Chinese students and staff abroad: a renewed form of methodological nationalism?
'I applaud China for sending their children abroad to continue their education.' (Comment on the Genius Recruiter website, 2012)
Publishing a book about Chinese students and staff abroad might earn the editor of this volume the reputation of being a 'methodological nationalist'. Current research on mobility and migration calls for a more transnational (see: post-national) approach. The editor and authors of this volume agree with Adam (2012, p. 1) that:
The nation state is no black box and its borders are certainly not impenetrable. Even if one accepts the nation state as a framework for the writing of history, one has to acknowledge as Ian Tyrell reminds his readers in his book Transnational Nations, that nations are made transnational. Nation states did not emerge in a vacuum but were the result of mutual exchanges and contacts across geographic lines that only later, with the introduction of passports, limiting definitions of citizenship, and the fortification of countries geographic borders, turned into fortified political borders.
By choosing 'Chinese' as a common denominator for the individuals who are under review in this volume, we agree that we remain within the 'national straightjacket' that Adam describes. Yet we believe that the characteristics, experiences, positions and contexts of mobile Chinese students and staff are so many and varied that they reflect willy-nilly the transnationality of the Chinese nation. China is an extremely diverse country of 1.3 billion inhabitants, comprising very different social, ethnic and linguistic groups. Students from Yining (northwest of China in the Mongolian Uplands), Qiqihar (in the north-eastern part of the country) or Nanning (southern China) may have very little in common with each other, even though they share a passport. But one does not even need to change regions; in Beijing for example, one can easily meet diverse people in a different district or even on a different street.
To strengthen our renewed form of 'methodological nationalism', let us remind our readers that China is one of the word's biggest senders of students abroad (some are state-sponsored, some privately-sponsored); that hundreds of research articles on Chinese students' adaptation, language skills, and so forth, have been published globally; and that there is global media interest in discussing their presence in and impact on foreign higher education.
As post-structuralist, post-colonial and postmodern scholars who see identity and interculturality as co-constructive phenomena (see Dervin & Risager, 2014) we endeavour to reject the usual process of 'cultural taxidermy' of the Chinese, which consists in 'stuffing' and 'mounting' them like the skins of animals for display or study. Another objective for us is to 'show that there is not one unique way of thinking in China and to recognize the fact that China did not stop thinking in Ancient times, or when Western modernity was introduced to her' (Cheng, 2007, p. 11).
In an interesting online film directed by hehe (2014), entitled Foreigners - Chinese Students in UK, which shows the diversity of experiences of Chinese students, non-Chinese individuals are asked about their perceptions of Chinese students. Most of the answers will be familiar to the readers: 'Most of Chinese students (sic) stick together.' 'They hang out together, study together, eat together.' 'Most of them speak Mandarin, and most of them stick with each other.' These typical 'taxidermic' comments confirm what has been labelled as the 'clique' phenomenon among Chinese students (Edwards, 2008). Interestingly, in the same documentary, a Chinese student based in the UK shares similar arguments about other foreign students: 'Those foreign students - they stick together, they are sitting together and eating together. We really want to join them, but they all keep distance to us. Maybe they think our English is not good enough to be friend (sic) with them.'
In the documentary, like in the last sentence of the previous quote, many Chinese students studying abroad report 'others' having very limited, stereotypical and racist visions of China and the Chinese. We believe that it is time to question these one-sided discourses on the Chinese student. Dervin (2012) has demonstrated that researchers can also contribute to this phenomenon by lacking criticality and reflexivity.