As the plane descended over Iowa, Fan Yijia could see a quilt of green and yellow cornfields extending to the horizon. It had taken more than 24 hours – and one missed flight – for the first-year University of Iowa student to travel from Jiaxing in eastern China to the American Midwest. To her weary eyes, accustomed to the crowded streets of her home city of 4m people, the cornfields looked not comforting but disorienting. “I had no idea if I could fit in.”
Before the missed flight, Fan – who goes by the English name Sophie – had arranged online to get a lift from the airport to the campus from the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, a student-run group partially funded by the Chinese government. Her delayed arrival forced her to cancel the reservation. So she turned to the only other group offering a helping hand at the airport, Bridges International, an evangelical Christian outreach group. “It might be a little confusing and you’re probably really tired,” the Christian group’s online ad says. “Wouldn’t it be great if there was someone there to greet you? We would love the privilege of getting to welcome you into the US from the moment you arrive.”
At the baggage claim, a young American greeted Sophie enthusiastically and helped load her suitcases into a van. It was only a half-hour ride across the plains to Iowa City, but he filled every minute talking about all the activities Bridges organised and all the ways they could help her settle into her new life: did she need a ride to local stores? Help moving into her apartment? A companion with whom to practise her English? “He was so friendly”, Sophie says, “that I felt I couldn’t say no.”
Even as relations between America and China become more distant, one strong undercurrent is moving in the opposite direction: Chinese students flooding into American universities. There are now 328,000 of them, five times as many as a decade ago. So intense is the hunger for an American education that Chinese students now make up nearly a third of the more than 1m international students in America. No single front in bilateral relations connects more people in both countries, or has the potential to influence a cohort so vital to the future: the sons and daughters of China’s ruling class.
The offspring of China’s economic boom are not the first to study in “the beautiful country”, as the US is known in Chinese. A century and a half ago, when the first 120 Chinese students came to America wearing the braided queues of the Qing Dynasty, they were told by their imperial masters to “learn from the barbarians” to help modernise China after its defeat in the opium wars. American officials saw a chance to instil in the next generation of Chinese elites so-called American values: democracy and Christianity. The experiment ended in 1881, after less than a decade, when Qing officials worried that the church-going, baseball-playing boys were becoming too Westernised. The fear ran both ways: a year later, America instituted the Chinese Exclusion Act, a ban on Chinese immigration that would last 60 years.
The current influx of Chinese students is driven not by the state but by individual ambitions. They come because a good foreign degree is respected in China, and some also act as forward scouts for their families, to score a green card that may eventually allow their relations to secure American residency. In a survey in 2016 by Hurun, a Shanghai research firm, five out of six wealthy Chinese families said they planned to send their children abroad for university. Their fees are helping cash-strapped American universities stay afloat. Last year Chinese students contributed $11.4bn to America’s economy in tuition and other expenses. “Politicians always talk about China stealing American jobs,” says Wenfang Tang, a University of Iowa political-science professor who arrived in the us as a graduate student in 1982. “But the money is coming back through the Chinese students.”
A disproportionate number of these Chinese kids are landing in the American Midwest, one of the nation’s least ethnically diverse areas. Few have wooed China more assiduously than the University of Iowa, whose courtship of Chinese students coincided with a devastating flood and state budget cuts. The number of Chinese undergraduates there has jumped from just 47 a decade ago to 2,012 this year, accounting for 80% of all international undergraduates and injecting more than $100m a year into Iowa’s coffers in tuition fees, and room and board alone.
At Iowa, as at many other American universities, the influx happened so fast that students, both Chinese and American, have had little time to adjust. As a consequence, what could have been a meaningful cultural encounter can feel instead like a lost opportunity. The Chinese population is so large that it forms a separate world. Many Chinese speak only Mandarin, study only with other Chinese, attend only Chinese-organised events – and show off luxury cars in Chinese-only auto clubs. The Chinese government and Christian groups may vie for their hearts and minds. But few others show much interest, and most Chinese students end up floating in a bubble disconnected from the very educational realms they had hoped to inhabit. “It takes a lot of courage to go out of your comfort zone,” Sophie says. “And a lot of students on both sides never even try.”
It is a crisp autumn day, and Jonathan Hou, a 21-year-old Chinese student with a shock of bleached-blond hair, is cruising through the campus in his newest toy: a sparkling white $86,000 Mercedes Benz C63S. “It’s the only one in Iowa City,” he says, apologising for the licence plate sliding around the floor beneath the passenger seat. He hasn’t affixed the plate to the front grill yet for aesthetic reasons. “I don’t want to hurt the bumper,” he says.
The Mercedes C63S can accelerate from zero to 60mph (97kph) in just 3.8 seconds, but today Jonathan is barely creeping along past the old storefronts on Clinton Street, the main campus artery. He wants to show off his car – but not, it seems, to the baseball-capped American students crossing the street in front of us. As the young men walk past, they stare at the car and its Chinese driver, and snigger.
Jonathan doesn’t seem to notice. He is more interested in the Chinese students who gather at the food court of the Old Capitol Mall, locally known as the “Chinese ghetto”. He soaks in their admiring glances and scans the street for other high-end cars. His special-edition Merc is not the only fancy ride in town. A parade of Audis, BMWs and Mercedes, accompanied by a Maserati and a beige Bentley, streams past. All are driven by young Chinese students. Jonathan assures me it isn’t a special show. “This is just a normal day in Iowa City.”
A lot has changed in a generation. When Tang, the political-science professor, arrived for graduate school in 1982, he had just $40 in his pocket. He washed dishes to pay for his tuition. American classmates with colour cameras seemed impossibly rich. “Today, the roles are completely reversed,” Tang says. “Now it’s the local American students shaking their heads, looking at Chinese kids driving expensive cars that they could never afford in their lifetimes.”
Jonathan’s parents – his father is an official at a state-owned enterprise and his mother a businesswoman – had heard stories of rich kids partying with their parents’ money and losing their way in America. Before they agreed to let him go to the US, he had to show them he could be responsible, so he taught maths to poor kids in China’s eastern Fujian province for a summer. “A lot of Chinese students can’t handle the freedom in America,” he explains. “They just drink or play mahjong and stop going to class.” Jonathan doesn’t smoke or drink, and he studies hard enough to carry a 3.3 grade-point average at the Tippie School of Business. “My parents relaxed after a semester because they saw I could handle the situation on my own,” he says. “Now nobody tells me what to do, so I’m free.”
Luxury cars have become the most glaring symbols of Chinese wealth on US campuses, and of the growing chasm between American and Chinese students. In Iowa City, the number of registered luxury vehicles nearly tripled between 2012 and 2014, according to county data. In the two and a half years since, the auto craze has only grown – along with karaoke bars and bubble-tea shops, which now outnumber Starbucks in Iowa City.
Not that the Chinese students are experienced drivers. Jonathan bought his first car, an Infiniti, after taking only four driving lessons. A local car dealer told me he often gives Chinese clients their first driving lesson just before handing them the keys to their luxury cars. Even then, some don’t bother with insurance. Last year, a Chinese student crashed her uninsured Porsche Cayenne into a parking-lot wall soon after buying it. No big deal: she bought another. Jonathan has been careful to insure his Mercedes, but his profile – wealthy young Chinese student, multiple speeding tickets, high-performance sports car – makes his annual insurance policy more expensive than the in-state tuition fees for local students.
The next time I catch up with Jonathan, in early November, his hair is no longer blond. The top is now dyed steel gray, the sides shaved short. “I got it done in Chicago,” he says. He has just returned from an excursion to the Midwest’s biggest city – a seven-hour round-trip – for the sole purpose of picking up a pair of custom-made hip-hop designer jeans. The haircut was a bonus, as was the chance to let the C63S rip on the open road. Jonathan has had the car for only a few months, but he’s already eyeing his next purchase: a cherry-red Alfa Romeo speedster. Showing me a picture of it on his iPhone, he says: “It would be the only one in Iowa City.”
Not every Chinese student at Iowa has it so easy. At Java House, a popular hangout, Haddy Zhang is struggling to decipher a treatise on women in Islam. Soon, she will have to write a term paper on an unfamiliar faith in a foreign language. Her professor has already warned her about the improper use of footnotes and borrowed text – academic niceties unfamiliar to Chinese kids taught at home to regurgitate facts for their exams. “It’s so hard”, she says, “to find your own words.”
A former junior table-tennis champion in China, Haddy has come a long way from Beijing’s Shichahai sports school, where she says her coaches beat her for deviating from proper forehand form. Her parents pulled her out of the sports-training regimen only to find that the competition in China’s education system was just as fierce, so they enrolled her in the for-profit international wing of a Beijing public high school at a cost of $15,000 a year. Once on that track, her only option was to go to a foreign university.
Haddy’s TOEFL (English proficiency) score was too low for most universities – a 78. The Chinese agency that prepared her university applications pushed her towards Iowa: the university not only has a high acceptance rate, about 70% for international applicants, but each year it also takes around 150 “conditional admits” whose marks fall below the minimum score of 80. These students must fulfil one or two years of intensive English before joining the regular curriculum, earning the university even more money. When Haddy retook the TOEFL and scored 82, she gained full admission.
Linguistic difficulties were only part of Haddy’s worries when she arrived in Iowa City two years ago. Like many Chinese students, she was a city girl in a country town. “I wondered where the subway was,” Haddy remembers. Iowa City has its share of sophistication – including one of America’s best-known writers’ workshops – but many of her classmates were farm kids, first-generation university students who had never met a foreigner and whose families struggled to pay the $7,000 in-state tuition fees. Haddy’s $28,000 out-of-state fees posed no problem for her parents. They sold a tiny spare apartment in central Beijing for several hundred thousand dollars. The buyers were also part of the education frenzy: they needed a residential foothold so their son could qualify for a top local school.
Haddy found solace in the sheer mass of Chinese students at Iowa. When she was initially shunted off into temporary housing – bunk beds crammed into a building lobby – she texted a Chinese girl she had met on the plane (business class, naturally) and moved in with her off-campus. Her friends are all Chinese. Some nights, Haddy goes to bed and realises she hasn’t spoken a word of English all day.
Such a cloistered world invites temptations. Even as Haddy’s professors repeat the mantra of academic integrity, her social-media account is barraged by online solicitations in Mandarin offering “hired guns” for academic papers and exams – all just a click away, laid out in a language that university administrators can’t comprehend. Haddy brushes off these invitations to cheat, but lines are sometimes crossed in the name of solidarity. Several Chinese told me of a system by which wealthy Chinese students pay middle-class compatriots to write their papers. A Chinese first-year student said she walked in on a roommate last fall getting help on a test from another student. “You can’t do that!” she told them, to which her housemate replied: “Yes, but she’s Chinese, I’m Chinese, we’re all Chinese. We have to help each other out.”
Last year a cheating scandal erupted at Iowa. Tipped off by an online proctoring company, the university discovered that at least 30 students – some, if not all, Chinese – had hired impostors to take their online exams. The scandal hurt the reputation of the Chinese on campus, and Iowa’s reputation in China. Last fall, despite offering places to a record number of applicants, the university enrolled 366 Chinese students, more than 100 fewer than the year before. “The scandal hit at a bad time,” says Kirk Kluver, Iowa’s director of admissions. “No question it had some influence.” Haddy and her friends feel unfairly tarnished. “I’m worried that when I go back to look for a job,” she says, “they’ll think, ‘So you’re a cheater, too?’”
One of the students expelled during last year’s cheating scandal was one of Haddy’s former housemates. With just days left on her visa, she turned to a company that helps Chinese students in trouble – an obscure but flourishing corner of the education industry. Almost overnight the company found a spot for the girl at nearby Kirkwood Community College. Now, despite her expulsion, the student lives in the same apartment, drives the same car, and hangs out with the same friends – almost as if nothing happened at all.
Haddy, meanwhile, is under pressure from her parents to gain entry into Iowa’s undergraduate business school, even if her marks don’t yet measure up. She had hoped the online course on Islam – the religion of her mother’s ethnic group, the Hui – would help get her over the line. But now, faced with writing a paper that accounts for the bulk of her grade, her confidence is fading. Haddy worries that even if she understands the material, she won’t have the vocabulary to express herself – or the wherewithal to use footnotes correctly. “I still feel confused or scared that I’ll do the citations wrong,” she says. “But I can’t afford to get an honour-code violation.”
The home of democracy in Iowa City is the Hamburg Inn, a folksy diner that has been a campaign stop ever since Ronald Reagan dropped by for a slice of meatloaf more than a quarter-century ago. When Li Mingjian, a senior, comes in for a “pie shake” – a concoction that blends ice cream with one of 12 kinds of pie – he and an American friend sit beneath Reagan’s photograph. Next to the cash register is the “coffee-bean caucus”, in which customers drop a bean into the jar of their preferred candidate at election time. Donald Trump may have won the state of Iowa, but Hillary Clinton beat him in the bean count, 4,139 to 2,304.
Mingjian, a gregarious business major from China’s coastal Shandong province, refuses to stay inside the Chinese bubble. “I didn’t want to waste any time,” he says, “so I threw myself into every activity I could.” The son of two Communist Party members, he wanted to understand Christianity, so he attended Bridges International meetings on campus and twice travelled to the group’s national conference, where the hundreds of Chinese had a side conference completely in Mandarin. He became an admissions tour guide and a residential adviser in his dorm – “just one Chinese guy handling 38 Americans,” he says. But his proudest achievement is twice winning election to the university’s student senate. “I wanted to see how the democratic system worked,” he says.
Iowa administrators might wish every Chinese student were so engaged. Like many universities around the country, Iowa has been so focused on recruiting students that its efforts to integrate them into campus life have seemed like an afterthought. The university has added pre-orientation events in China and created some avenues for cultural exchange, such as the business school’s one-on-one partnership programme, International Buddies, which at one point drew more than 300 participants.
But other efforts have fizzled. A compulsory course to connect international kids with local mentors “failed miserably”, says Ronald McMullen, a political-science professor and former ambassador who helped teach it. “The Chinese students felt they were frog-marched into the programme. The worst part was that the peer mentors – self-selected local students who wanted to mix with foreign cultures – got disillusioned. They felt that the Chinese students didn’t want to make any effort to integrate.” After one semester, the programme was discontinued, although the course is still offered on a voluntary basis.
The de facto segregation on campus is hard to avoid. For many Chinese students, the language barrier can be tough to overcome, and, culturally, it’s simply more comfortable to cluster together. But the largely monolingual American students don’t make much effort, either. “It’s a two-way street,” says Amber Dawn Miley, a third-year student. “People here haven’t had much exposure to other cultures. When I hang out with internationals, I can get funny looks from other Americans, like ‘Why are you hanging out with them?’”
The University of Iowa campus is friendly, but under the surface, resentments simmer. In the past few years, insensitive, even racist, posts about Chinese students have appeared on social media. (An example from late 2015: “I hate how the Asians here talk in the library and cheat on their tests. Like get the f–-k out.”) One offensive Twitter spree prompted Chinese students to organise a cultural-sensitivity workshop. Yet even today, a sign for a main campus building, Van Allen Hall, has been altered with a black marker to read “Van Alien Hall”.
Even more frustrating, for many Chinese students, are their encounters with Americans who bombard them with questions – or patronising lectures – about China’s shortcomings on human rights, democracy or censorship. The experience often pushes students deeper into their Chinese cocoon. “I just go silent when Americans bring up politics,” Sophie says. “It’s not worth getting into a fight.”
The Chinese students aren’t really disengaged, however. They are just immersed in a world that is largely invisible to the rest of the university. At its centre is the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), funded and monitored by the consulate in Chicago. Its structure even mimics the Communist hierarchy, with a “propaganda department” and a tight circle of leaders tacitly approved by the consulate. It puts on four big events each year aimed almost exclusively at Chinese students, including a Lunar New Year gala marking the biggest holiday in China. Last November, Mingjian attended a CSSA “speed dating” show in which male students in tuxes declared their love for female students in flouncy dresses, with nearly 300 students egging them on. It was conducted entirely in Mandarin.
One of CSSA’s main purposes is to make students aware that Beijing is watching over them. A Communist Party directive last year exhorted members to “assemble the broad numbers of students abroad as a positive patriotic energy”. At Iowa, the effort starts even before the students leave China: at the university’s pre-orientation session in Shanghai last summer, student-information packets included a dvd produced by the Chinese consulate in Chicago called “Rules for Studying Abroad”. And in January, the CSSA posted on social media a Lunar New Year’s greeting from the Chinese students’ official minder, Chicago consul-general Hong Lei. “He is the idol of students in the United States!” the message went. “He is the pride of the Chinese people!”
The CSSA also stands ready to protest against any campus speaker deemed harmful to China’s interests. In February, the CSSA at the University of California, San Diego, blasted the university’s choice of commencement speaker, the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing considers a traitorous monk, saying in a letter that it was “awaiting the advice of the Consulate General.” Over the past few years, the Chinese government’s direct involvement in CSSAs has prompted two other universities, Columbia and Cambridge, to ban them temporarily.
While helping newcomers in from the airport, CSSA representatives welcome them with advice about settling in – and a reminder that their behaviour reflects on the entire Chinese nation. The students do not really need reminding, for their education at home has inculcated in them the virtues of, and importance of loyalty to, the Communist Party. Their own encounters with American students – whose views on China can be condescending, even hostile – tend to intensify their reflexive patriotism, even if, like Sophie, they choose to keep their opinions to themselves.
Outspoken patriotic fury tends to be reserved for fellow Chinese. Last October, after Professor Tang gave a talk about Beijing’s sensitivity to public opinion, he received an angry email from a Chinese student: “I’m so ashamed of you. You just bought into American propaganda against China. Where is your moral limit as a Chinese citizen?” Tang, who is now an American citizen, shakes his head. “This generation has been indoctrinated since day one.”
Mingjian’s efforts to engage with American culture have strengthened his love for his homeland. After three years, he concluded that only “weak hearts” were lured by Christianity. “I wasn’t looking for the meaning of existence,” he says. “That’s more of an American thing.” Serving on the student senate was an honour, but he also grew frustrated by its inefficiency and endless debates. “In a democracy”, he says, “it’s hard to get anything done.”
The US presidential election hasn’t enhanced his opinion of democracy. Two days before the presidential vote, he bet a local classmate $1 that Donald Trump would win. “I knew people didn’t tell the truth in the polls,” he said. Trump’s victory thrilled Mingjian at first, partly because he won the bet, but the US president’s erratic China policy has alarmed him. “I prefer the stability of the Chinese system,” he says. In the Hamburg Inn, the irony is richer than pie shakes: last year, a Chinese investor bought Iowa City’s home of democracy.
The sloped driveway in front of the Christian pastor’s home is already full, so Haddy parks down the street behind a row of earlier arrivals. She is the last to join the Wednesday-night gathering on the outskirts of Iowa City, a weekly ritual that offers an antidote to the loneliness, pressure and confusion of university life in a foreign land. “Even when I’ve got a lot of homework, I try to make it here,” Haddy says, huddling against the evening chill in a red-and-black letter jacket. “It settles me down.”
Like many Chinese students, Haddy has never felt comfortable participating in the more decadent rites of American university life – the frat parties and binge-drinking that have earned the University of Iowa a reputation as one of America’s top party schools. After more than two years, she still spends most of her time in a Chinese world – except on Wednesday nights, when she drives out to be with Jarol and Leah Duerksen, the 78-year-old pastor and his wife. “They are”, she says, “practically my only American friends.”
Haddy has come not to pray, but to play. The Duerksens are competitive ping-pong players, and they’ve turned their basement into a shrine to table tennis, with two pristine tables, bright neon lighting and 12-foot-high ceilings. “We designed our entire house around this,” Jarol says. A banner on the wall reads “Jarol and Leah’s Killerspin Shack”. A world map nearby is studded with pins marking their guests’ hometowns; the biggest cluster is in eastern China, where the couple made a recent ping-pong pilgrimage.
Many Christian groups in America see Chinese students as a vast pool of potential converts – blank slates arriving from a Communist country where missionary activity is prohibited. Just as in the 1890s, when the Young Men’s Christian Association in China introduced muscular Christianity to the heathen masses, sport is regarded as a useful recruitment tool. The Duerksens’ calling card says: “Looking forward to heaven…but until then, it’s table tennis!”
By the time Haddy comes downstairs, Jarol and Leah are trading spins and smashes with two Chinese guests. “You made it!” shouts Jarol, as Haddy, smiling demurely, pulls out a paddle. She is the top player on a university women’s team made up entirely of Chinese. Last year, the Duerksens joined them at the national tournament, and Leah sewed the jerseys. Haddy has not converted, but she still comes religiously to their house: ping-pong with the pastor is one of the few activities that reminds her she’s really in America.
Sophie Fan was given a harder sell that first night in Iowa, riding with the talkative young evangelist from the airport. By the time he dropped her off at her dorm, she felt compelled to promise that she would come to a Bridges International ice-breaker party. Sophie longed for American friends, and if Christianity was such a big part of American culture, what harm was there in learning more? Her Chinese classmates, she found, were less interested in engaging with locals. “I have roommates who are afraid to talk to Americans,” she says, “and I ask them, ‘What’s the point of coming all the way to America if you’re not going to talk to anybody here?’”
Unlike other foreign students, many Chinese haven’t been shaped by any one faith, which can make them more receptive to new ideas. Christian groups also make sure to pad their missionary work with free food, friendship and American culture. “Most Chinese students aren’t looking for spirituality,” says Pearl Chu, a senior bio-chemistry major who is a devout Christian. “They go because these American students are reaching out to them, talking and listening. I think Christian groups have done more than the university to integrate Chinese students.”
At the Bridges’ ice-breaker, held in an apartment off-campus, Sophie found herself in a group of solicitous Americans – along with a few other Chinese students. They played games and ate homemade casseroles. A pastor led them in prayer. And then the interrogation began. “They wanted to know everything about me,” she said. “It was uncomfortable. They would ask things like, ‘Have you done anything in your life that you feel guilty about?’” Sophie left the meeting shaken, and has never flirted with Christianity again.
When Sophie was at high school in Jiaxing, getting ready to make the leap to America, she improved her English by binge-watching the TV show “Gossip Girl”. Her family is decidedly middle-class; her parents both work at the state telephone company, and they scrimped and saved to send their only child to America. When Sophie gorged on the show’s portrayal of fabulously wealthy American prep-schoolers misbehaving on Manhattan’s Upper East Side – and occasionally sneering at the merely middle-class – she took it not as soap opera but as documentary: “I thought, ‘Ah, so this is how Americans live!’”
It wasn’t long before she realised that the script did not fit a state university in the American plains. But as a journalism major, she started observing her own compatriots carefully: the Balenciaga heels in class, the Maseratis on the street, the cliques of the wealthy and well-connected. “I realised that we were living a Chinese version of ‘Gossip Girl’,” she says.
Now in her fourth year, Sophie is excelling in her studies – and feeling ever more alone. Her American classmates never really understood her, she says, and only the inquisitive Christians showed much interest. The rich Chinese are nice enough but, with their fancy cars and clothes, “they make it clear that you are not one of them.” Her fellow middle-class students often feel so much academic pressure they don’t socialise at all. After four years on a friendly campus, with thousands of compatriots, Sophie says, “I have no true friends.”
And the future is uncertain. Chinese families still want to send their children abroad, but a depreciating currency makes dollar tuition fees more expensive. President Xi’s intensifying ideological campaign against Western influences in China may stretch to foreign campuses. And now there is President Trump, his “America First” agenda and his intermittent hostility to China. Chinese students worry that any Sino-US conflict could threaten their freedom to study in America. After Trump’s immigration ban, Iowa staff cautioned foreign students to limit non-essential travel abroad. Andy Tan, a mop-haired senior, told me he would probably cancel a planned trip over spring break to visit his girlfriend in South Korea. “It’s safer to just stay in now,” he says.
For Sophie and her classmates, there is a more immediate dilemma: to stay in the US or return to China. American immigration policy has made it increasingly difficult for Chinese graduates to remain in America, but the glut of American degrees – especially from Midwestern state universities – has started to decrease their value back home. Chinese students who return with an American degree, known in China as “sea turtles”, used to be all but guaranteed an accelerated career path in China. But today the mass of returnees with degrees from middling universities hear a new nickname: “seaweed”.
When I last saw Sophie, in November, she was hunched over a computer at Java House writing a romantic novel. A Chinese publisher had seen her blog and encouraged her to write a book. On a separate screen she was working on applications for graduate schools. “I could never get a good job in China if I went back with just an undergraduate degree from Iowa,” she says. A couple of weeks ago, she texted me with good news: she has been accepted into a graduate programme at New York University. Maybe there, in the land of “Gossip Girl”, she will finally fit in.