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eyes on the U.S.

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 — 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 — the pseudonymous Chinese student — 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.

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Columbia University panorama — 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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