Who are the students from east Asia?
April 6, 2013 5:12 PM   Subscribe

I don't know how else to phrase this maladroit and overlong "question," but… who are the foreign undergraduate and graduate students?

My undergraduate institution says that our student body self-reports as about one fifth Asian. I've had Asian roommates, classmates, and labmates all through undergrad, and now have Asian coworkers, supervisors, colleagues, and collaborators. I can distinguish Mandarin from Cantonese and Korean. I studied Japanese as a foreign language. I have some superficial awareness of traditional holidays, common attitudes and beliefs, and that sort of thing, mostly acquired through the popular media and therefore highly suspect.

I have very little insight into the life experience of students and coworkers who come to the US from various countries in east Asia. This is primarily because the things I'm curious about are somewhat private and maybe a little taboo.

Let's take a couple things: how does grad school in the US fit into the life of a student from an east Asian country? I'm surrounded by US-born grad students and know that some go back immediately after undergrad, others return after a few years, some are career changers or non-traditional students, etc. I have no such intuitions about foreign students. Some are funded directly by their countries, I gather? I've met a disproportional number of older female Asian students: coincidence? trend? Is it typical to start families in the US? A number of my acquaintances seem to have left families and young children behind in their home countries. How common is that?

Another bundle of questions: many students from countries in east Asia are late-life English learners. What sorts of support networks do they create? What sorts of resources do students use to cope with the foreign-language environment? What sort of collaborative strategies do students often use?

Getting to an even more sensitive subject, there's the issue of class. Some of my grad student acquaintances from Korea literally come from Gangnam, which I gather is sort of like the Hamptons. Do foreign grad students from east Asian countries primarily come from well-to-do families? Do they come from their countries' high-profile institutions? (For comparison, most of my Russian grad students acquaintances definitely do.)

So, basically, I want something like a sociological account of the graduate educational exchange between the US and China/Korea/Taiwan/Japan/SEA countries. I realize that this is an enormous and complicated topic, that human experience comes in a dazzling array of varieties, and that generalizations can be hopelessly inaccurate. I'm trying to develop intuitions that might serve as points of departure, not stereotypes.

Are there collections of first-hand accounts I could read? Sociological accounts or ethnographies of the lives of Asian grad students (something like this)? What options do I have short of interrogating my Asian friends? If you came to the US from your home country in east Asia to study, have you written about it? Many thanks for your patience with my idle curiosity.
posted by Nomyte to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Hey there. I teach international students, and I can answer some specific question, but I think you've asked a book's worth! There are some case studies out there if you look, though.

Many students go to an IEP -- an intensive English program -- to get their English up to a high enough level that they can handle classes (or ... are supposed to be able to, anyway). Many students whom you may perceive as late-starters--particularly Asian students--have been officially studying English since elementary school, but with suboptimal methods, no motivation, few chances/need/reason to use it, etc. (This is one reason why I scoff at the "there will be more English speakers in China than in the US!" meme.)

Most are well off. School in the US costs way more than in most other places. (And yeah, I have a bunch of Gangnam students as well.)

Some are top students who want a broader perspective or a "name" school. Some are average students who want to boost their chances back home. Many -- and this is according to one of our Chinese contacts/agents/whatever -- are students who didn't get into the school they wanted to back home (exam systems, you know), couldn't get into ANY school, got kicked out of school, are troublesome to their parents, don't fit in (often because they have unconventional aspirations!), have undiagnosed/untreated cognitive or emotional or learning issues, etc. A number of aspiring grad students have told me that there simply wasn't a relevant grad program in their country. Some students chose to come here and some were more or less shipped here by their parents, at least for the undergrads.

Students from certain places, such as Saudi Arabia, often have government scholarships. (KSA students sometimes have interesting restraints; for example, female students must be accompanied by a male relative, who sometimes has no interest in learning English or studying abroad. This causes some issues!)

Many students wind up "sticking together" as a support network because a) it's just easier b) it's a relief to be able to communicate like an adult c) fellow expats will be very offended if they don't d) they're drowning in their classes and need help, and e) American students (and teachers and staff) are frequently rude to them, standoffish, actively racist, inquisitive in a stupid way, etc.

A lot of our students wind up in church groups, usually evangelical ones, as support; sometimes these are English-based and sometimes not. (I keep wishing we'd get outreach from Unitarians or the Secular Student Alliance or something. At least for variety.)

They often have problems reading the massive amounts of academic-level stuff involved in going to a good university or grad school in general. Even the good students often struggle with this. There's just so much, and a lot of it is culturally-based, and many students have neglected everyday English in order to memorize academic/TOEFL vocabulary. So they know "establishment" and "destruction" but not "shovel" or "neat." This causes a problem reading for those students, because they struggle with context clues, implications, subtext, and so on. (Not to mention pop culture and socializing.)

A minority of students wind up in relationships and stay here, but most don't, as far as I know.

I've had a few older students who left their families behind, though most brought them with them.

Many of my students feel that the US is a very dangerous place and are worried about staying safe. Some wind up having conflict with their American classmates due to having learned a lot of stereotypes (about gay people and black people in particular, for example).

Anyway, those are a few impressions from my working experience.
posted by wintersweet at 6:19 PM on April 6, 2013 [14 favorites]

P. S. I know that KSA isn't in East Asia, but Arabian students are a growing part of our student body and maybe yours, too.
posted by wintersweet at 6:21 PM on April 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: There are some case studies out there if you look, though.

Hi, wintersweet, thanks for your detailed response! Would you by some chance have a pointer to some of those case studies? I took a lot of anthropology in undergrad and have a "fieldwork" approach to this question (it's been bothering me for a while). Sadly, anthropology often turns out to be the study of at risk/poor/defenseless populations, and it's much harder to find research on better-off or more mainstream populations.
posted by Nomyte at 6:33 PM on April 6, 2013

One female Korean grad student I know said she came to the US for grad school hoping to get a US faculty position eventually -- because in her field, it's all-but-impossible to get a faculty position in a Korean university as a woman.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:40 PM on April 6, 2013

I used to have a neighbor who I suppose would fit into your category.

She's a young Korean woman who came to the US to study architecture. I'm not sure if she also did her undergrad in the US, but she was in grad school when I met her. She currently still lives in the US (maybe 5 years after getting her degree) and presumably works in her field in some capacity. She travels to South Korea a few times a year.

She's single (or at least was last time I saw her, six months or so ago), and AFAIK she doesn't have a partner or children back home.

I'm not sure where specifically in South Korea she is from. My understanding is that her family is wealthy, though I don't know how wealthy or really what "wealthy" means in South Korea. She speaks English fluently and fits in pretty well within American culture, at least in New York City where a pretty high degree of variation is considered "fitting in well within American culture".

I also know an Indian woman who got a graduate degree from RISD and then returned to India where she has done various design-related entrepreneurial type things. She's from a similar background to my former neighbor -- from a wealthy family, fluent English speaker, high level of awareness of American culture, well traveled, etc.

My assumption via meeting a lot of these sorts of people is that there's a whole world of wealthy Asians, Africans, Latin Americans, and Middle Easterners who are US educated and either choose to stay in the US or return to their home country (or potentially settle in a third place -- Britain and Commonwealth countries come to mind) depending on preference or life circumstances.
posted by Sara C. at 6:49 PM on April 6, 2013

Based on both faculty and grad students that I know (this is mostly talking about the PhD level):

Some are from very wealthy families, some are from more upper middle class families. A handful that I know went to English speaking undergrad institutions and maybe even boarding schools.

Some Asian students apply extremely widely and get accepted (because of test scores?) because some grad programs just need bodies. (Obviously this isn't everyone.)

Most female Asian grad students that I know aim to get a U.S.-based tenure track position.


At the MA level, it is a bit different because people are paying for these, for the most part. In that case I've noticed plenty of MA programs taking a large number of Asian students. Read between the lines here.


A newer trend will probably be grad students who did some or all of their undergrad in the U.S. - as more schools take Asian students at the undergrad level.
posted by k8t at 7:15 PM on April 6, 2013

Best answer: I work with helping Hong Kong high school students get into US colleges. A lot of these kids, at least, have parents who were also educated either in the UK, Canada, or the US and a lot of them hold dual citizenships anyway. Their parents just want to make sure that their kids get the same sort of education that they got. Some of the local school kids just don't want to stay in Hong Kong anymore and start to apply abroad. Most of them want the brand name US schools for "prestige" reasons and probably so they can brag about it. The common denominator among all the kids I work with now is that they are all rather wealthy, some more than others. Their parents are able to pay full sticker price for any college very easily. From what I gather, they tend to stick together with other Hong Kong students really well through the cultural student organization, but they are aware of most of the cultural things that go on in the US too.


On a more personal anecdote, my dad was a Chinese born grad student waaay back in the day. He was in one of the first groups of Chinese students who were allowed to study abroad after the craziness that was the Cultural Revolution. He went to a grad program in Denmark in 1979 (maybe 1980?) because it was the only place that would apparently accept Chinese students at the time. He also eventually brought my mom over to Denmark too. I know for a fact that my dad did not come from a very well off or connected family, probably lower middle class at best. From what I've gathered, he burned all his bridges with his family in order to marry my mom who did come from a wealthy family (that was in the process of being denounced during the Cultural Revolution)

I remember he would always harp on me and my brother about how we had it easy learning other languages when he apparently had to listen to tapes secretly and mutter stuff in English to himself. For what it's worth, he speaks perfect English now. He was able to make friends with other grad students and became really close to his phD adviser (I'm actually named after his wife and they were the ones who did grandparenty things when my brother and I were growing up), but from how he tells it, the Chinese students would also just have dinners and hang out together pretty frequently.

My dad went to grad school in Denmark because it was always his dream to become a professor in chemistry. He did not have any intention of going back to China after he received his phD though because he had already become disgusted by what the Chinese government was capable of doing (some of his Chinese friends who did go back to China after getting their phDs have become professors in Chinese universities). He ended up getting a post-doctoral position at university in Texas. Neither of my parents have gone back to China since they left.
posted by astapasta24 at 8:12 PM on April 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think answers will vary depending on nationality when it comes to things like class level, reasons for coming, etc.

For example, my wife is Japanese, and I met her when she was finishing her masters degree. She had stayed in the US since her original undergrad exchange. Japanese universities are comparable to the US for tuition, and my wife's family is fairly middle class. But since Japan struggles behind other asian nations in English proficiency, studying abroad can give graduates a huge leg up job hunting when they return home. A lot of Japanese corporations also adjust salaries based on TOEIC (standardized English test) scores. So that motivates a lot of students/parents in Japan at least.

And speaking anecdotally from my wife's numerous other exchange student friends, there seem to be more female than male exchange students. Most of her friends attribute this at least in part to the fact that the US is years ahead of Japan (and probably other asian countries.?.) in terms of sexual equality.
posted by p3t3 at 11:54 PM on April 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to work with a guy from India. I made a comment in passing one time that I figured most technical students from India were probably from the lower castes, and he set me straight. Apparently there's a massive "affirmative action" effort in India, which is so extreme that students from the top castes find it nearly impossible to get into local universities. He himself was Brahmin and had to come to the US to get an education.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:56 AM on April 7, 2013

With regard to India, keep in mind that caste is not really congruent with economic status. That's a whole different can of worms which may be germane to the question (there really are quotas in a lot of Indian institutions, not sure about universities specifically), but it's not that simple.
posted by Sara C. at 8:00 AM on April 7, 2013

Wintersweet's point about not getting into schools back home is a really important one. In most east Asian and south Asian countries today there is a small handful of hyper-elite undergraduate universities, and then a huge gap in prestige and (at least perceived) quality. It's as if in the US there were Harvard, Yale and Stanford, and if you didn't get in to one of those three, your next choice was a non-flagship state college in the midwest.

Most (but not all) people who can get into the hyper-elite schools will choose to attend, but if you can't get in to one, you're almost certainly better off from a career perspective going to college in western Europe or the developed anglosphere (US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand).

The Times had a piece on this about a year ago which made an only somewhat-facetious reference to Indians who doubted their ability to get into IIT looking at Dartmouth as a safety schoool...
posted by MattD at 9:56 AM on April 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Good point, MattD. For many of my students, Berkeley is their safety school, essentially.
posted by wintersweet at 11:03 AM on April 7, 2013

Nomyte, I'll PM you when/if I dig some up, but it might be a while (taxes etc.). And I hear ya on anthro.

I did get some decent hits on scholar.google.org when I put in "case study" and "international graduate student" FWIW.
posted by wintersweet at 11:08 AM on April 7, 2013

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