Chinese student adjusts to western ways.
In her ballroom dance class, Li Wanrong has learned to tango and cha-cha. At lunch one day, she tried a strange mix of flavors — pepperoni pizza, the spicy sausage and oozing cheese nearly burning her tongue. Then there was that Friday night before going clubbing for the first time when new friends gave her a makeover, and she looked in the mirror to see an American girl smiling back wearing a little black dress, red lipstick and fierce eyeliner.
“I say ‘wow’ a lot,” says Ms. Li, a freshman at Drew University, a small liberal arts school in Madison, N.J.
Against her parents’ wishes, she studied for and took the SAT in Hong Kong, a three-hour bus ride from her home in southern China. She told them she was going there to do some shopping. Her parents eventually came around, persuaded by her determination and a $12,000 scholarship that would take some of the sting out of the $40,000 tuition at Drew, which her high school teacher had recommended.
Describing her whirlwind transformation to college kid sometimes leaves Ms. Li at a loss for words. And sometimes the cultural distance seems too much, especially when facing dining options in the cafeteria. “Sometimes I feel when I go back to China I’ll never eat a hamburger ever again,” she says, laughing.
Ms. Li is part of a record wave of Chinese high school graduates enrolling in American colleges, joining the fabric of campus life as roommates and study partners and contributing to the global perspectives to which colleges are so eager to expose their students.
“China is going to matter greatly to all students in the 21st century,” says Robert Weisbuch, president of Drew, which has increased its international enrollment by 60 percent in the last five years. “We feel it is important to provide the opportunity for American and Chinese students to learn from one another.”
While China’s students have long filled American graduate schools, its undergraduates now represent the fastest-growing group of international students. In 2008-9, more than 26,000 were studying in the United States, up from about 8,000 eight years earlier, according to the Institute of International Education.
Students are ending up not just at nationally known universities, but also at regional colleges, state schools and even community colleges that recruit overseas. Most of these students pay full freight (international students are not eligible for government financial aid) — a benefit for campuses where the economic downturn has gutted endowments or state financing.
The boom parallels China’s emergence as the world’s largest economy after the United States. China is home to a growing number of middle-class parents who have saved for years to get their only child into a top school, hoping for an advantage in a competitive job market made more so by a surge in college graduates. Since the 1990s, China has doubled its number of higher education institutions. More than 60 percent of high school graduates now attend a university, up from 20 percent in the 1980s. But this surge has left millions of diploma-wielding young people unable to find white-collar work in a country still heavily reliant on low-paying manufacturing.
“The Chinese are going to invest in anything that gives them an edge, and having a U.S. degree certainly gives them that edge back home,” says Peggy Blumenthal, a vice president at the Institute of International Education. American colleges offer the chance to gain fluency in English, develop real-world skills, and land a coveted position with a multinational corporation or government agency.
Ding Yinghan grew up in a modest apartment with his mother, a marketing executive, and his father, a civil servant in Beijing’s work safety administration whose own mother is illiterate. A child of the “new China,” he is fully aware that his generation has opportunities unavailable to any before.
His parents pushed him to study hard — and study abroad — because they have little faith in the Chinese education system. Sipping tea in their living room one sweltering August afternoon, Mr. Ding’s mother, Meng Suyan, reflects on the Chinese classroom. “In the U.S. they focus on creative-thinking skills, while in China they only focus on theory,” she says. “So what university students learn here doesn’t prepare them for the real world.”
Says Mr. Ding: “Chinese values require me to be a good listener, and Western values require me to be a good speaker.”
A bespectacled whiz kid, Mr. Ding was accepted early admission to Hamilton College in upstate New York following a yearlong exchange program at a North Carolina public high school. Now a junior, he is on a full scholarship, No. 1 in his class and spending this year at Dartmouth on a dual-degree engineering program. He also founded the bridge club at Hamilton, ran the Ping-Pong team, wrote for the student newspaper and tutored in chemistry, physics and economics for $8.50 an hour.
His first tutoring job was freshman year, when his advanced calculus professor asked him to help classmates struggling with the material. Over textbooks and calculators, Mr. Ding used the opportunity to practice his English and find commonalities with people who had never met someone from China.
At Hamilton, he is surrounded by wealth — some students, he says, fly to Manhattan on weekends in helicopters, party with Champagne instead of beer, and smoke $100 cigars. It’s a new experience for a man who gets his hair cut a few times a year because the $15 is a lot of money for his parents, who fret that they cannot afford to provide him with health insurance in the United States. But sending their child to live across the world is a worthy sacrifice, says his father, Ding Dapeng. “In China 25 years ago it was rare to even go to university, so for Yinghan to study in the U.S. is a real miracle.”
“Today the world is so small,” he says. “Only by broadening his knowledge with an international background can Yinghan really become a global citizen.”
THE cultural exchange perhaps manifests itself most in the intimacy of the shared dorm room.
When Mariapaola La Barbera learned last summer that her roommate at Drew would come from China, her mother was thrilled. “She said, ‘They’re smart people, so you’ll learn from her and be focused.’ ”
She shares a room with Li Wanrong. The two have tacked funky tie-dye tapestries and a poster of the Eiffel Tower to the walls; Ms. Li is planning to study Spanish while perfecting her English, and has taped the words “hola” and “muy bien” next to her laptop.
“Wanrong is very brave,” Ms. La Barbera says. “I give her a lot of credit for moving across the world and being so focused.” Still, Ms. La Barbera, who knew no one from China, says: “It’s different. I’m not going to lie.”
They have different groups of friends but are friendly. The roommates have taught each other words in Mandarin and Italian, discussed the political differences between the United States and China, and had impromptu lessons on American slang.
Ms. Li’s teachers in China had told her that American parents kick their children out of the house when they turn 18. Ms. La Barbera, who goes home to Staten Island every weekend, has corrected this misconception.
“She’s like a window,” Ms. Li says. “I can watch her and see what Americans are like.”
As a freshman at Central Michigan University, Qi Fan realized that even Americans come from different cultures. His roommates — one black, one white — spoke to him in different accents and had social circles that largely matched their own skin color. Sometimes they would grab him out of bed and drag him to parties where beer pong was played all night.
Mr. Qi had learned of Central Michigan from a Chinese friend who went there, and it was talked up by a company in China that recruits students. Originally he had considered Britain or Germany, but his parents decided there was little point in paying for college in “second-tier” countries, and they would send him to the United States “no matter what, because it’s the super power.”
But the American myth faded once he settled in. He disliked a campus culture that “was all about drinking,” and wanted a high-profile school closer to New York’s finance world. In his sophomore year, Mr. Qi transferred to the University at Albany, of the State University of New York. He says he is happy there, makes trips to New York City in the car he just bought, and avoids any drinking culture by living with other Chinese off campus.
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