Chinese undergraduates in Western cultures

Chinese undergraduates in Western cultures

On 3rd February 2018, Eric Fish published an article “How Chinese overseas students are learning harsh life lessons” in the South China Morning Post. This was about his research on the experiences of Chinese overseas students in Western universities. The article makes some important points that I summarise below:

  • Most Chinese students look forward to going to the West for an education because of the supposed freedoms they will have when compared to life at home. However, many become disillusioned. They also find themselves becoming more patriotic than they expected to be;
  • Criticisms of China in the West highlight the hypocrisy in Western thought and writing. “They apply their standards of liberty, human rights and democracy to all circumstances despite the fact that the USA itself has done many of these kinds of things in the past,” comments one student studying in the USA. Another says, “What really pushed my buttons was the human rights issue, like Tibet where the West takes the moral high ground. And the way they talked to me was like saying, ‘I am personally superior to you.”
  • Some Chinese students find themselves treated like Chinese spies if they uphold Chinese policies. But they also fear of repercussions back home if they oppose them. This leaves many confused and uncertain about not only what to say but even how they feel themselves. “I do think there’s a strong current of disappointment at the level of social exclusion many Chinese students experience over here,” says an associate professor at the University of Melbourne. “They find themselves excluded from a lot of aspects of local society that they would rather be part of.”
  • Most universities in the West do little to help Chinese students adjust to life in a new country. They are keen to take their money but do not have the skills or resources to spend time on any kind of integration. Upon arrival, many students struggle with studying in English. They spend most of their time at home or with other Chinese students burdened with study. They are uncomfortable with late-night drinking and partying that dominate campus social scenes.
  • Most students fall somewhere between loving and hating their sojourn country. While their initial rosy image of the West was crushed, they still relish the education they receive and do not regret coming. But they lose patience with Western arrogance and hypocrisy.

Views of coaches

by Helena Lopes
by Helena Lopes

I circulated the article to some of those who coach Chinese students in the UK and got some interesting responses. 

John, a former barrister in Hong Kong, wrote that he believed the comments refer mainly to the situation in the USA and that in the UK might be different:

I have noticed while most candidates accept it when I talk about differences in approach between China and the UK, occasionally I get a response that is so obviously the “official” view so you can see the more open-minded candidates look almost embarrassed. The trick, I am sure, is to present differing views as just another viewpoint, not necessarily the “right” one, which is where I suspect things went wrong in the USA.

Valerie, who lived and worked in Hong Kong, wrote:

Almost without exception, my is that they love being in the UK. They relish being away from the controlling and sometimes claustrophobic family environment in China, tasting freedom and independence for the first time in their lives. They love the diversity and tolerance of our society and most want to stay and work here at least in the short term rather than go back to China after their studies. 

I agree that many candidates are not well prepared for a standard university education in the UK in terms of the standard of written English, which in some cases is shockingly bad, and often spoken English. This has made me question the standard required by our universities of overseas students and that a blind eye is turned towards inadequate English skills for financial gain. 

Tony echoed the comments from several coaches:

One of the biggest challenges I have faced is getting Chinese students to socialise with other nationalities and learn more about their cultures. This allows Chinese students to particularly maximise their opportunities to practice and improve their English. Many come over here, make Chinese friends, get a Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend. Despite the lectures in English, they are almost living as if they were at home. 

The other point that rings home with me is how some of these students are not prepared for what they are getting themselves into. Some are not emotionally mature enough and, in some cases, unaware of just how different life is going to be. Rather than to rise to the challenge of learning English and experiencing the new culture, some retreat into themselves. 

The point about Chinese students who are disappointed with their experience in the West is very true too. Most of them enjoy it but nearly all have adjusted their expectations and views down from what they were expecting. In particular, how much an advantage a western education and western business exposure gives them is becoming more open for debate.  Many industries, products and services, are considerably ahead of UK companies.

Perhaps, most interesting of all are Maggie’s comments. She is Chinese, born in Beijing, and moved to Hong Kong and then to the UK where she has lived for the last 30 years:

by Adi Constantin
by Adi Constantin

In my experience, racism mainly exists in the ignorant section of any community. For example, I learnt from the very early days of living in the UK that I needed to be very careful in dealing with lowly educated people. Education in the West is about increasing understanding between cultures. 

I do think that some Chinese people are too touchy these days. I keep telling some Chinese it is not that everyone “attacks” Chinese; it is that people find it interesting to ask questions when they meet someone from another culture. For example, an Indian will be asked questions about India, an Italian will be asked questions about Italy, so it is only natural that a Chinese gets asked questions about China! 


As with most things in life, setting expectations is key. Coaches sometimes ask new mainland Chinese students in the UK what attracted them to study in the UK. They say, “the culture.” How do they define the culture? The answer is, “Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes”! (Both of these are very popular in China.) Parents cannot help because they do not know either. So how can anyone set appropriate expectations?

One recommendation is for Universities to induct incoming overseas students better.

Leaving home and going away to university can be traumatic for both the students and their parents. It is essential for parents to join their children in visiting universities beforehand to get as much knowledge as possible about the new way of life. Many parents of Chinese students do this – but many do not.

If you are in the position of sending your son or daughter away – you should make it a priority to visit the place where they will live and study.

You and everyone involved at universities needs to be aware of the issues overseas students can face.

Worked on the article: