Ambitious and Anxious

Yingyi Ma’s book “Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education” is a thoroughly researched and extensive survey of the lives of Chinese undergraduates in the US over the last couple of decades. With the number of Chinese students in the US increasing from 55,000 in 2000 to over 369,000 in 2019, this book provides necessary and contemporary insight. With few nuanced resources out there in English about the subject, and increasing xenophobia amongst politicians and the media in the US, the book’s greatest success is in humanizing an overly simplistic view of Chinese students. The book is also valuable for advice on how higher education institutions can better meet the ambitions of these students and alleviate the increasing anxieties as they adjust to life as a student in the US. 

Too often over the last decade, insitutitions have often focused on the pull factors in attracting Chinese students to campus, as they are much more likely to be full pay than other international students, yet there has been less focus on the true ambitions and anxieties of students after arriving. 

At the beginning of the book there is heavy data and interviews with a disparate group of Chinese students about the push factors that have encouraged over 300,000 Chinese students to travel thousands of miles from their family for an education. There are the well known tropes of escaping the rigorous Chinese college entry examination test and interest in US culture, or the soft power pull of Hollywood, but by far the greatest push is the fact that US higher education is a great way for students to set themselves apart from other future job seekers back in China.  

Prior to 2007, most Chinese students were very interested in finding ways to continue to develop practical skills in the US and find long term employment or even a pathway to immigration. However, today, an overwhelming majority of students plan to return home soon after receiving a Master’s or terminal degree. Aside from burdensome work visas and a bamboo ceiling (which is often used in reference to barriers Asian-Americans face in professional advancement opportunities, and is not lost on students from China) here in the US, the greatest lure to return to China is simply that there are increasingly more lucrative jobs back home that are near family and friends. A Master’s or terminal degree from a well known university is very attractive to these students (and something we do a great job of preparing our students for here at Sewanee). 

In every educational institution that I personally have worked at, there were a significant number of students from China, and I have been asked a significant number of times from a diverse range of faculty, staff, and students the question “Why don’t Chinese students want to make US friends and are unwilling to speak out in class.” But according to Yingyi’s data, and my own experience working with Chinese students, most arrive here with a strong desire to connect. 

According to Yingyi’s research, most students are very excited to engage in discussion based classes, socialize with US peers and professors, and develop cosmopolitan capital (or a foundation of understanding of the increasingly global, interconnected socioeconomic environment), even though they often struggle to do so. Knowing most students have these desires, I think it is imperative we also ask, why aren’t US students connecting more or reaching out, and what can professors do to help engage these students in and outside of the classroom. In our Greek Life system, we have only one student from China actively involved, to my knowledge, yet we have almost 20 students from China at our institution. Yingyi suggests there should be more intentional engagement for socializing and engagement in and outside of the classroom that extends beyond orientation.

One relevant point about the withdrawal or exclusion of students from American networks includes the let down that American rural life presents to students largely coming from urban China. For Chinese students living in the rural US, it comes as quite a surprise to many that schools and entertainment are not as vibrant or as exciting as that of Hollywood films, nor their urban homes in China. Here at Sewanee we do have access to some exciting urban centers, and more engagement or trips would certainly be helpful in giving students a taste of urban life considering transportation is often a hindrance.

There are plenty of articles and politicians portraying these students as entitled, wealthy ‘Little Emperors’ looking to buy their way through an American education and then return state secrets to their billionaire cadre parents. However, Yingyi Ma’s book refreshingly offers hard data presented to the contrary. A large portion of the Chinese students in the US, and here at Sewanee, are by no means extremely wealthy. Most are middle class and feel greatly indebted to their family for making significant sacrifices in order for them to be here. These sacrifices weigh very heavily upon the shoulders of students who hope to pay it back someday by finding successful jobs, and as a result they often are very pragmatic in their selection of a major. This extreme pressure increasingly manifests itself in the form of anxiety, and mental health concerns across the country. 

Personally, one of my greatest struggles while reading the book was knowing that the anxieties of students from China have greatly shifted or multiplied since the book was published in February of 2020, just weeks before Wuhan went on lockdown. Most of the research for the book would have been conducted prior to 2018 when Trump’s trade war really picked up steam alongside a major rise in Anti-Asian xenophobia. Over the past years a few students from China were victims of horrific homicides and random gun violence; in the US these murders barely made local news, but they were almost front page news across China. Not only have the anxieties increased exponentially, the shine of a US education as a great place to develop cosmopolitan capital has been greatly tarnished. In 2020, these anxieties lead to a 20% decrease in the number of students from China enrolling in US colleges. Regardless if the peak has come and gone, Chinese students will continue to be a significant part of US campuses, as well as ours for the near future.

Moving forward, our Office of Global Citizenship hopes to provide more sustained seminars and engagement with faculty to help professors better understand international students, as well as the opportunity for international students to better understand the US classroom and campus. Please never hesitate to reach out if you have any suggestions or questions to help our international students thrive here at Sewanee, or if you are interested in collaborating. 

I would highly recommend this book to anyone in higher education. 


Marcus Murphy, Coordinator of Global Initiatives and Instructor of Chinese

Other resources: 

If you are interested in the topic but unlikely to have time for the book, one of my favorite podcasts about China current events, Sinica, hosted a very thorough conversation with the author. I highly recommend the episode, and all Sinica episodes: https://supchina.com/podcast/chinese-college-students-in-the-u-s-with-yingyi-ma/

You can now read the book online through our library here: https://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/detail/detail?vid=1&sid=0192757c-3d88-42ab-94b6-37194e238fb1%40sessionmgr101&bdata=JkF1dGhUeXBlPXNzbyZzaXRlPWVkcy1saXZl#AN=tigr.b3421184&db=cat07532a 

The TV show mentioned in the book “A Love for Separation” captures the educational anxiety zeitgeist through the lives of three Beijing families toiling with the plan to send their child abroad for high-school. It can be watched in its entirety on Youtube with subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPeYxzXtZRg&list=PLRWT6lKXUm2klCQ7oGWAV0cfoxrUiSmdG

If you would like a shorter option, the very entertaining film “American Dreams in China” is a 2013 blockbuster that is based on the founding of New Oriental, one of the largest education companies in China and the world which was originally focused on sending students abroad. 

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