BEIJING — It's that time of a year again when an ever growing number of Chinese students are leaving to study abroad. These young people attract a lot of attention, often envied by their peers around them. Labeled as the "Fu-er-dai", meaning "the second-generation rich brats," some live a "luxurious and decadent life" overseas, while others can be very hardworking, and will one day graduate from prestigious universities and return home. And of course, there are also those who set out with "green card dreams," as settling in the West is their ultimate goal.
According to official Chinese data, since China's opening-up reforms of the late 1970's, a total of more than 5.1 million Chinese people have studied abroad.
Currently, 1.4 million Chinese students are acquiring knowledge in other countries at various stages. In 2017 alone, over 600,000 Chinese youngsters went overseas, with a year-on-year growth of 11.7% making China the world's largest source of overseas students.
Zheng Yuan hasn't been home for three years. And he is increasingly afraid of receiving calls from his parents since the conversation involves always the same question: when will you obtain your university degree and come home?
He was alone with a bowl of noodles.
At 23, Zheng has wandered through three colleges. He started off at the University of Oregon, where by the end of his first year, he had to drop out due to poor grades. "I didn't learn the necessary discipline in high school. Meanwhile, there's nobody around to keep an eye on me here," Zheng admits.
After dropping out of the University of Oregon, Zheng had two options. The first was to go home. The second, find any college at all in the hope of obtaining better grades before moving on to a better one. He soon opted for the second choice since the reason he went to America was precisely because his performance at China's college entrance exam was a disaster.
Photo: Franck Michel
Zheng then registered himself with a community college. Unfortunately, due to more bad test results, he was expelled a second time.
He managed to move on to another college swiftly this time. However, he remains unenthusiastic about his studies. Nor is he passionate about getting a social life. While Americans were celebrating Thanksgiving, Zheng was passing this festival with a bowl of fast noodles, all alone, in his dormitory.
His parents are paying a fortune for him — on top of the $10,000 per term in school fees, there's his $1,500 monthly expenses. In total, his family is investing $ 48,000 annually in him. In his home city, Jiayuguan, the capital of the remote northwestern province of Gansu, the annual average salary of a non-private sector employee is a mere $10,500.
To save his parents money, Zheng is now helping out in a store to support himself, earning $800 towards his cost of living per month. He is also preparing to attend part-time courses, cheaper than the full-time ones, to make up his academic credits. He has also moved house again to save around $200 a month.
The way home, however, seems more distant than ever. Smoking and sleeping have become the two most comforting activities for Zheng. "I had a dream recently that I was finally home. It was the most realistic dream I have had since I came to America. Alas, I woke up asking myself, where am I?"
He spent nine hours a day studying.
Chang Bo just graduated from the University of Oregon, with a major in computer science. Compared with Zheng, his studies have been a lot smoother. Having achieved a 3.93 GPA performance, he is currently preparing the GRE test for graduate school.
Though he successfully passed China's domestic college entrance exam, Chang decided to go to an American university directly for higher education. "But I didn't come to the United States with any aim or specific dream. I didn't really know what I wanted to pursue. I was just looking for a new possibility," says Chang.
Photo: Franck Michel
Slightly overweight, wearing glasses and friendly, Chang represents the image of a typical good Chinese student. He knows nothing of what is happening in America. All he cares about is his GPA grading average. During the four years of college, he spent an average of nine hours on studies every day. Sometimes he ate one meal per day. While those so called "rich brats' were competing with cars and shoes, he was comparing test scores with his peers.
The massive amount of money parents have invested into their studies is the driving force of these hardworking Chinese students, along with patriotic pride to try to outperform their American classmates.
Yet, Chang is not without regrets. He studied computer science because he was told that it would enable him to find a job easily. But he doesn't know what his interests really are, and what he'd really like to do in life. Looking back at his four years of college, Chang realizes that he has missed out on a lot of things. He never had any internships, nor did he participate in a project with a professor, or take up any exchanges of studies. "I didn't get a feel of the American culture, never got involved with a broader world out there," Chang concedes.
She felt confused about her future.
Although she has already found a job at a law firm in Hong Kong, which pleases her parents, Wu Ping feels disoriented. She had gone straight to a community college in the United States after finishing her high school studies in China. She then jumped to the University of Washington where she obtained a bachelor's degree in communications, before getting another degree in law from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. A path that was not without twists and turns.
Wu is a perfect example among the many Chinese children who simply obey their parents' arrangements. However, conflicts surfaced when she was choosing her major. While she was interested in studying psychology, her mother was convinced that she won't be able to find a job easily afterwards. Wu eventually yielded.
When finally back home in China's northeastern province of Shandong after getting her first degree, she felt confused about her future. She also realized that she was no longer used to her old pals' behavioral patterns, or to China's social environment. Leaving was the answer.
Her parents had to sell an apartment to support her studies in America, and so Wu decided to be "realistic" in her next choice, which brought her to law school.
Her boss at the Hong Kong law firm has a bad temper and the tiny apartment she shares with a friend costs more than half her salary. But she is convinced she has to endure all this, "at least to gain a few years of working experience," she says.
The only consolation is that the bustling and cosmopolitan former British colony reminds her of the days she passed in New York and Seattle. "But where will I feel at home?" Wu wonders.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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