Partial Versions of Themselves: Chinese International Students in the Classroom

Fall 2019

By Tina Yen

While boarding schools have hosted international students for decades, day schools are relative newcomers when it comes to developing and supporting international student programs. In the majority of day schools with international student programs, I would not be surprised to hear Mandarin whispered in libraries or spoken in hallways, by lockers, in lunchrooms, or in student lounges. China is the largest sender of international students in the United States for both secondary and higher education.1 Schools welcome these students with the full intention of providing the experience of a well-rounded American education but are often challenged by the reality of a cultural gap between Chinese students and their American counterparts.

As faculty and administrators, we are perplexed when Chinese students stick together. Why don’t they make American friends? We feel frustrated when they always speak Mandarin to each other, and we attempt to implement English-only policies. Why don’t they practice their English more? How can we reinforce English in the classroom? We feel at a loss when they don’t contribute in our classrooms. How do we engage Chinese students? They aren’t speaking up and participating. These tensions are felt not only in independent schools but in higher education as well. If the recent student uproar over the Duke University professor who asked Chinese graduate students “to commit to using English 100% of the time” suggests anything, it is that not all educational communities are prepared to embrace the impact of globalization in our classrooms and the students who come with it.2

An Assimilationist Mindset

In my work with Chinese international students, I have observed that institutionally the modus operandi in many independent schools is based on the assumption that Chinese students are here to receive a better education—one that is better than the education offered in China, one that teaches students creativity and critical thinking, and one that prepares students for American colleges and universities since we boast some of the best higher ed institutions in the world. Indeed, many American educators, whether consciously or not, assume that Chinese international students will benefit the most from the education our independent schools provide when they immerse themselves in American values, beliefs, and culture. Even with the best of intentions, teachers often shake their heads in pity as they view China and Chinese students through a simplistic Western lens. After all, education in China is rigid, and learning is based on rote memorization. We can teach our students to express themselves as individuals, to discover interests and hobbies, and inspire creativity and ingenuity. Assimilationist thinking stems from the social theory of cultural assimilation in which a minority or marginalized group comes to resemble the normative behaviors of the majority. The problem is that an assimilationist mindset privileges a singular American perspective over the experiences and perspectives of our international students.

Orientation programs serve to lay out our institutions’ expectations for student behavior and to prepare our international students for life in the U.S. Many orientation programs address culture shock and introduce American culture and values—ranging from dining etiquette to ways of engaging in the classroom. We encourage students to step outside their comfort zones and to try new things like meeting new American friends. We expect them to introduce themselves to American peers and jump into conversations about Snapchat streaks and Fortnite. But how many of our American students and faculty members can name their favorite Chinese celebrity? Favorite Chinese movie? Favorite Chinese author? We expect international students to participate in athletics, arts, clubs, or other extracurriculars, but we frown when they join math club. We expect them to reach out to faculty, to participate and ask questions in class, but how often do we, as faculty, check in for understanding or build relationships with them as we do with our domestic students? We expect our Chinese students’ behaviors to mimic American behaviors, norms, and values, and we wonder “What’s wrong with them?” when they don’t perform to our expectations.

An assimilationist mindset is problematic because it limits how domestic students, faculty, and school leaders engage with Chinese international students and assumes that our American values and ways of teaching and learning are inherently better. Such thinking leads us to believe that our international students benefit directly from our educational institutions and overlooks the opportunities for growth that our learning communities gain from their perspectives and experiences.

Moreover, an assimilationist mindset creates unsafe and unwelcoming learning communities for Chinese international students, such as my own students, who frequently confide that they feel as though they are merely partial versions of themselves. My students report a lack of belonging and feelings of rejection by their peers and teachers. It is unjust to hold Chinese international students to our American expectations when we do not fully embrace them within our communities. It is necessary that we stop to consider our personal blind spots as well as those in our curricula. In doing so, we begin to see the ways in which we can create more culturally competent and culturally responsive classrooms to support and engage our Chinese international students in meaningful ways.

A Cultural Shift Forward

In order for our schools to better serve Chinese international students, we need to create a cultural shift forward. Instead of asking Chinese students to be like us, we as teachers and educational practitioners need to change our ways of thinking and engage with our students in a different way. How can we transform the culture of our schools and classrooms to meet our Chinese international students where they are?

1. Check our preconceived notions and biases about China and Chinese people.       

Generally speaking, Americans have a negative perspective of China. From 2006 to 2016 in the United States, negative perceptions of China grew by 26 percent.3 It was during this time that many independent day schools saw a dramatic increase in the number of Chinese international applicants. So, while the number of Chinese international students in our classrooms has increased, the general attitude toward China has grown increasingly negative. Why are American perceptions of China overwhelmingly negative?

American representations of China in the media have often portrayed China as a potential enemy. In the 1950s, China’s Communist Party was seen as a threat to America’s freedom and democratic way of life. In more recent years, China’s economic growth has challenged the United States’ status as the leading global superpower. Distrust for China’s politics and geopolitical tensions can influence xenophobic feelings toward individuals—for example, the Chinese students at Columbia University whose dorm signs were vandalized, the Duke case, or the Trump Administration’s rhetoric calling Chinese students “spies."4

As educators, we may not act with such flagrant displays of xenophobia, but we must seriously reflect on the depth to which our perceptions are shaped and influenced by what we know of China. Just as with any stereotype or prejudice toward other marginalized communities, we have to thoughtfully unlearn our negative perceptions of China and Chinese students. We also cannot rely on our students to tell us more about what China is like; we have to do that learning for ourselves.

2. Build authentic relationships with Chinese students.                                                               

In my role, I am frequently asked whether my students would prefer their Chinese names over their English names. My answer is always, “I don’t know, it depends.” Each student is an individual. They arrive at their English names in varied and sometimes very interesting ways. For many, their given Chinese names are personal and meaningful. The way each of my Chinese students feels about their English name and Chinese name is also different. The best way to know whether a student prefers the English name or the Chinese name is to ask that student.

As with any student, building a relationship founded on trust is critical to student success. How much do we really know about our international students’ home lives? Particularly in day schools, it is easy for international students to lead invisible lives beyond the school, so it is even more important that, as teachers and school community members, we are intentional in getting to know a student. As adults in a learning community, it is our job to take the lead in building a relationship with a student that is founded on trust and care.

3. Introduce China into the academic program.

What opportunities are we providing students to connect in the classroom? A student very pointedly said to me in conversation, “I feel like American students don’t care about me and my culture. I know American books, American movies, American songs, but Americans just don’t have any interest in China.” Culturally responsive teaching offers students windows into the experiences of those who are different from us and offers mirrors to reflect back experiences similar to one’s own. What windows into other parts of the world, including China, do we offer our students? What mirrors do we offer for our Chinese international students?

Including China in the academic program is more than turning to the Chinese international student in class and asking, “So what do Chinese people think about democracy?” Culturally responsive practice in the classroom is thoughtful and planned. As teachers, we must do the legwork in learning about China ourselves before we can introduce topics and lessons in the classroom. However, the end result is worthwhile. Practicing culturally responsive teaching that integrates China into the curriculum is mutually beneficial for both Chinese international students and domestic students alike in learning about each other. Here are some possibilities for including China in the curriculum:
  • Reading literature from a contemporary Chinese author
  • Offering electives in Chinese history or adding topics to include the Chinese diaspora in U.S. history courses
  • Discussing contemporary global issues (urbanization, climate change, economic development)
  • Showing a Chinese movie or documentary
  • Studying a unit on Chinese art or art history
  • Creating a unit on classical East Asian music
  • Learning about non-European ways of understanding the body and health through a unit on traditional Chinese medicine
  • Becoming an ally to equity and inclusion work that includes international student perspectives
4. Check for prior knowledge and understanding of cultural context before a unit.

Chinese international students have different cultural references and frameworks for understanding from their American counterparts. Take time to assess what a student knows about a particular subject before beginning a unit, and provide the student a cultural framework for understanding. Works of literature like The Great Gatsby, for example, are particular to a specific American historical context. While American students might be able to conjure up mental images of what a flapper looked like or make a connection to Prohibition in the Roaring Twenties, a Chinese international student may have very little cultural context to the world of Fitzgerald and the perspective of the Lost Generation writers. It is good teaching practice to determine what students know about a topic before beginning a unit. Students learn best when they can connect new information to prior knowledge.

5. Provide international students with affinity spaces.

Chinese international students find themselves in a completely different racial context in the United States from the largely homogeneous ethnic population of their native country. Suddenly they find themselves faced with stereotypes rooted in xenophobia or caught between the discourse of black and white in America. My Chinese international students struggle with their new identities in the United States wondering, “Am I a person of color now?” What does it mean to go from the majority and suddenly become a minority? Students are best able to navigate these questions in affinity group spaces.

Affinity groups provide students safe spaces to explore a common experience. There are some experiences common to my Chinese international students—struggling with a sense of belonging, navigating between two cultures, and missing family and home at different points throughout their time in the United States. Students can more freely express themselves and support one another in affinity groups. 

Conclusion

Cultural responsiveness doesn’t just stop in the classroom. Schools must also transform institutionally to become more culturally responsive. Chinese international students are a great resource to our learning communities. They not only offer global perspectives and different experiences but they also hold up mirrors to show us the ways in which our schools—and we as members of those schools—need to grow.

As Americans, we have a tendency to be singularly focused on the ways in which America is exceptionalized: America is a global leader and influencer; America celebrates individual freedom, creativity, and innovation; America has world-renowned educational institutions. As American educators, we can be unaware of the ways we privilege American values and perspectives, as well as the power that we hold as conduits of culture and learning. In order to better serve our students, and our Chinese international students in particular, we must be mindful in discovering our own blind spots, build authentic relationships with students, reexamine the scope of our academic programs, provide cultural context to the lessons we teach, and practice allyship in equity and inclusion work by supporting affinity group spaces. By implementing culturally competent practices, our schools can become truly transformative learning communities that redefine American education in the eyes of our Chinese international students.

Notes

  1. Christine Farrugia, Globally Mobile Youth: Trends in International Secondary Students in the United States, 2013-2016 (Washington, DC: Institute of International Education, 2017).
  2. Amy B. Wang, “Duke Professor Apologizes for Telling Chinese Students to Speak English on Campus,” Washington Post, January 28, 2019; online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/01/27/duke-professor-warns-chinese-students-speak-english-campus-or-face-unintended-consequences/.
  3. Dorothy Manevich, “Americans Have Grown More Negative Toward China Over the Past Decade,” Pew Research Center, February 10, 2017; online at https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/10/americans-have-grown-more-negative-toward-china-over-past-decade/.
  4. David Paulk, “Columbia’s Chinese Students Targeted by Racist Vandalism,” Sixth Tone, February 14, 2017; online at http://www.sixthtone.com/news/1932/columbia-chinese-students-targeted-by-racist-vandalism. Elizabeth Redden, “Did Trump Call Most Chinese Students Spies?” Inside Higher Ed, August 9, 2018; online at https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/08/09/politico-reports-trump-called-most-chinese-students-us-spies.
Tina Yen

Tina Yen (tyen@abingtonfriends.net) is the director of international student programs and a member of the history faculty at Abington Friends School, Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.