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American Universities Can Do More to Improve Communication between Americans and Overseas Chinese St

Apr 08, 2015

Earlier this year, news surfaced that several members of a Chinese student delegation to the Harvard Model United Nations in Boston were ejected from the event after protesting the listing of Taiwan as a country in the official meeting handbook. Although these particular Chinese students were not attending American universities, the incident raised the question of whether international student exchange truly promotes goodwill and understanding. There are now over a quarter of a million Chinese international students studying in the United States, comprising over 30 percent of the international student population. While large-scale protests involving overseas Chinese students have not resurfaced since 2008, some Chinese students continue to feel tension with their American peers. The implications of this should not be overstated, however. There is no evidence to suggest that Chinese international students return to China more anti-American or pro-authoritarian than when they came. Indeed, there is some evidence that returnees are less nationalistic than the Chinese middle class as a whole.

On the other hand, conflicts between Chinese international students and Americans still occur, and leave some Chinese feeling extremely angry and aggrieved. A Chinese student involved with the Harvard Model United Nations incident remarked, “Even though now I am more than 100 miles away from the scene, as I am sitting on my bed in the hotel room, I can still feel the blood rushing to my head . . . So these are the human rights that America is preaching every day — but where are those rights now? . . . Americans treat you with bias if you are Chinese. Being Chinese just won’t do. This is a fact.” These sentiments are cause for concern, for they suggest that an event meant to facilitate cross-national understanding instead led to increased antagonism. Moreover, her sentiments are not unique. Several Chinese international students have complained to me that Americans are hostile toward China and treat Chinese people with bias. Fortunately, there are some steps which universities can take to reduce friction between Chinese and American students, and indeed, promote friendship and understanding.

In 2009 I conducted a qualitative study of Chinese international students at a public research university in the United States. I found that although most respondents felt uncomfortable when hearing Americans speak negatively about China and the Chinese government, and would occasionally react defensively through outright displays of patriotism, many of these same students supported the ideals and practices of liberal democracy and hoped that China would gradually democratize. Their patriotic defense of their country in the face of Western criticism was not primarily based on ideological disagreement. Rather, these students defended China because they felt that Western criticism of China was politically-motivated or reflected a general Western tendency to look down on Chinese people.

There was variation, however, in the ways Chinese students interpreted American attitudes toward China. I found that those students who regularly socialized with American students were more likely to empathize, though not necessarily agree, with Americans who critiqued China’s human rights record. The Chinese students who were most likely to view American criticism of China as coming from benevolent intentions or simple misunderstanding were those who shared some kind of common identity with their American peers, such as Christian religious identity or as classmates in a highly interactive course. I also found that, despite their tendency to defend China from any Western criticism, most respondents in my study expressed admiration for American egalitarianism and plurality, which they usually learned about through their observations of American life outside the classroom. One graduate student, for example, recounted feeling excited when she saw demonstrators on campus expressing support for and against same-sex marriage. Although she bristled when her American friends teased her that these kinds of demonstrations were illegal in China, she told me that this demonstration impressed her and that she thought that Chinese citizens should also have the right to demonstrate in public since “this could serve as a kind of communication between the people and the government.”

Despite all of the cross-national learning which is indeed taking place, Chinese international students, particularly students in majors where many of their classmates are also from China, can easily spend several years in the United States without making a single American friend. This is cause for concern, as those Chinese students who lack American friends are more likely to feel that Americans hold malevolent intentions toward China. This segregation is not always by choice, as international students from all over the world report difficulty striking up conversations with people from their host country, and many American students show little interest in cultivating friendships with Chinese students.

Fortunately, there are some simple steps that administrators can take to encourage positive cross-national interaction. First, the university should employ a Mandarin-speaking counselor who, in addition to acting as a liaison, would be responsible for helping Chinese international students adjust to the host culture and avoid misunderstandings. Second, the university should require all first-year students to take a course on intercultural communication. This course should maintain a low student-to-teacher ratio and regularly utilize active learning techniques, group work, and social activities such as class potlucks in order to cultivate a sense of camaraderie among classmates from different backgrounds. Third, since many Chinese graduate students, particularly those in the hard sciences, rarely find opportunities to socialize with Americans, universities should sponsor social activities organized by residence halls. Even the most solitary student will participate in activities that offer free food. Finally, universities should sponsor China-related academic talks and colloquiums featuring experts who approach Chinese issues with nuance and diplomacy. Since many Chinese international students complain that they feel voiceless in the United States, Chinese graduate students and professors should be invited to present their views. This would serve as a much-needed alternative to mainstream American media, which too often promote negative stories about China and a singularly pessimistic view of U.S.-China relations.

Social psychological research has shown the important role that social identity, including national identity, plays within social interaction. Chinese students’ national identity becomes especially salient when they are studying abroad. However, the fervor of nationalism can be balanced by establishing casual and friendly cross-national social ties. As is common in other Asian cultures, Chinese typically avoid discussion of sensitive topics, especially politics, when making new friends. By encouraging friendly socialization between Chinese and Americans, universities and other hosting institutions can establish the solidarity upon which weightier issues can be discussed.

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