Migrant Lives

When China Comes Knocking At The Ivy League

Reflections on the influx of (mostly) wealthy Chinese students enrolling at New York's Columbia University.

Graduation day at Columbia University on May 20
Graduation day at Columbia University on May 20
Andrej Mrevlje

NEW YORK â€" Two years ago, Columbia University's student newspaper published what it hoped would be an introspective piece about the growing numbers of Chinese students at the prestigious New York institution. "The China Game" was published in the section of the paper called "The Eye," which was appropriate because the story presented a sort of Chinese version of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, a commentary on American society.

In the best narrative tradition of early 18th century Chinese travelers in the West, the piece opens with the remarks of a Chinese undergraduate student who, eager to know more about American society, ventured outside the gates of Columbia's campus on upper Broadway to explore. But in his effort to discover the long-desired splendor of America, what does Andy â€" the pseudonymous Chinese student â€" find? His first encounter is with a shabby Chinese food cart selling dumplings and other Chinese staples.

The article explains that this undergraduate student, from the deep south of mainland China, overcame language challenges to gain acceptance to a university in the United States, hopeful to immerse himself in American culture and make white friends with "blue eyes, yellow hair and a hairy face." He was eager to explore a new culture. Instead, he was confronted with an endless number of his compatriots studying at the same school, lining up in front of the cart selling food with the same tastes and smells as the food back home. "This place is getting less and less American," Andy concluded.

Like Columbus before him

We don't know if Andy ever made it down Broadway to 59th Street, where he could have found a monument to another explorer who, in 1492, discovered America. As we know, Christopher Columbus first sailed towards the West in search of gold, trying to get rich. But, as historian Tzvetan Todorov proved, the real motive that animated Columbus was the universal victory of Christianity. In his book, Todorov describes Columbus' unintentional "discovery" of America and what the navigator made of the inhabitants he found there.

Todorov argues that Columbus failed to perceive substantial differences and projected his own values onto the natives. The misadventures of Columbus would be comical were they not the historical precursor to tragedy, Todorov writes.

Andy is not Columbus, and I am definitely not Todorov. But let me borrow from him the notion that, like Columbus, Andy didn't find what he was looking for. Purportedly in search of the new, he instead saw only a reflection of himself. Andy came to New York to discover America, only to find China.

Likewise, there were no Christians in America when Columbus set foot on the new continent. And yet Columbus, who for centuries was mistakenly called an "explorer," compared the locals to his Christian brothers and wanted to make them similar to himself. This was a quintessential part of colonialism. And what Andy and thousands of his Chinese colleagues are experiencing reflects successful colonialism too, though in an economic way. In other words, they were attracted to America, but when they got here, they discovered that what they valued in the United States was nothing but China.

Columbia University panorama â€" Photo: Getty Hall

This place is ours, they seem to say. Not just the food carts, but everything in America is made in China. We are better off than most of the natives. We can afford to pay $60,000 a year in tuition. We pay and the doors are open to us.

Keeping to their own

So when people walk down Broadway, just south of Columbia, during the academic year, they see young Chinese students moving in clusters. They are happy, confident, noisy. They wear designer clothes and carry expensive cell phones. They group according to their Chinese dialects and their social status back home. You can hear and see that some of them are more urban and bourgeois, while others are clearly from the countryside. They are all Columbia University students, but these groups don't mingle even among themselves.

They interact even less with New Yorkers or Americans in general. They think they know all they need to about this place they inhabit. Coming from a country where no political judgment is allowed, they came here to get the degree they need to climb the social ladder back home. At graduation time each May, Columbia's neighborhood becomes a Chinese province, with parents and relatives coming from all corners of China. They collect their kids and pay their bills. These Chinese kids behave in America the way they do it in China: They are spoiled. The shady money their parents earned opens almost any door for them.

This Chinese student business is worth $7.5 billion a year. As with any other American corporation, universities want this money badly. In fact, 30% of foreign students in the United States come from China, according to a recently published analysis in The Wall Street Journal.

In their greed for money, many American universities are even opening offices in China, where they woo rich families to send their kids to study at their schools. Many of these students, who I meet in the neighborhood, don't seem to know enough English to follow the lectures. "Fifteen Chinese nationals have been charged with impersonating students in order to defraud colleges through standardized tests," The Guardian recently reported, adding that the U.S. Justice Department hinted at a possible "iceberg" of cheating by students studying abroad.

Of course we can't generalize. There are young Chinese graduates who do want to integrate into America. I've met some brilliant young people who want to stay and work in the United States. They are few in number, and most aren't happy, because American immigration laws say they must leave a year after they graduate. And of course, not all American universities are like Columbia, where the actual number of Chinese students seems to be a closely guarded secret.

From where I write, just a few blocks from this magnificent campus, Columbia seems to be losing its prestige and credibility.

This article original appeared in Yonder

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

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.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


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.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020


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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