Chinese students at UW-Madison speak out
November 1, 2013 6:11 PM   Subscribe

Channel C WISC is a YouTube channel where UW-Madison undergrads from China talk about the experience of being Chinese at a big public American university, with the aim of both helping newly arrived international students understand what's going on around them, and helping American students have some sense of what's going on with their Chinese classmates. Videos include "Why Chinese Students Don't Party,", "Chinese Names,", "Pretty Chinese Women", "Who are the Chinese Second Generation Rich?", "Why Chinese Students Don't Speak English," and many more.
posted by escabeche (31 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
are chinese kids at UW a thing? cause when i was there in the late 90s it seemed like all the CS undergrads were chinese. like from taiwan or china chinese, not chinese-american.
posted by joeblough at 6:23 PM on November 1, 2013

Here's an article from the local paper about Channel C, which reports that there are about 2500 students from China at UW-Madison, including 288 members of the first-year class, out of a little over 10K.
posted by escabeche at 6:26 PM on November 1, 2013

are chinese kids at UW a thing?

Yeah, there are a lot of asian kids that go to school there. Moreso than lots of other midwest schools, I imagine.

full disclosure, I went there and worked there for 5 years, too
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:28 PM on November 1, 2013

I watched the "party" video. Unfortunately, it seems to veer into "grow out of it and go party" territory, which is unfortunate both because there's a shit ton of underage drinking in the party skit, and because people should be okay being who they are.
posted by Apropos of Something at 6:33 PM on November 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was kind of weirded out on the "Pretty Chinese Women" episode.
posted by jadepearl at 6:41 PM on November 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yeah. That seems like an interesting conversation to have with your friends, but not something you'd want to film and put out in public.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:44 PM on November 1, 2013

I was kind of weirded out on the "Pretty Chinese Women" episode.

Whoa. Yep.
posted by Apropos of Something at 6:47 PM on November 1, 2013

They're undergrads so I'm willing to give them a whole bunch of slack, but there's a whole ton of assumptions about their host culture that also go into this, assumptions that I can't imagine they'd still hold onto after four years at an American university unless they were going out of their way to not meet / hang out with the non-Chinese students around them. And that's the reputation, that mainland Chinese students float through the American university experience without making a single non-Chinese friend. The benchmark for that when I was an undergrad used to be Korean international students, but apparently this is a new level of not-getting-involved.

And really? Fo' shizzle and references to 2000s television are the reason they can't talk to Americans? Weak sauce.
posted by 1adam12 at 6:53 PM on November 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

As the only non-Chinese citizen in my lab, I've noticed the isolation among Chinese national graduate students as well. There seems to be a general reluctance to meet and mingle with non-Chinese even within the same department. It's not that they're inherently less friendly or something - I get along with them fine and will often be the only non-Chinese person invited to get-togethers one of them hosts - just that there seems to be this general reluctance to reach out. Part of that is a language barrier, but only part.
posted by Noms_Tiem at 6:59 PM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yup, students from mainland China ( at least... Don't have enough experience with Taiwanese etc to say) , grad or undergrads, typically don't bother to mix beyond their ethnic group. They will have been typically told by their parents to stick with their compatriots or at least ethnic Chinese. And there is often a large enough group of Chinese students in campus that they can do that without feeling isolated. They are not the only foreign student group which does this, of course, but they are often the largest, and the lack of diversity in China (and its "rising hegemon/superpower" narrative ) intensifies the tendency too
posted by Bwithh at 7:13 PM on November 1, 2013

I was kind of weirded out on the "Pretty Chinese Women" episode.

Yeah. That's awful. There's no equivalent episode where men are picked apart for their appearance either.
posted by FJT at 7:14 PM on November 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

(Great idea in principle by UWisc to have this channel. I applaud the idea. Some of the content- especially the unwise Women episode- seems a bit too weird though . Needs more supervision/ gatekeeping )
posted by Bwithh at 7:16 PM on November 1, 2013

I can rant about the exclusion of Chinese students for ages. It's definitely not 'Oh, they can't be bothered to make friends with Americans'. I'm a graduate student in a department with a fairly large number of Chinese students. I don't really socialise with people in the department--I'm bad at navigating making friends and people in my year stopped inviting to do stuff round about our second year (when I was also super depressed and I'm sure not much fun to be around anyway). Nonetheless, I occasionally get included on emails sent to 40+ people inviting us to a potluck or something and the names of Chinese students are mysteriously absent. The all-grad student email list includes some people we don't actually know (mostly master's students taking one class at a time who never come to department events and don't have offices) plus the DGS, so maybe that's a reason not to use it, but somehow they remember me and no one Chinese.

This year, I've had two different people say weird racist shit to me about our Chinese classmates. Our first year, people told me they weren't bothering to make friends with Chinese students because 'They're only friends with each other.' People somehow forgot my officemate existed! I'd mention him and get blank looks. I'll at least claim to know the people in my year, even though I'm not sure who's still around and haven't seen some in years. (Anyone more than a year behind me? Forget it, the odds aren't great.)

We were actually talking about this at dinner during orientation this year and basically concluded that Chinese students are told American students don't want to be friends with them and American students are told Chinese students don't want to be friends with them, and it just turns into this self-perpetuating cycle. I have no idea how to break it, either. It seems to be specifically directed at the Chinese, too. My department seems to recruit international students in little two or three person clumps by country and mysteriously no one assumed the clump of Turkish students only wanted to socialise with each other.
posted by hoyland at 7:28 PM on November 1, 2013 [16 favorites]

Every University I've been affiliated with or interviewed at in the past few years has seen a huge influx of Chinese students. While there were always grad students, undergrads are growing too.

Issues with student services, academic integrity, how to evaluate... All huge now.
posted by k8t at 8:00 PM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with hoyland completely. People always talk about Chinese students "sticking to their own kind" and the blame is always placed 100% on the Chinese, as if the American students are just dying to make friends with them, and the Chinese are doing the excluding.

The funny thing is, a lot of Westerners who go to Asian countries do the exact same thing. It's very common for Westerners who are in Asian countries for work or study (who magically become "expats" instead of "immigrants") to make friends and date exclusively among other Westerners. A lot of them never even learn a single word of the local language, and a lot of them live in expat communities. And funny enough, a lot of these expats who go back to their own countries still complain about Asian people "sticking to their own kind."

The reasons for this are complex and I really do agree with hoyland in that it's a vicious cycle. When you first arrive in a foreign country, it's just much easier to make friends with someone who speaks your language, comes from your own culture, and is going through the same experience of adopting to a foreign country. That's why Westerners who go to Asian countries tend to make friends mostly with other Westerners and Asians who go to Western countries tend to make friends mostly with other Asians. And once you have a regular group of friends you have less impetus to branch out.

The other thing is confirmation bias. If someone sees a group of white kids hanging out, nobody thinks "wow those white kids, they only stick to their own kind, they must be racist." But if you see a group of Chinese people hanging out, people instantly think "those Chinese, they always stick to their own kind. They must not like Americans."

Just speaking from my own grad school experience, I would say maybe 50% of our class was mainland Chinese students. I'm Chinese-American and I hung out with mostly the Canadian kids (this was in Toronto). Among the Canadians, there was always general joking about the bad English or foreign-ness of the Chinese students; just the general perception that they were "fobby", and...people never invited them out to drinks. It was definitely not "Oh I wish those Chinese kids would make friends with us" and more so "hee hee those fobs." There was only one guy from China who broke into the Canadian clique, and that's because his English was good and he'd been in Canada since 12th grade so he didn't present as "fobby." I personally tried to make friends with the Chinese kids, but it was tough Chinese isn't that great.

So it was really both the Canadian kids not really wanting to have anything to do with the Chinese kids, and the Chinese kids having an easier time making friends with other Chinese kids. And I have a hard time believing the dynamic is very different at other schools.
posted by pravit at 8:07 PM on November 1, 2013 [12 favorites]

I think this was really cool. These kids' lack of ability to discuss what they find attractive without lapsing into judging women fall short right now, but it is a great way to humanize both the Chinese students and the American students to each other.
posted by ignignokt at 8:25 PM on November 1, 2013

I'll be the statistical outlier here and say that (variable sound production values aside) I really liked these videos, found them fascinating, and appreciate that they are being made.

Also, based on my own experiences studying abroad where the language was not my native language, I think it's easy to gloss over how fucking hard it is while it is also being wonderful and broadening and valuable. You have the culture shock, the academic stress, and the fact that you are listening to classes and speaking in a foreign language all day long and it absolutely, utterly exhausting. I know that in similar circumstances, Americans in my programme grouped together with English speakers from all over the world, and promises of "immersion" and integration be dammed: every chance we got, we spoke English. Not only because it was easy, but because it was the only thing that wasn't a struggle.

I applaud this group of young women; they are consciously exploring the issues they encounter in their lives and the disconnect they experience.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:26 PM on November 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

They may not be able to say PRECISELY which linguistic terms are the problem (most people are not very skilled at analyzing their own linguistic knowledge). As a teacher of international students prepping to go to university here, yes, vernacular speech can be a huge problem. Consider the following:

- Shut 'em down!
- D'oh!
- They hooked up.
- I'd be upset if you didn't take my photo.
- Drop by if you need a hand.
- Let me know what's up.

Without getting into the vast mire of cultural references, all of these are normal phrases that are more or less impenetrable to my students. ("Let me know what's up" is a combination of two totally idiomatic phrases that most speakers don't even realize are idiomatic. Even someone trying to speak clearly and simply won't usually think to avoid that kind of phrase.)

My students who have transferred into a university often report that other students quickly become hostile, rude, or simply disengaged and unfriendly after a couple of communication problems. It's no wonder to me that often it's only the most extreme extroverts and/or linguistic prodigies who make friends outside of their language group.

(Not to mention that they are often treated dismissively by people who don't believe they can write an essay but not negotiate a party or an office hour...)
posted by wintersweet at 8:57 PM on November 1, 2013 [11 favorites]

While most Chinese students want more American friends, few reported having more American friends than Chinese friends, and all students reported that their best friend was Chinese. One girl responded, “I don’t know how to make American friends. I sit next to them in classes and they talk to each other, but they never talk to me. I joined some extracurricular things a couple times, but that didn’t work either. I really want American friends.”

Survey of Chinese Students at Indiana University Reveals Challenges of Integration
posted by gyc at 9:34 PM on November 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is really interesting, thank you, I can't watch them all now but I will later. I work at a couple of places with a lot of Chinese students (and many other international students, but there's a larger percentage of Chinese students) and engagement/outreach is a big deal. I have been an international student and I completely agree that the language barrier is a hard thing when it comes to friendships, especially when you're dealing with culture shock and studying and everything else that makes up college life. I really wish that there were more institutional resources-- even just language/pronunciation* classes or guides-- for staff and faculty, because I know there's more we could do if we had better training.

*seriously it's so embarrassing to mispronounce someone's name and have them sadly correct you in a resigned way, like this is 11th time it's happened that day
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:23 AM on November 2, 2013

I love that there's one video where two chinese students interview an american and even tho the american doesnt drink and one of the chinese students doesnt drink, the third gets them to agree that they should go out and binge drink every now and then.

TBH this is pretty decent advice. I mean don't beer bong vodka, but try it out, fuck it.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:41 AM on November 2, 2013

I think there's a lot of overthinking on this subject. Fact is, communicating with somebody who barely speaks your language is fucking hard. You can be the most outgoing, open-minded person in the world, but that doesn't make it any easier. For example, a lot of recent immigrants or foreign students speak what I refer to as a utilitarian, "basic English". As in, they can get by doing basic everyday tasks, keep a job, get an education, etc. But that's very different from the casual, culture-laden speech that comprises our social life. Not to say it can't be done. But it requires a level of patience that we don't normally associate with "just hanging out".

Having said that, I it's a shame things wind up shaking out like that. I'd think one of the reasons to leave the country to get an education would be to try on new cultural experiences, and part of that would be befriending some of the locals.

I think videos like these are helpful, in that they encourage students to learn more about each others' cultures. Maybe the first step is to just get Chinese and American students interested in each other in the first place; maybe then the students will find a reason to try and surmount the (admittedly difficult) language barrier.
posted by evil otto at 8:11 AM on November 2, 2013

For example, I wonder if Japanese students face the same issues, now that so many Americans are interested in Japanese culture. Maybe they have the opposite problem, where their American otaku classmates are always pestering them about anime, even though they haven't been into that since grade school.
posted by evil otto at 8:15 AM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm an academic adviser at a public university with a significant Chinese population. Yesterday I had three appointments with students from China, which would be a fairly typical day for me.

I don't think I've ever encountered a Japanese international student, evil otto. We do have a lot of South Korean students, and I would say that they're a little less isolated than the Chinese students, although not hugely so. A significant number of Korean students have already attended school in English, either because they came to stay with relatives in the US for part of high school or because they've participated in English-immersion pre-college programs in Korea before arriving here. I've had a couple of Chinese students who have studied in the US before college, but not very many. The Korean kids are often a little more familiar with idiomatic English and American culture.

A quick, unscientific observation is that the Chinese students who have the most American friends also seem to struggle the most academically. I think that it's pretty tough for a Chinese student to integrate into the American social scene and maintain good grades. They have to work incredibly hard to understand readings and lectures. A lot of them, for instance, tape lectures and then listen to them two or three times to try to get the point. Hanging out with American students means spending a lot of time not studying, because our American students typically don't study nearly as much as Chinese students do. I think that's part of the point of the party video. Also, international students can get in visa trouble if they get arrested for drug use or underage drinking, which means that they're often a little wary of the campus social scene.

I ran a couple of focus groups for international students a while back, and one thing that was totally clear is that white international students have a vastly different experience than Asian international students do. Part of it is that the white kids typically speak better English, even if they're from non-English-speaking countries, and they typically don't have as big a community and really can't stick together in the same way that Chinese students can. But they also are clearly welcomed and included by American students in a way that our Chinese and Korean students just aren't. They would say things like "the first time a kid in my dorm invited me to a tailgate, I was shocked at how drunk people were", and the Chinese and Korean kids would go "nobody in my dorm has ever invited me to a tailgate."

Anyway, a bunch of my colleagues have posted this article on Facebook and whatnot. I didn't love the one where they rated the women, but in general I think it's pretty great.
posted by sockpuppy at 8:49 AM on November 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think there's a lot of overthinking on this subject. Fact is, communicating with somebody who barely speaks your language is fucking hard.

But the students in these videos speak English very very well and encountered the barriers they're talking about. It really, seriously does not boil down to a mere language issue.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:14 AM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

The funny thing is, a lot of Westerners who go to Asian countries do the exact same thing.

Yup, this is true. I lived in China for several years, and the majority of Western "expats" or students really don't have good Chinese friends. (with the exception of Western guys with Chinese girlfriends, kind of a separate issue). So I definitely agree that it's unfair to completely blame this on Chinese students.

I think it's a complicated issue but in my view a lot of it boils down to socializing. Most Chinese students go straight from college to grad school (and of course high school to college). High school is really high-pressure and difficult, and students don't spend much time doing anything except studying. In that sense I think American college students and especially grad students (many of whom have worked and lived independently) have more "real-world" experience, more dating experience, and are more sexually active, etc. There's not really a "social scene" in Chinese colleges and students generally hang out only with classmates of the same sex unless they are dating someone- and if they are dating, it's usually a serious relationship. meanwhile, Western students are going out, drinking, having sex.

A lot of time Western students (in China) view Chinese students as nerdy or childish, while Chinese students view Western students as irresponsible and promiscuous.

Regarding the "woman rating video"- I don't really like it either, but at the same time differences in "beauty standards" among Chinese and Western people is kind of an interesting topic. Living in China, I learned that beauty really isn't universal, which was an interesting lesson. I've had many interesting discussions on "what is beautiful" with Chinese people- according to Chinese standards of beauty, Angelina Jolie is not "beautiful" (she is, however, considered "sexy"). I mean, it's totally sexist and annoying that all these discussions center around women, but at the same time it's kind of nice that there are different types of beauty in the world.
posted by bearette at 10:14 AM on November 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

There's not really a "social scene" in Chinese colleges and students generally hang out only with classmates of the same sex unless they are dating someone- and if they are dating, it's usually a serious relationship. meanwhile, Western students are going out, drinking, having sex.

A lot of time Western students (in China) view Chinese students as nerdy or childish, while Chinese students view Western students as irresponsible and promiscuous.

Yep, this too. The heavy drinking and partying that's typical of American colleges is something that American kids are used to from high school or at least have some cultural expectation of; but it's totally foreign and maybe even a bit intimidating for the Chinese kids.

And of course people should try that aspect of American culture at least once, but a lot of Chinese people just personally don't like rowdy college parties. Maybe it's cultural, but I believe culture - and not just basket weaving or national costumes, but the fundamental way you view the world and socialize with others - is an inalienable part of a person's identity. Chinese students are more likely to have a big group dinner rather than get drunk at a house party, and they're more likely to have serious relationships rather than random hookups. And people should be comfortable socializing the way they like to.

The other cultural difference is that Chinese kids see college as a place to study hard in order to get a good job, while American kids generally see college as a stage in their lives; their first time away from home, their first opportunity to go crazy and party, to "explore." And the Chinese kids are usually studying abroad at no small cost to their parents; foreign student fees are seriously exorbitant, and they had to outcompete hundreds of other Chinese kids just for the privilege of paying them. So there's a ton of pressure on them to succeed and get a good job; the stakes are just higher.
posted by pravit at 12:06 PM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

A lot of time Western students (in China) view Chinese students as nerdy or childish, while Chinese students view Western students as irresponsible and promiscuous.

But there are nerdy Americans in college. There are Americans in college that a nerdy, Asian, or both. Bigger universities and colleges have many different kinds of people, some of which are reflected in formalized campus organizations. I'm curious, is this a problem with schools in places with an established Chinese population, like California?

Maybe some of it is Chinese students choosing colleges purely for academic ranking and programs and not necessarily campus life. It's probably very difficult to get a feel for the campus only based on its website and brochures, as visiting the campus would take an international trip.
posted by FJT at 1:21 PM on November 2, 2013

FJT: "Maybe some of it is Chinese students choosing colleges purely for academic ranking and programs and not necessarily campus life. It's probably very difficult to get a feel for the campus only based on its website and brochures, as visiting the campus would take an international trip."

I'm not as familiar with Chinese undergrads, but the grad students in the CS and chemistry departments have told me that they sent out their applications based solely on word of mouth, various rankings, and sometimes the faculty publications. This "fit" that is given so much attention in domestic undergrad admissions is very much a crapshoot for international students.
posted by d. z. wang at 2:56 PM on November 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm curious, is this a problem with schools in places with an established Chinese population, like California?

My guess is that the dynamic is somewhat different, but that's just a guess. My campus doesn't have a big Asian-American population, and anecdotally, I've had several Asian-American students tell me that the situation with international students makes them uncomfortable. There's an assumption, even more than there would be otherwise, that anyone Asian-looking on our campus is not American, so they get treated like foreigners in their own country. (And that was an issue even before we had a lot of international undergrads, but it's perceived to be worse now.) There's a video about that.

Also, our Asian-American student population is really diverse, and they don't necessarily have much (or anything) in common with the Chinese international students.

Maybe some of it is Chinese students choosing colleges purely for academic ranking and programs and not necessarily campus life. It's probably very difficult to get a feel for the campus only based on its website and brochures, as visiting the campus would take an international trip.

There's a network of agents in China who help Chinese students find American universities and negotiate the application process. At least until very recently, that's where most students have got their information. My students tell me that the agents haven't always been super honest: for instance, in the past students were often told that it would be possible to graduate in three years, when in fact it takes at least four years and maybe more if they have to do intensive ESL. My sense is that there's less of that now, partly because information is flowing back through social media and the like. There's an unofficial Chinese-language website for my university on which students exchange information about housing and professors and classes and stuff, and I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of students find their way to that before they get here. They seem to be arriving with better information than they had a couple of years ago. To the extent that students are interested in non-academic campus culture, they seem to be focused on whether the campus is safe and whether it has a substantial Chinese population. I don't think they even think about "fit" in the way that American undergrads do.

A couple of other things. Most Chinese students at my university decide to come to the US because they took the gao cao, the university entrance exam, and didn't do well enough to get into a good university in China. They're good students, but they're not academic superstars. Also, most of them major in business. I think that students who choose CS programs based on national rankings may have a slightly different profile.
posted by sockpuppy at 3:53 PM on November 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

This topic is kind of depressing. As an Asian American, I know what it feels like to have people assume you're standoffish. Asian Americans have been dealing with this forever. You can read an Asian American studies book from the 1980s and it's the same thing. The model minority, the invisible minority, etc. Even if you're American, you're often looked at as a foreigner. I can't even imagine what it's like for Asians who really are foreigners. This is definitely something where some blame can be put on both sides.
posted by ChuckRamone at 2:58 PM on November 3, 2013

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