How to Burst a Bubble

Before the big China story of the week hit early Thursday evening, some of us in the China Twittersphere were discussing the socialization issues for Chinese students in the West.

Why, for instance, do so many become so-called “sea turtles” — returning home after getting an education? More troublingly, why do so many walk away from their experiences in the West with a sour taste in their mouth? Why does nationalism spike among overseas Chinese even though they have unfettered access to information?

After going back and forth on the topic of Western rudeness to Chinese students — rudeness that I assert is typical to all societies, including China itself— I asserted that socialization issues largely stemmed from the failure of Chinese students to leave the bubbles they construct in host countries.

Accepting this, Cameron Campbell asked,

Tanner Greer showed up in the conversation and offered a number of thoughts that he eventually curated here. His initial sketch was outlined in this Tweet:

I’m largely in agreement with Tanner’s program of action (read at the link) especially with regard to CSSA’s — overseas Chinese student organizations that allegedly work in concert with the Chinese government — and the censorship that China exports through WeChat. China is able to effectively impose ideological and informational filters on its overseas student population through these tools, in part because many Chinese students are in over their heads.

As James Palmer — who started the whole conversation — noted,

Without going into greater detail, James’ observation here should ring true to anyone involved in education in China, or to anyone who has taught Chinese students in the West.

On Thursday night I jotted down a few thoughts about how to reform the education system when it comes to Chinese students in Western countries. There’s a little overlap with Tanner, but these points mostly stand on their own.

Point one — reform the homestay system. Homestays, in which students stay with a host family for a short time (or a long time) in a Western country, are used to give Chinese students a foot in the door academically. In theory, homestays provide an immersive English environment and adult guidance to the Chinese student who will attend one or two years of high school before going to university. Yet homestay is now a growing business, and not all homestay families provide individualized care to their Chinese guests. I know of several homestay families who run their homestay like Airbnb, warehousing two or four or six Chinese students together in a guest house. This diminishes the socialization opportunities of homestay and encourages Chinese students to construct a Chinese bubble early on.

Point two — discourage “Chinese housing” in university. Most universities in the United States and elsewhere have dormitories and off-campus student housing that becomes de facto segregated into Chinese graduate and undergraduate student housing areas and housing for everyone else. When I was at Florida State my first roommate was Chinese, but like other Chinese students he was eager to get to Florida State’s graduate student apartment complex, which was jokingly called “Chinatown” by other postgraduates and international students. He moved out and into his bubble before the end of his first semester. While nothing can be done about private off-campus housing, universities ought to require Chinese students to socialize with Western roommates during their first year, especially when those students are required to take remedial English training. (Which is to say, most Chinese students.)

Point three — eliminate or curtail “international student diplomas” and other programs that explicitly target Chinese students. During the 2000s, Australian and Canadian schools embarked on an educational experiment: creating international diploma programs for Chinese students that would enable the students to claim that they received a “Western education” without tying the students’ academic performance to existing degree programs. This academic firewall also led to the creation of new majors like “international accounting” and “international business” which were filled with Chinese students. One of my former students, who worked day and night to score 7.0 on the IELTS exam and get into an Australian university, expressed his shock that his wealthier classmates — in a nearly all Chinese cohort — could barely speak English. In other cases, joint programs created by Western schools and Chinese hosts offer “Western university classes” to Chinese students, but the materials are dumbed down compared to what the students would learn in an actual Western classroom. One of my former colleagues taught a Canadian business law class to Chinese students, and the final exam passing grade had to be lowered to 30% so that an acceptable number of students could continue in the program. That’s not education. That’s just taking people’s money.

Point four — coordinate the international offices of each university and relevant university departments to integrate Chinese students into the student body. One of the big issues with CSSAs, besides the Chinese government interference, is that they become the dominant organization through which Mainland Chinese students interact with their host campus and society. Part of this is, as Tanner said, clannishness. But it’s also a failure of outreach on the part of student governments (student unions) and other campus organizations. Ironically, campus religious organizations do a better job at outreach to Chinese students than their secular liberal counterparts, but since that outreach has a missionary bent it is self-limiting. Arguably, campus progressive politics, which sees students divided into groups, such as Black Student Unions and Latino Student Unions, has allowed CSSAs to present themselves as the authentic voice of overseas Chinese students on campus. Bestowing authority upon CSSAs to represent all Chinese students only reinforces the filters that CSSAs impose on those students. Instead, student governments need to engage directly with its international student populations, bringing them into the governing structure of student activities and also actively promoting recruitment of international students by student clubs and engagement in campus life. Lastly, universities could offer additional scholarships to international students that mandate community involvement in after-school programs, environmental cleanup, and cultural exchanges.

These points are only part of a larger conversation. I’m sure Tanner will develop his ideas more, and I welcome other participants in the discussion, especially Chinese themselves.