Why Chinese students find it hard to make friends on US campuses

March 31, 2015 16:09
Overseas Chinese students resent the negative image that many Americans have about China and its political and social systems. This leads to uneasy relationships on campuses. Photo: Bloomberg

With the swelling ranks of Chinese students on US campuses, the impact of geopolitical tensions on interpersonal relations can't be ignored, a new study suggests.

Imagine you're 17 or 18 years old, 7,000 miles away from home, at a strange new school in country that you’ve been taught to see as one at odds with the Motherland.

Or, put another way, you've been taught that your country is the center of the universe.

Welcome to life as an overseas Chinese student in America.

Chinese students complain that American students want to talk to them about China but instead end up serving misinformed, prejudiced and offensive views of Chinese current events, says Henry Chiu Hail, author of "Patriotism Abroad: Overseas Chinese Students' Encounters with Criticisms of China".

On the other hand, Chinese students are indoctrinated early on that the United States is a revisionist power that seeks to curtail Beijing's political influence and harm its interests.

"Conflicting views of China's political and social situation can sometimes lead to intense hostility between Chinese and host country students," Hail told Inside Higher Ed in an interview about his study.

Without a doubt, friendships between Chinese and American students take place but, for some, it's hard to take geopolitics out of the equation.

Hail, an American researcher at the University of California at Irvine, said some Chinese students get upset because they feel in even the most innocuous statement or question that the status of China or Chinese people is being attacked or threatened in some way.

Evidently, topics that send Chinese students off the deep end can range from smog to food safety to corruption to the wealth gap.

Others feel it important to demonstrate loyalty to China in talking to Americans.

As Hail writes, "While being interviewed, several Chinese participants started to complain about various problems in China, only to follow their complaints with an expression of guilt and a desire to re-establish their sense of loyalty to China.

"For example, one student, after spending several minutes talking about corruption in China, suddenly asked me, 'Do you think that I’m a traitor? I shouldn’t say bad things about China to you'".

Other Chinese students objected to criticism that they believed was intended to undermine China’s national interests.

Subjects to avoid here include innovation, currency manipulation, the one-child policy, rule of law, Tibet, Taiwan, human rights and the Communist Party of China.

"Although the Chinese government needs to improve in some ways, the most important thing for China is to be united. So as a Chinese person, I am strongly against this kind of criticism," said one student.

Are Chinese students too defensive? The answer is probably yes.

Perhaps that's why some Chinese students simply avoid speaking of sensitive subjects with Americans in order to avoid conflict.

Others avoid Americans altogether, choosing to hang out only with other Chinese students.

David Sun, a senior at University of Illinois, told Inside Higher Ed about a woman he knows who spent time trying to forge deep friendships with Americans as a freshman only to decide, in her sophomore year, that "it's not worth it".

"She tried to make real friends, real American friends—not people who just say hi or people who just grab a drink or a coffee; she tried to make it something deep—but if you want to do this, it’s hard to have it both ways. When it comes to a very deep level, it’s hard," Sun said.

Hail emphasizes that a lot of the defensiveness on the part of the Chinese students he interviewed was situational in nature, with many feeling that they needed to counteract perceived anti-China biases in the American media, Inside Higher Ed noted.

"The fact is that not only do Americans mostly see negative images of China, they also often see China as a threat, while a lot of Chinese see the United States as jealous of China’s rising power. They see the United States as trying to limit China’s ascendance," says Hail.

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