The Chinese student experience in America, with Siqi Tu and Eric Fish


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This week, our featured topic is Chinese students overseas. There are about 800,000 of them, and according to China’s Ministry of Education, nearly 80 percent choose to return to China soon after finishing their education. This group is referred to as “sea turtles” (海龟; a pun on 海归 hǎiguī, meaning “to return from overseas”) for their ambitious swim to and from faraway shores. Historically, overseas Chinese students were almost exclusively from the wealthiest and best-educated families in Chinese society, but nowadays, the group is dramatically more diverse. The new students abroad, however, face many of the same identity issues that the previous generations faced.

Chinese students who are studying at American universities are, as Eric Fish put it in an article on SupChina recently, caught in a cross fire. Many of these 300,000-plus students find themselves grappling with their Chinese — or, as most Americans simply see it, “Asian” — identity for the first time, and are taken aback by the biased views that many Americans have about China. They feel forced to choose: to either defend their country against ignorant attacks, or take very Americanized worldviews to prove that they are not “brainwashed.” But if they go too far and adopt too liberal of a viewpoint, they may get accused back home of being a “white-left” (白左 báizuǒ; a derogatory term for white Western liberals).

To discuss the ideology and identity issues at play, as well as more routine aspects of the Chinese student experience in America, we welcome Eric Fish — the author of China’s Millennials, who is now working on a second book about university students from China in the U.S. — and Siqi Tu — a graduate student in sociology at the City University of New York looking at Chinese high school students in America. The podcast was recorded live in New York at the China Institute on March 14.


Jeremy: For anyone who (like him) is having trouble with the American bureaucracy regulating septic tanks as they try to build a house in a holler (what people in Tennessee call a hollow, or a small valley between two hills), Jeremy recommends the Sun-Mar Compact Composting Toilet and the EcoJohn Waterless Incinerating Toilet. No septic permit necessary!

Siqi: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s written by a Nigerian immigrant to America about her experience figuring out racial identity in the country, finding love, and then undergoing reverse culture shock upon returning to Nigeria.

Eric: Fortunate Sons: The 120 Chinese Boys Who Came to America, Went to School, and Revolutionized an Ancient Civilization, by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller. It’s about the experience of what is considered the first group of Chinese students to come over to the U.S., way back in 1872.

Kaiser: America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, by Anatol Lieven, an incredibly prescient book written six years ago.