There are many stereotypes of Chinese university students in the UK – as with many stereotypes in general, some are bizarre, some are funny, but a lot seep into the realms of racism. The purpose of this 66hands story is to unravel these stereotypes, and the aim is to dispel them.
Through a conversation with T, a 23-year-old, Beijing-born postgrad student at a top UK university here in London, I hope this story offers greater insight into the lives of Chinese students abroad.
There are five condensed stereotypes this 66hands story will challenge: 1) Chinese students isolate themselves and do not interact with home students, 2) Chinese students outnumber all other international students in the UK, 3) Chinese students are more likely to cheat, 4) Chinese students are all rich, and finally 5) Chinese students work harder and are better at maths.
A stereotype is defined as “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing” – the biological benefits being that we can quickly respond to stimuli as the brain has a preconceived idea of what to expect. The social drawbacks being that we ignore individual differences, make sweeping generalizations, and ultimately (whether accidentally or not) express false assumptions about people.
Problems arise when said false assumptions morph into racism – the belief that “all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races”. As Brits, racist slurs might be laughed off, or covered with a thin veneer of compunction – often all in the hope no one noticed.
But people are noticing, and as such, dialogues on race need to be encouraged and activated. These conversations can: facilitate cross-cultural understanding, break down negative stereotypes and empower those previously affected by structural discrimination. These conversations cannot: eliminate racism, which is derived from stereotypes, overnight.
For the academic year 2016-17, there were 95,090 Chinese students in the UK – the highest number from any other country in the world. This may be unsurprising as China’s population is 1.6bn strong (to put this into context, one in every five people on the planet is Chinese), but my emphasis on Chinese students specifically comes at a pivotal point in UK history where many British higher education institutions are relying heavily on international students amid financial turbulence.
UK universities have ballooned, and now need to deflate, specialize and/or merge. In February 2019, the FT asked: “spiraling costs, high debt and Brexit: can UK universities survive?”. Without international students, I believe they can’t and won’t survive. To give an example of the disparity between home and international students, Imperial charge their BSc Medicine students £41,000 per year for internationals, and £9,250 for Brits. This is a 6-year, full-time course. Yikes.
Documentation of mainland Chinese students’ experiences at UK universities is lacking. University is not easy – especially when experienced in another language, and in a society so far removed from your own. There are profound advantages to be reaped from greater cross-cultural understanding between UK and Chinese students – the first step is to challenge stereotypes and build upon a new foundation of understanding and awareness.
The following interview has been condensed and edited and was held in London on May 5th, 2019. The views expressed are not intended to offend, but to inform, and are furthermore not representative of the institutions and organizations to which the interviewer and interviewee are affiliated.
Stereotype #1: Chinese students isolate themselves and do not interact with home students – A recent report found that 54% of Chinese university survey respondents said they mostly/only socialize with home country friends, and only 7% reported they regularly spent time with non-Chinese (weekly or more).
“I agree that Chinese students are always seen to be socializing together and exclusively speaking Chinese, but I personally have a lot of friends who are not Chinese and we get along very well. My own understanding of this issue is that Chinese students face a lot of cultural barriers, for example, I’ve never seen my Chinese friends doing anything else except (KTV) karaoke or playing board games. When I was studying in the US, I didn’t know of any Chinese students who joined student clubs, fraternities or sororities – which are common ways of socializing for American university students.
What’s more, Chinese students are sometimes limited due to language barriers. This is particularly common among graduate students, for which the admission standards can be lower than that for undergraduates. Also, some Chinese students simply don’t care about getting to know people from other cultures. In reality, socializing with people from your own country when living abroad is very common. My current university in the UK is one of the most diverse universities in the world, but even so, I see Americans socialize with Americans, French socialize with French, Singaporeans socialize with Singaporeans. In the end, it always happens. It’s not just us Chinese students who bundle together.”
Stereotype #2: Chinese students outnumber all other international students in the UK – The number of Chinese students looking to the UK to complete their studies has tripped since 2008, yet this figure is higher for other English-speaking nations; for the 2015-16 academic year, the US and Australia received 291,000 and 112,000 Chinese students respectively.
“Chinese parents play an important role in sending their children abroad. More and more Chinese parents today believe that Chinese higher education is not enough for their child to stay competitive in the job market, so they all send their children abroad, sometimes even against their child’s will. When Chinese students choose universities abroad, they follow a stereotypical impression of which universities are “easier to get into” – for which there is a distinct hierarchy. When I was in secondary school, it was believed that US universities are more competitive than UK universities – with Australia being the easiest target.”
Stereotype #3: Chinese students are more likely to cheat – as reported by the WSJ, SCMP, and Reuters… the latest scandal uproots the Chinese parents of Yusi Zhao, who allegedly paid William Singer (the central figure of the current US university cheating scandal) $6.5 million to get their daughter into Stanford.
“Chinese students are such a distinctively large group, and controversies regarding their presence and qualifications never stop. So, when some Chinese students are caught cheating, it is very easy to generalize. I personally have found it unfair to generalize the stigma against hardworking students like myself, and my Chinese friends at top US and UK universities.
In terms of using university applications services, this is a very normal practice in China. Such services are a total package, meaning the consultants help you with everything – from filling in application forms to creating stories for your personal statement. Most students using this service do not intend to cheat, but they simply don’t know where to start. For many Chinese students, they usually start this process confused and need some help. Their parents probably don’t understand English, and their schools in China also don’t know what to do. Companies take advantage of the market gap and provide these services – and largely for extremely high fees.
In fact, when I entered a top private university in the US, I deeply questioned my abilities despite being a brilliant student from one of the best high schools in China. I remember receiving a C+ for my first history essay and thinking that I was unqualified, and that my university accepted me only for the money. My academic writing ability was initially not good enough. Only after numerous office hours with my TA did I finally start to consistently achieve A/A- grades. Many Chinese students have similar experiences, but instead of working hard, some just give up and resort to varying forms of cheating.”
Stereotype #4: Chinese students are all rich – As mentioned, Chinese students are the largest demographic to study in the UK. A recent study found that a typical non-EU undergraduate brings approximately £147,000 in total value to the UK economy during their studies here.
“International students have to pay higher tuition fees in the UK, so the truth is that for Chinese students, unless someone is extraordinarily smart and the recipient of a full scholarship either from their university or from the (British or Chinese) government, they need their families to pay full tuition fees, meaning their families are inevitably quite wealthy. At least for me, I’ve never met any Chinese students from low-income families. The fact that many of us Chinese students are only children indeed means that a lot have “little emperor tendencies”. These kind of behavioral issues (perhaps caused by an ignorance of the value of money) can sometimes create conflicts of interest between certain Chinese students and their non-Chinese classmates (and roommates in the US).”
Stereotype #5: Chinese students work harder and are better at maths – culturally and historically owing to an emphasis on Confucian values, there is some truth to this stereotype – maths teaching in China is also much more advanced.
“Chinese students choose to do maths because of the career prospects, which are usually high salaries that meet their parents’ expectations. Chinese students do work very hard, but from what I’ve seen is that so do students from elsewhere. Anyone who can get into the universities I’ve been to has to be intelligent and hardworking, or they simply won’t graduate. Instead, the question that needs to be addressed is, why do Chinese students give off the impression that they work hard? My own conclusion after years of studying in China, the US and now the UK, is that because this is the East Asian work culture – you work so hard to the point where having fun is guilty.”
If you agree, or disagree with anything mentioned in the above, please feel free to leave a comment below on your thoughts.