Chinese International Students in the United States: Demographic Trends, Motivations, and Acculturation Features

This chapter addresses the unique features of Chinese international students in the United States in three dimensions. The first part includes the literature pertinent to the history and demographic information of Chinese international students in American higher education. In the second part, the review turns to the literature concerning what factors drive Chinese students to study abroad. The third part mainly discusses Chinese students’ acculturation features in terms of group-level factors such as culture, social life, and employment and immigration issues. In the next chapter, the discussion moves on to the special challenges Chinese students face while studying in the United States. In doing so, these two chapters synthesize the literature which provides a stage setting for this study.

The History and Demographics of Chinese International Students

Chinese International Students in the United States: 1890-1950

The Chinese government (Qing Imperial government, 1644-1911) sent the first group of 120 students to the United States from 1872 to 1875. The main stream of Chinese students came after China’s defeat by Japan in 1895 and the failure of the Boxer Rebellion in 1899 (Wang 1965). Through 1951, about 36,000 Chinese students had studied in the United States (Dow 1975). From the very beginning, the Chinese government had political expectations associated with sending students abroad. Sending students abroad was considered the natural way to face the Western challenge. Students left China with the special mission that linked their studies to the cause of national salvation. Almost all of early students in the United

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K. Yan, Chinese International Students’ Stressors and Coping Strategies in the United States, Education in the Asia-Pacific Region: Issues, Concerns and Prospects 37,

DOI 10.1007/978-981-10-3347-6_2

States were sent and supported by the government, and most of them were in the natural science and other technically oriented subjects. They were often quite young and many were not prepared for their studies in a foreign culture (Su 1942).

In terms of the goals of foreign study, the Qing government’s attitude was conservative and technically oriented. As illustrated by Li Hung-Chang, the Minister of the Qing Imperial government from 1870 to 1895, the goal of the foreign study was for these students “to learn about the sciences related to army, navy, mathematics, engineering, etc., for ten-odd years, so that after they have completed their study and returned to China all the technological specialties of the West may be adopted in China, and the nation may begin to grow strong by its own efforts” (Wang 1965, p. 78). In addition, the Qing government was concerned that young people exposed to American society would lose their own cultural identity. As a result of such concern, Chinese learning as substance and Western learning as functional had become the accepted slogan since the late 1890s (Wang 1992).

After the Qing Imperial government was overthrown in 1911, self-supported students from rich families increasingly became the kind of students who studied abroad. The noble goals of foreign study gradually yielded to personal interests (Wang 1965). The dream of saving China through foreign studies was discredited after 1925 (Wang 1965). By 1930, the motivation to go abroad had totally switched to personal factors, and a foreign education had become the rich men’s interest (Chen 1979). While abroad, students’ main interest became obtaining the US diploma, the symbol of prestige. In the study of overseas Chinese student history, Bourne (1975) reported, “an American degree was a guarantee of ascent in the social and political structure of China (in the early 20th century)” (p. 269).

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