In February 2013, the Columbia Spectator, a daily paper edited by students of Columbia University, published an attempt at an introspective piece about Chinese students at the prestigious university in New York. “The China Game” was published in the section of the paper called “The Eye” – a very appropriate place, since the story presents a Chinese view, a sort of Chinese version of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, on American society.
In the best narrative tradition of early 18th century Chinese travelers in the West, the piece opens with the remarks of a Chinese undergraduate student who, eager to know more about American society, venture out through the gates of Columbia’s campus on upper Broadway to explore. But in his effort to discover the Other, the long desired splendor of America, what does Andy – the pseudonymous Chinese student – find? His first encounter is with a shabby Chinese food cart selling dumplings and other Chinese staples.
The article explains that this undergraduate student, from the deep south of mainland China, overcame language challenges to gain acceptance to a university in the United States, hopeful to immerse himself in American culture and make white friends with “blue eyes, yellow hair, and a hairy face.” He was eager to explore a new culture. Instead, he was confronted in New York was an endless number of his compatriots studying at the same school, lining in front of the cart that sells food with the same taste and smell as the food back home. “This place is getting less and less American,” Andy concluded.
We do not know if Andy ever made it down Broadway to 59th Street , where he could have found a monument to another explorer who, in 1492, discovered America. As we know, Christopher Columbus first sailed towards the West in search of gold, trying to get rich. But, as Tzvetan Todorov wonderfully proved, the real motive that animated Columbus was the universal victory of Christianity. In his book, Todorov describes Columbus’ unintentional “discovery” of America, and what the navigator made of the inhabitants he found there. Todorov argues that Columbus failed to perceive substantial difference and projected his own values onto the natives. The misadventures of Columbus would be comical were they not the historical precursor to tragedy, says Todorov.
Andy is not Columbus. And I am definitely not Todorov – but let me borrow from him the notion that, like Columbus, Andy didn’t find what he was looking for. Purportedly in search of the new, he instead saw only a reflection of himself. Andy came to New York to discover America, only to find China.
Likewise, there were no Christians in America when Columbus set foot on the new continent. And yet Columbus, who for centuries was mistakenly called “explorer,” compared the locals to his Christian brothers and wanted to make them similar to himself. This was a quintessential part of colonialism. And what Andy and thousands of his Chinese colleagues are experiencing reflects successful colonialism as well, though in an economic form. In other words, they were attracted to America, but when they got here, they discovered that what they valued in the United States was nothing but China. This place is ours, they seem to say: not just the food carts – everything in America is made in China. We are better off than most of natives. We can afford to pay $60,000 a year in tuition. We pay and the doors are open to us.
So when one walks down Broadway, just south of Columbia, during the academic year, one sees young Chinese students moving in clusters. They are happy, confident, noisy. They wear designer clothes and carry expensive cell phones. They group according to their Chinese dialects and their social status back home. You can hear and see that some of them are more urban and bourgeois, while other are clearly from the countryside. They are all Columbia University students, but these groups do not even mingle among themselves. They interact even less with New Yorkers or Americans in general. They think they know all they need to about this place they inhabit. Coming from a country where no political judgment is allowed, they came to its colony in order to get the degree they need to climb the social ladder back home. At graduation time each May, Columbia’s neighborhood becomes a Chinese province, with parents and relatives coming from all corners of China. They collect their kids and pay their bills. These Chinese kids behave in America the way they do it in China: they are spoiled. The shady money their parents earned opens almost any door for them.
This Chinese student business is worth $7.5 billion a year. As with any other American corporation, universities want this money badly – 30 percent of foreign students in the United States are coming from China, according to a recently published analysis in Wall Street Journal.
In their greed for money, many American universities are opening their representative offices in China, where they woo rich families to send their kids to study at their schools. Many of these students, who I meet in the neighborhood, do not seem to know enough English to follow the lectures. Recently, “Fifteen Chinese nationals have been charged with impersonating students in order to defraud colleges through standardized tests,” reported the Guardian, adding that the U.S. Justice Department hints a possible “iceberg” of cheating by students studying abroad.
Of course we can’t generalize. There are young Chinese graduates who do want to integrate in America. I’ve met some brilliant young people who want to stay and work in U.S. They are few in number, and most are not happy, because according to American immigration laws they have to leave a year after they graduate. And of course, not all American universities are like Columbia, where the actual number of Chinese students seems to be a closely guarded secret, impossible to get. From where I write, just a few blocks from this magnificent campus, Columbia seems to be losing its prestige and credibility.