Will They Like Me?
How the Chinese are Perceived
One issue that Chinese students studying abroad often worry about is the cultural perceptions and the ethnic biases of the people in the countries where they are staying.
The English-speaking countries in which you are likely to be studying have populations of mixed and diverse ethnicity. Where a negative perception of a particular ethnicity exists, it tends to be directed towards those of black, Middle Eastern, or Pakistani ethnicity (for example, perceptions among the general population may be informed by news reports that associate those of black ethnicity with criminality and aggression and those of Middle Eastern and Pakistani ethnicity with terrorism).
However, negative news reports of Chinese individuals, whether of residents or of visitors, are extremely rare (the same applies to those of Indian ethnicity and those of East Asian ethnicity in general). The stereotypical perception of you as a native of China is that of someone who is quiet, serious, and very hardworking.
More generally, respect for China as a major player on the world stage has been steadily increasing due to its strong performance in recent decades when it comes to wealth generation, to technological innovation, and to displays of soft power. Some negativity towards China has arisen, now that it is seen to be challenging the US to become the world’s dominant superpower – a negativity that is principally experienced by Chinese students studying in the US. Other countries lost their empires and their global world influence many decades or centuries ago, and are, for the most part, quite sanguine about the decline of the US and the rise of China. Superficially, when questioned, people will suggest that their negativity towards China arises from what they perceive to be its authoritarian regime; but when questioned in more detail, this negativity seems to stem, in large measure, from an envy of China’s rapid economic development and its comparatively cohesive society – while Westerners cherish their individualism, they are also well aware that, unlike Confucian collectivism, this individualism leads to identity politics, alienates different groups, and is both corrosive and socially divisive.
Whereas most commentators focus on changes in the relative technological and military strengths of China and the US, a more subtle and pervasive influence in the future may well be the relative changes in IQ: over several decades, the average IQ in the US has declined whereas the average IQ in China has increased – by about 6 points (Liu and Lynn, 2013). East Asia now leads the world in terms of the average IQ scores of its populations, scores which are, in descending order, Hong Kong (108), Singapore (108), South Korea (106), China (105), Japan (105), and Taiwan (104). These IQ scores are substantially higher than that of the US, which has an average IQ score of 98 (the differences in average national IQ scores are starkly illustrated on this map). Higher average IQ scores lead to greater productivity and to an enhanced ability to manage complexity, factors that will become increasingly important with the exponential rise in the adoption of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms.
So, when it comes to studying overseas in an English-speaking country, you are likely to receive more respect, or at least more tolerance, than most other ethnic groups.
Chinese students studying abroad are occasionally the target of some awkward questions critical of their government’s behaviour – in particular, its attitude towards ethnic subgroups within China and its stance towards neighbouring countries in the Far East. Most of these questions are unlikely to come from citizens of the country where you are studying – the majority of the population will be oblivious to the political tensions that are present in faraway places. However, some of your fellow students will come from countries bordering China, and they may well hold very strong views on Chinese government policy.
Illustrative examples of the questions you might be asked are as follows:
Why is China trying to take over Taiwan?
Is it true that a million Uighur Muslims are being held prisoner in their own country?
Why is China trying to take over the Paracels and Spratlys – these islands belong to Vietnam and the Philippines?
Why is China persecuting the Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama?
Is China trying to dominate the world with its Belt and Road initiative?
Why is China cracking down on feminists?
Why do you put up with China’s dystopian social credit system?
Isn’t it a disgrace that Google is aiding Chinese government repression?
Why does China keep stealing US technology?
Bear in mind that in today’s world news travels fast. Unbeknown to you, your answer to a question could be captured on a mobile phone, could be posted on the Internet, and could come to the attention of the authorities back home (beware that a protest group might deliberately try to set you up and record you making a provocative statement as part of its campaign). So, decide in advance how will respond to questions like these. You may well wish to defend the Chinese government’s position on issues such as these. However, unless you are well informed, pleading ignorance of these issues might well prove to be the best and the most diplomatic solution.
Displays of Wealth
Because fees for overseas students are usually very high, Chinese students studying abroad are often much wealthier and have more money to spend than do domestic students or those overseas students whose study is funded by scholarships. If you don’t want to annoy and irritate your fellow students, be discreet, and avoid making ostentatious displays of wealth – assuming you have any.
It’s important to understand that displaying one’s wealth means very different things in China and in the West. In China, displaying one’s wealth can be seen as an indication of good will towards society. But in the West, displaying one’s wealth in the presence of those who are not so wealthy is usually seen as provocative, as a deliberate attempt to cause them to lose face (丢脸 diūliǎn) – an outcome that the Chinese normally strive assiduously to avoid.
In a group setting, native speakers often behave in an insensitive manner, and become engrossed in discussing a local issue with which you are not familiar – such as what was on some local TV programme. It’s very easy to feel excluded and marginalized in these circumstances.
Making friends with native speakers is a good idea; but try to find those who are not self-absorbed, who are watchful as to whether you are being included in a conversation, and who will reword what is being said when you are experiencing difficulty in understanding an unfamiliar idiom or reference.
Dispelling Painful Memories
Social encounters at English-speaking universities can be bruising at times. For some individuals, the psychological trauma can lead to recurrent, intrusive, and distressing flashbacks. So, what can you do to prevent these from happening?
Well, for a number of years there has been a hypothesis that engaging in intensive visual activities can prevent distressing memories from being consolidated. More specifically, recent research (Iyadurai et al., 2018) has found that playing the computer game Tetris – a game with high visuospatial demands – for twenty minutes within six hours of a stressful event leads to fewer intrusive memories than does a placebo treatment.
Loss of Face
One of the problems with mixing with students from other countries is that the individuals in a group may often make little effort to maintain group harmony. Because of the individualism that dominates Western culture, each group member may act as he or she pleases. So, while some individuals may behave politely and encourage harmony, others may behave aggressively and may actively take pleasure in putting down, in belittling, in humiliating other members of the group – may actively take pleasure in causing them to lose face (丢脸 diūliǎn). While such dismissive behaviour often makes native students feel uncomfortable, it can be extremely distressing to Chinese students, who are used to a very different group dynamic. Westerners who are criticized may give as good as they get, but Chinese students usually feel it would be far too impolite to respond with harsh invective and to let loose a tirade of rude remarks: they suffer from the double discomfort of being castigated and of being unable to respond effectively.
The best advice is to be very selective about the overseas students you mix with, and to restrict your socializing to small groups – where there is a better chance that you will avoid individuals that display aggressive and narcissistic behaviours.
However, if you don’t want to mix with students who don’t share your background, don’t worry: there is usually a very good Chinese-speaking support structure in most university cities – among students and within the local society – and so it’s quite possible to spend most of your time mixing with other Chinese speakers if this is what you prefer.
Liu, J., and Lynn, R. (2013). An increase of intelligence in China 1986–2012. Intelligence 41, 479–481.
Iyadurai, L., Blackwell, S.E., Meiser-Stedman, R., Watson, P.C., Bonsall, M.B., Geddes, J.R., Nobre, A.C., and Holmes, E.A. (2018). Preventing intrusive memories after trauma via a brief intervention involving Tetris computer game play in the emergency department: a proof-of-concept randomized controlled trial. Molecular Psychiatry 23, 674.