American Degree Through the Back Door



BEIJING -  I recently asked my high school students to write about a day in the United States and gave them forty-five minutes. One student wrote not much more than this: “day first United States….” A second student as part of a longer essay wrote: “If I wake up late I might go to a restaurant that has brunch.” From this very short example it should be clear that these two students should not be in the same English class. One student struggles to write a complete sentence while another student can not only write a sentence but can express her imagination at the same time.


What unites these two students is that they feel out of place in the Chinese education system and want to study in the United States, in hopes that it will improve their future. That these students want to study in the United States is not unusual by itself; currently about 100,000 Chinese study in the United States, China having recently surpassed India as the greatest exporter of foreign students.


While trying to support myself, I accidently discovered this sub-world; to put it simply of students who struggle academically but not financially. The number of students I have encountered involved in programs like this is quite small, only about fifteen, but here are some of the observations I have made.


As noted above, these families tend to be quite wealthy by Chinese standards, and respectable by American standards. The wealth is reflected in luxury clothing, luxury cars, iPhones and Apple computers that costs hundreds if not thousands of dollars more than in the United States. These families plan to pay their tuition in full, and some have or plan to buy apartments to live in while they study. 


As someone who has no computer and worries about repaying my student loans on a daily basis, I hone in on the wealth of these students. Yet if I only pay attention to the number of iPhones in my classroom, perhaps it's a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.


To a certain extent these families and students are like outsiders. Many of them are not from Beijing, or at least do not have official Beijing residency (hukou 户口). Not having a Beijing hukou can prevent one from buying an apartment, buying a car, attending certain public schools or being eligible for college entrance slots.


These students are also outsiders in that they chafe at the Chinese education system, and they yearn to study in the United States, where they hope they will find an education system that better suits them. These students yearn for an education system that, to put it simply, is easier and less demanding, where students do not attend class and do homework from the time they wake until the time they go to sleep, five, six or seven days a week. A break from a society that sells self-help books in the children’s section.


These students then attend programs like the one I teach at, that guides them on how to make it to the United States. Some programs, particularly for students with less than stellar English skills, guide students into attending community colleges as a back door way into the United States university system, without taking the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). Private companies coach them on what they should say and what they should wear for their visa interview at the US Embassy. If they want to sharpen their English more outside the classroom, they can go to private companies, and easily pay sums greater than the income of the average Chinese person.


Their parents, some of the first to grow up after the significant reforms of 1978 known as Reform and Opening (gai ge kai fang 改革开放), have demonstrated an ability to be successful in the Chinese system, yet for their children they look to the United States. As I help their students to prepare for the United States, two words come to mind, guessing and tension.


To say the least, trying to teach students who look for an easier education system with such varying levels of English can be a challenge – it takes a bit of guesswork. Just as I guess at times on how best to prepare students for both the bureaucratic (ie. visa interviews) and academic challenges of studying in the United States, I think there is a certain degree of guesswork on the part of the families. As Chinese college graduates compete and often struggle to find jobs, a degree from abroad is not a guarantee of success; those returning from abroad unable to find work being called seaweed.


The second and perhaps most important word is tension. In designing the curriculum there is a tension between using native English to teach with Chinese methods and using native English to teach using American college methods. As a PhD candidate who has taught in American universities I often feel students are poorly served if my main responsibility is telling them they pronounced “fault” wrong. More important perhaps is not this tension, but rather the tension of incorporating back into Chinese society with an American degree. 


The re-entry tension will exist not only for these students who struggled academically in China, but the thousands who entered American universities through the front door. Will these students use their standard English to maintain existing practices, or will their be greater efforts to incorporate American ways of thinking into Chinese society?



China, Education