great part by Chinese students. These students are contributing to the innovations that we see today. Amazon’s Alexa, while already very impressive, is a drop in the bucket of what voice assistants can and will do. Many of the scientists behind Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Home are Chinese — and were Chinese students at American universities — and they’re making the future come to life while having the privilege of contributing to the 39.6 percent federal income tax bracket. So how do we as a nation continue to innovate? By bringing more Chinese students.

Pursuing the American Dream — like the rest of us  

When SupChina editor-in-chief Jeremy Goldkorn asked me to write this article, I sent an email to the Chinese employees at Microsoft’s distribution list copying Pomfret’s article. If they didn’t know who Pomfret was then, they do now. I told the group that I would be writing an article to refute Pomfret’s claims and I needed their help in hearing their stories. I was swarmed with interview requests because they vehemently disagreed with Pomfret’s claims.

So, while it’s fascinating to read about Pomfret’s attempt to illustrate subversive organizations through the Chinese Students and Scholars Association or the rich Chinese students buying their way into U.S. universities or attacking the Western values since the 1940s of nearly unlimited free speech, assembly, and religion, that is not the goal for the overwhelming majority of Chinese people in the U.S. Chinese professionals who were previously Chinese students want to live the American life by working at a job they love, shopping at Costco, having a golden retriever, raising two kids who can speak English and Chinese, and going home to watch Game of Thrones with Chinese subtitles. That’s why they worked so hard as a student — for this American life that they’re finally living and enjoying. And honestly, John, they deserve it.