Dan Harris over at China Law Blog made a bold post today relaying complaints students at the University of Washington have for their fellow international students from Mainland China. He qualified that the complaints were directed at students from China and not of students with Chinese ethnicity. He also qualified the students whom he got the complaints were “sophisticated, intelligent, and well-traveled.”
In this post, I’d like to address those complaints. Before I get into it though, I’d like to make several observations.
First of all, I believe Harris did this with sincerity, and as he said in his article, he hopes for a constructive discussion and asked what can be done about the situation. After reading the complaints, I think something ought to be done too. Those complaints are genuine (rightfully or wrongfully) – and I believe the situation can be improved.
Secondly, I think this is one of the posts symptomatic of the English language ‘China’ blogs that is often plagued by the dominant narratives in American mainstream thinking. America is often arrogant and doesn’t seem to be able to find fault within itself.
Harris could have found a few Mainland Chinese students and get their take. Why doesn’t Harris have some Mainland Chinese students at University of Washington who he can readily talk to as he did others – after-all, his firm specializes in doing business in China. You’d expect his firm smart enough to have Mainland Chinese students who understands Chinese law and studying international law (or something related) at University of Washington to intern for his firm. Without balance from the Mainland Chinese students perspective, the article panders to the nasty views in America towards ‘China.’ The complaints read a lot like the China bashing that exists in the mainstream American press; ignorant, some truths, and some lies.
In fact, he later says he observes these complaints not only in the U.S. but also in the U.K. and Australia. What do I make of that? I guess bogeyman ‘China’ is most prevalent in the Anglo-saxon countries?
So, with an eye towards constructively improving the situation at University of Washington, this is my take:
“They don’t come here to learn. They just come here for the grades.” I have heard this one at least a half dozen times.
One should ask how do you get the grades without the learning? I think a ‘better’ criticism would be they are too intensely after good grades. These students parents having to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars (incredible sums by Chinese standards), they expect their kids to have learned something. The only way to show that is by having good grades.
Robert Compton in his “2 Million Minutes” film in fact tries to argue why the pursuit of academics need to happen more in America. There is a huge segment of America who would actually encourage pursuing good grades.
“I am convinced that if our teacher asked the class what 2+2 equals, and nobody spoke up who is not from China, not a single student from China would answer.” I have heard some form of this one at least a dozen times.
I can sympathize with this criticism. I think Americans would find the China students take on issues interesting, and perhaps even enlightening. That is the reason for diversity at the university. The exchanges deepen understanding. So, I find it rather shameful the atmosphere at University of Washington isn’t one where those students are actively speaking out in class.
Since I have first hand experience about MIT, I will use that school as an example in contrast. MIT’s international student population is a bit over 33% of the entire student body. Those international students, the ‘China’ ones included, thrive there. Why is that? I am sure the phenomenon at University of Washington exists at some other schools across America, but I don’t think that’s always the case.
I think a lot of factors contribute to that atmosphere, including the sentiment expressed in this next criticism:
“They are killing class discussion. They never contribute.” One student told me of how all the students not from China agreed not to speak one day to see what would happen. There was no class discussion and the teacher asked them not to do it again.
– is the attitude of the ‘host’ students.
Harris should have asked those University of Washington students whether they did anything to welcome the China students or to make them feel comfortable at these discussions. I don’t think it is very hard. If one is interested in their take on issues, one could simply solicit. How about, “hey, so and so, Chinese society might be different, could you tell us what you think about this and that.”
What this group of students did to confront the situation is mean. A more mature way to go about it is to bring it up with the professor and try to find some ways to engage.
For this lack of participation phenomenon, I put the blame at thirds each for University of Washington, the China students, and the disrespectful students.
“I cannot even stand having to listen to them give presentations. Their English is terrible and they don’t even try. Somebody else must have taken the tests for them.”
I deal with ‘terrible English’ on a daily basis and work across four time zones. The students who complain about bad English will have a rude awakening in our modern world. The meat is in the idea and the substance of what others are trying to say. We are in a interconnected world, and Americans should learn to look beyond ‘bad English.’ The fact that everyone has to communicate so much in the English language is already an incredible perk for native speakers.
The students not trying is certainly the students fault. I can’t believe all the students are that way. For allowing this phenomenon to fester, I would put some blame on University of Washington.
“The school is going to regret having admitted them. They will never donate money to the school as alumni. It will be like they were never here at all.”
I would say the data shows otherwise. This is a racist view. People who become successful and are generous donate, doesn’t matter what ethnicity they are or what country they come from.
“You will never see any of them at any school function. Never ever ever. Unless it can help them with a grade.” I am constantly hearing this one.
President Obama few years ago launched the 100,000 Strong initiative to encourage more American students studying in China. For those students, I wonder if the Chinese students end up making the same type of complaints. So, the question here is what can be done to encourage participation?
The China students should find ways to participate more. As hosts, the American students should make participation welcoming. This situation requires the both to tangle. There is no other way.
“They never make any effort to talk with anyone other than those who are also from China.”
I agree with this criticism mostly. China students should try to engage. At the same time I think Americans should realize it is hard for them due to the language and cultural barrier. But, to expect all initiative lies on the China students part is the wrong attitude.
“They cheat all the time. It is pretty unbelievable how often I have seen them cheating. I am always complaining to my professors about this, but they usually just act like they are too important to deign to deal with something like this. Just come watch a test being adminstered and it will be obvious. They are allowed to get away with it because they pay the foreign tuition rate. It isn’t fair.” I hear this one constantly as well and, needless to say, it is the one that causes the most anger.
Students of all colors and shapes and sizes cheat. University of Washington has to tackle this issue like any other educational institution. Expel the cheaters. The urge to pin this on ‘China’ is a racist impulse. Nothing intelligent about this complaint at all.
“My friend with a 3.8 GPA and 650 SATs didn’t get in and had to go to ______. I know he/she would have contributed far more to the school than these students from China.”
University of Washington has limited spots, so I think this is a legitimate concern to be followed up with the school. Perhaps the schools has rational reasons for not accepting those 3.8 GAP and 650 SATs students. But it is not a zero sum admissions process with only the China students. There are other local students as well those from other countries. Perhaps there are ‘worse’ ones who shouldn’t been admitted instead. Not fair to single out students from China.
“I’ve heard that most of them cheated to get in.”
“The school claims they contribute to diversity. That’s a complete lie. How can someone who never says anything contribute to anything? Everyone knows they are here only because they pay the foreign tuition rate.
This is partly addressed above, and I sympathize with this criticism on the lack of participation part. If the full tuition part is indeed the only reason the students are at the University of Washington, then shame on the school. The parents paying the tuitions are also being scammed.
“I tried to speak with some of them, but they clearly had no interest.”
And I applaud the students who try to engage. I am willing to bet if American students genuinely try to befriend the China students, the vast majority of them would want to befriend back. Don’t give up.
“This is a great way to ruin relations between China and us.”
I disagree. I think the steady diet in the American press about China being bad has created a very negative image of everything from China. It is the personal contacts (apparently lacking in the University of Washington) that is helping to buttress the damage being done.
This is why I applaud President Obama’s 100,000 strong initiative in encouraging more Americans to study in China.
“Why do they even bother? They come here to study, but since they never interact with anyone who is not from China, I don’t even see why they come.”
It is because they and their parents believe there is a lot to learn in America. They believe American colleges and universities offer excellent education. An American college degree is highly respected in China.
Not engaging with American society and do things outside the classroom is indeed squandering opportunity to learn so much more.
So, in summary, I think there’s clearly much more the China students at University of Washington can do to engage. But the blame is not entirely on them. The complaints list also tells me many of these students are ignorant and even mean. The school has much to do too.
And the steps are actually super simple:
1. The China students, the university, and some students who have complained – all needs to sit down and come up with ideas to ENGAGE!
2. Foreign students should go through orientation on what their fellow American students expect of them.
3. American student should go through orientation on how to make their fellow foreign classmates more at ease.