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'Rich Brats' And Me: The Struggles Of Chinese Studying Abroad

1.4 million Chinese students are currently studying overseas
1.4 million Chinese students are currently studying overseas
Zhang Wenyang and Jiang Songchen

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.

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Life On "Mars": With The Teams Simulating Space Missions Under A Dome

A niche research community plays out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another planet.

Photo of a person in a space suit walking toward the ​Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

At the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah

Sarah Scoles

In November 2022, Tara Sweeney’s plane landed on Thwaites Glacier, a 74,000-square-mile mass of frozen water in West Antarctica. She arrived with an international research team to study the glacier’s geology and ice fabric, and how its ice melt might contribute to sea level rise. But while near Earth’s southernmost point, Sweeney kept thinking about the moon.

“It felt every bit of what I think it will feel like being a space explorer,” said Sweeney, a former Air Force officer who’s now working on a doctorate in lunar geology at the University of Texas at El Paso. “You have all of these resources, and you get to be the one to go out and do the exploring and do the science. And that was really spectacular.”

That similarity is why space scientists study the physiology and psychology of people living in Antarctic and other remote outposts: For around 25 years, people have played out what existence might be like on, or en route to, another world. Polar explorers are, in a way, analogous to astronauts who land on alien planets. And while Sweeney wasn’t technically on an “analog astronaut” mission — her primary objective being the geological exploration of Earth — her days played out much the same as a space explorer’s might.

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