The Transplanted "Flowers of the Motherland"

05/10/2015 01:25 am ET | Updated May 09, 2016

Zara Zhang examines the experiences of Chinese students studying abroad in the United States

In China, young people are often referred to as "flowers of the Motherland"-- a simile that conveys their freshness and rootedness. In return for the Motherland's nurturing, Chinese youths are expected to take it upon their shoulders to construct the nation's bright future. However, in the past decade, the most promising of these flowers have mass-uprooted themselves by the millions to a distant and unfamiliar land--America.

Last year alone, China sent 274,000 students to the US, making it the number one country of origin for international students in America. The motivations and aspirations of this massive exodus will play a decisive role in shaping US-China relations in the 21st century.

The Promised Land

A popular joke in China goes that the annual plenary session of the People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference is more like a gathering for parents of Chinese students studying in the West--it is no secret that numerous top Party leaders have sent their children to America, which many perceive as the "promised land" for higher education.

Sally Yan, a counsellor at the New Oriental Education Group, speculates that the number one motivation for Chinese students to study in the U.S. is to "follow the trend." When top students and those from envied backgrounds opt to leave, others scramble along, sometimes with the blind assumption that a foreign college degree is always superior than a domestic one.

Nevertheless, the opportunity to study overseas is no longer monopolized by the rich and the powerful. Even in lower-middle income families, parents are sometimes willing to sell a house or make other major sacrifices in order to finance their children's overseas education. Though immensely difficult, it is theoretically possible for an outstanding Chinese student with a humble background to be admitted a top U.S. college with substantial financial aid, and many are willing to make a wager.

As powerful a factor as it may be, peer pressure is not the sole reason prompting Chinese students to leave. Four of the five students interviewed for this article said that they simply want a better education, and the best universities in the world are to be found in the U.S. Even the very top universities in China cannot begin to compete with the Ivy League, at least according to popular rankings.

There are "push" factors operating as well. In China's rigid education system, students spend years cramming for a single fate-altering exam, the Gaokao. They have to declare a major before applying to domestic colleges, a momentous choice that many feel they are not ready to make at age 17. America's liberal arts education offers a fresh perspective on what a world-class education can be like, as well as the freedom and flexibility that Chinese students have long been deprived of.

"A Collective Bias"

With freedom, however, comes confusion. Upon arrival in the U.S., many students are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices that are thrown at them by American liberal arts colleges. Some find it extremely difficult to decide on a field of study, even though they are usually not required to do so until sophomore year.

Jessie Lu, a student from Guangzhou who graduated from Duke University in 2014, studied three fields that would leave many of her compatriots scratching their heads: Public Policy, Journalism and Film.

"I want to study something that would allow me to understand American society better, because the whole point of studying abroad is to know another way of thinking," she explained.

Although her reasoning aptly sums up the meaning of an overseas education, the choice to study the humanities remains highly unorthodox among Chinese students. Most leverage on the rigorous Math and Science training they acquired in China's domestic education system and choose to study fields related to these disciplines. Horrifying myths of students finding themselves unemployable after obtaining degrees in non-technical majors have become a popular refrain for Chinese parents, who extol the practical benefits of studying a technical discipline that supposedly guarantees job offers.

When students are confounded by the plethora of available options, the default go-to choices are economics and mathematics. It is believed that people in these majors have the highest chance of landing coveted high-paying jobs in the finance or consulting industries. Ken Ling, a former president of the University of Michigan's Chinese Students and Scholars Association, said that at least a third of the Chinese students he knows at his school are majoring in these fields.

Language barriers may be the major reason for the underrepresentation of Chinese students in non-economics and mathematics fields. When she first started out as a Public Policy major, Lu went through a hard time adjusting to the style of academic writing required in her classes, and often sought help from the writing center. Today, she speaks impeccable English and works as the the Director of Communications for the Bay Area office of the rapidly growing Chinese drone startup EHANG.

According to Lu, the rise of technology and startup sectors has created a vast demand for skillsets possessed by those trained in the humanities: presenting product is as important, if not more, than making one. Nevertheless, she notes that there remains a "collective bias" against the humanities among the Chinese, which she finds unjustified. She is applying the communication and critical thinking skills she learnt in school to her Silicon Valley job every day, a fact that many Chinese would still find surprising. Until these soft skills become more appreciated by the Chinese community, the stereotype of the Chinese scientist and engineer is unlikely to go away in the near future.

Comfort in Numbers

If you randomly pick ten international students from Michigan State University, seven will be from China. The school enrolled 3,848 Chinese international undergraduates in fall 2014, a number greater than Harvard's entire classes of 2017 and 2018 combined.

When such a large number of Chinese students are brought together on a foreign land, they will inevitably gravitate towards each other, sometimes forming their own exclusive social enclave. For some students, interacting exclusively with their compatriots defeats the purpose of studying abroad, but others are not worried about what they believe is a natural phenomenon.
Jack Xu, president of NYU's Chinese Students and Scholars Association, said that most of his friends are within the Chinese students' circle because he believes in hanging out with people whom he finds it the easiest to connect with.

It is not so much an unwillingness to venture out of their comfort zone, as much as the magnetic pull of a large and familiar community that keeps Chinese students from breaking out of their circles. At many universities with large Chinese populations, such a community takes the form of Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA). These organizations, often with a four-digit membership, have become the center of many Chinese students' social lives.

The CSSA is more than a group of people who speak their language and understand their jokes--more importantly, it is a network of support that helps them navigate the confusing and difficult transition to the American education system and way of life. Serving around 3,000 members of its Chinese community, NYU's CSSA hosts regular events that easily draw hundreds of participants, such as a Valentine's Day party, an Annual Creative Cultural Gala, and a singing competition. Xu, its president, sits on top of a 70-people executive board, and spends more than 10 hours each week on CSSA-related activities.

To stay, or not to stay

"The best way to catch up to Western countries is to study in those countries... In order to do better than Western countries we have to learn from them and adopt those knowledge according to our needs," wrote Hou Debang, one of the most renowned chemists in Chinese history who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a century ago.

For Hou, "to stay or not to stay" in America after graduation was not a question. He lived in a bygone era when students went to the West for the sole purpose that they could return and help to beef up China's power with their newly learned scientific know-how. However, for today's Chinese students, "to stay or not to stay" is a question that keeps them occupied and confused from the moment they step onto American soil. In an era where most Chinese students go overseas for the simple reasons of self-improvement and an alternative experience, returning is not an obligation but a choice. Again, with the freedom to choice comes the difficulty of making a good one.

Yan said the number of Chinese students who choose to go back has been increasing steadily, and she is not worried that China will face a potential "brain drain" problem. According to China's Ministry of Education,79% of Chinese students who studied abroad returned home in 2014, a 3.2% increase from the previous year.

One reason might be the fact that going back to China is no longer stigmatized like it was in the past. "Just a few years ago, if you go back to China, it's almost equivalent to saying 'I can't make it here'," Lu said. "But right now because China has grown so much, going back has almost become the trendy or hip thing to do." She adds that many students are going back to start their own companies, as the romanticized idea of entrepreneurship has taken a hold on Chinese students.

If Chinese students have difficulty staying, it is often because their immigration status does not automatically guarantee them an extended visa after they complete their undergraduate studies. All international students need to apply to an H-1B visa in order to work in the U.S. for an extended period of time after graduation, but only a small number of employers are willing to sponsor such visas. Ling estimated that the visa issue is the number one factor that prevents Chinese students from staying on, adding that many international students find it frustrating that they do not have an equal chance to work here as compared to American students.

Even so, many Chinese students would happily go back to a country where they can live and work more comfortably in a familiar culture. The wealthier ones often end up helping with family businesses or leveraging on family connections to land jobs. Even for those who do not come from monied backgrounds, landing a decent job is usually not difficult, given their international exposure, English language skills, and the added value of a foreign degree.

Nevertheless, some students are slowly realizing that even in their home country, impressing the employers is not as easy as it seems. These days, Chinese employers are becoming more discerning and even blasé about overseas returnees. Many prize intimate knowledge of the Chinese society in candidates--a quality lacked by many students who studied abroad and did not make extra effort to stay in touch with happenings in China.

For example, Xu Xiaoping, a prominent Chinese angel investor who often tours American colleges to speak to students, often warns his audience that simply having studied abroad is not enough. Sometimes domestically educated talents make better entrepreneurs with their greater savviness with the Chinese market, better understanding of the working style, and a wider range of personal connections.

Therefore, even though China may not be suffering from a "brain drain" in the traditional sense, the "flowers of the country", cultivated overseas, may prove maladjusted to China's soil once they are transplanted back to motherland.

Though China's leaders are extolling the "Chinese Dream," many of the country's top talents are dreaming of going to America for a superior education, and some are inevitably converted to the "American Dream" along the way. Even so, as China develops into the world's biggest economic powerhouse, its sheer amount of opportunities are attracting students to return. The Middle Kingdom retains its magnetic power, but whether that will last remains to be seen.

Zara Zhang is a sophomore at Harvard University. Contact her at

This article also appears in China Hands.