Should Chinese Students Study Abroad?

As many as 380 000 Chinese Mainlanders are studying abroad right now. But should they? The short answer is: Yes, Chinese students should study abroad but they must be aware of the differences in culture that exist.

For the long answer, please keep reading.

This article was written in response to my Chinese friends in Britain who are struggling to find a job. It didn’t seem fair to me that those who are cleverer and harder working than me are not able to find a job. This article is for them (you know who you are).

I’ve also taught Chinese students who want to go abroad. So then I decided to explore the reasons for going abroad to study. Although I am not a Chinese Mainland student I feel that I can offer the unique perspective of an outsider.

What began as a short blog post grew into a leviathan. So, like a good student, I’ve split it up into 4 sections: an introduction, the benefits, the dangers and a conclusion.

University days

I first spotted the Chinese student in the lecture theatre during first year. Whilst I was doing the Times crossword and/or sleeping in the back, the Chinese student were diligently listening at the front. In second year, I got to work with them on some presentations and I made some good friendships. In third year we revised together for our finals. Actually, they revised, I was still doing the Times crossword, and Su Doku had been invented by then too. After the exams were over, we shared some drinks and reminisced about the future.

Encounters in China

When I started teaching I was amazed to find that every other student wanted to learn English in order to study abroad. I helped my friend prepare the IELTS exam, which is an English qualification for foreign speakers. Typically, a score of 7 is needed to study abroad, which is the standard of a competent/good user. I have also helped with some applications to foreign universities, which bought back some bad memories of UCAS.

My main gripe is that there is a horrible misconception that studying abroad will ensure a bright, trouble-free future. Some think that the West is the land of milk and honey and that they will find their fortune there. Unfortunately this is not the case – try standing outside on a wet and windy English winter’s day.

The Benefits of Studying Abroad

1. Escape Domestic pressures

Let me describe some of the pressures that Chinese students face. Imagine a country full of hard working students. Add onto that the pressures of being an only-child. Then mix in a lack of a Western-style social security system, which means the parents depend on the only child for support during retirement. (Though this will become less of a problem as China develops). Finally, top it off with an ultra-competitive graduate job market. A million 2007 graduates have yet to find work. These are the pressures that the average student faces. It is hard to get ahead when all the graduates are very good.

2. Differentiate yourself

One reason for studying abroad is to differentiate oneself from the other Chinese. Only 10 Mainland Chinese universities are ranked in the top 500. So the grass really is greener on the other side (please, no jokes about the pollution). Also, there are simply not enough spaces at Chinese university to satisfy demands. As many as 4 million students could not secure places in 2005. In contrast, foreign universities welcome Chinese students (and their money) with open arms.

3. Potential Reward of Hard Work

In general, the Chinese are brilliant students. It’s simply part of Chinese culture. This work ethic has been passed onto Chinese children born in Britain, where the Chinese score the best out all the other ethnic groups. In Liverpool, the best grammar (selective) school has been invaded by (British-born) Chinese students. (OK, exaggeration).

Chinese Mainland students have shown that they are the amongst the hardest working. They would chose to stay in the library rather than go home. And they would chose to study rather than go out. They are justly rewarded for their efforts. I know at least 2 Chinese students that got First Class Honours degrees.

4. Learn the Language and Learn the Culture

As I have (painfully) found out, culture does matter. So one can learn an invaluable amount from living in a foreign country – both about ourselves and others. You can easily improve your English too. These experiences are becoming more and more important in today’s globalised economy.

The Dangers of Studying Abroad

Whilst there are many success stories, things do go wrong for the Chinese student who goes abroad. This prompted me to write this blog post huge long article. So before you go off to study in the green fields of England, consider this:

1. The cost

It goes without saying that studying abroad is cripplingly expensive. The tuition fees for an arts degree at Nottingham University are £10 200 per year. There are opportunities to get scholarships or grants but you have to be academically brilliant. In any case it probably won’t cover the full cost.

Some would argue that, if the long run increase in earnings is taken into account, it is worth it. But the short term costs cannot be ignored. At best a Chinese student could take out a international student loan. However, these loans are only available for US and Canadian universities and must be co-signed by an American (or Canadian citizen). Chinese parents thus make big sacrifices for their children.

Just as a side note, don’t pity the self-sacrificing Chinese parent. It is an expected part of the culture that Chinese parents give everything for their children. In return the parents rightfully expect to be looked after in old age, and the future generation will make the same sacrifices to their children.

The worse case is that a Chinese student has to work part time to earn some money. Of course, many domestic students also face this difficulty, however, Chinese students, ceteris paribus, have to study harder than domestic students. Thus, the burden is greater.

To be honest, Chinese students already know about the financial costs. However, culture shock is perhaps the great underestimated danger of studying abroad.

2. Culture shock.

It’s hard to emphasise how different Eastern and Western cultures are. Here is yet another link for the uninitiated. I’m not going to discuss the differences but point out that the natural response is shun the foreign culture and recreate your own.

So the Chinese students form their own exclusive groups – eating, studying and playing together. This is a natural response and I did exactly the same thing I first arrived in China. I didn’t make many Chinese friends and spent my time with the Westerners. I felt critical about Eastern culture and I shunned it. I spent too much time in McDonalds. This happened despite my experience of living in a Chinese home and travelling around different parts of the world.

If Chinese students don’t break out of their own groups then they lose many of the opportunities and benefits of living abroad. In some instances English fluency digresses because of a lack of practice. I know one Chinese student who fell into a serious depression after moving to Germany to study.

Personally, I made many good Mainland Chinese friends during my time at university. Not every student will fall into the culture shock trap but it is not to be underestimated.

3. English is hard

Chinese students often have English yet may still struggle in an academic environment. One reason is because of the specialised vocabulary particular to each subject, which is why universities ask prospective students to prove their vocabulary level. Another reason is that most learning is done via lectures. However, this demands that students listen, write and comprehend at the same time, which is one of the hardest skills.

So it is especially hard when English is not your native language. So for a given lecture, a Chinese student has to spend more time studying than a native student. I have seen students recording lectures on Dictaphones and reviewing them after class. Incredibly time-consuming.

My final reason is written English has a much different structure than written Chinese. There are fundamental differences between Eastern and Western thinking and philosophy. Westerners emphasise logic and getting to the point. Easterners examine an issue from all angles. When a Chinese student tries to write an essay with Eastern mindset the result is an unreadable essay. I have seen sentences that are as long as a paragraph with six or seven clauses (commas) when two will do. I have read essays that never follow through to a conclusion.

This is why the writing part of the Ielts exam is the one that Chinese students have the most trouble with. This means that intelligent Chinese students may struggle with essay because of cultural differences and not because of lack of ability in English. It is not enough to be good at English but one must also think like a Westerner.

4. Parental pressure

Many Chinese student’s choice of university degree is decided by their parents. I have some friends who admit to hating their degrees. This is alien to Western students, who typically gain their freedom when they turn 18. However, in Chinese culture, it is still a virtue to obey your parents right until you get married.

I’m not going to say that this is a good or bad thing. I just want to point out that parental pressure may be motivating some students to go abroad.

5. Staying abroad.

Unfortunately, studying abroad is no guarantee of getting a good job abroad. I suspect that differences in culture make it harder for a Chinese student to get a job.

Concluding remarks

Studying abroad is definitely beneficial. I would encourage any Chinese student to do so. However, they need to have the right attitude. Chinese students must be aware of the cultural differences between East and West. Then they must understand the differences. Finally they must overcome the differences and embrace Western culture, not reject it. It doesn’t mean you stop being Chinese, it just means that you don’t suffer for it.

So go come to the green fields of England and study but beware of the Culture Monster that lurks behind you.

Further reading and sources (vain attempt to look professional)

(warning: pdf link) Chinese student’s motivation to study abroad – Written by Gareth Davis from the University of Chester. It is a more formal paper about this subject. It is actually quite a light read.

International student’s blog – A blog for international students.

Chinese students drawn to Britain – Article from the BBC

Chinese students oust UK pupils from top universities – Controversial article from The Times