Studying Abroad, Lonely Abroad

Studying Abroad, Lonely Abroad


The China Economic Review from last month ran an interesting piece by John van Fleet about the 150,000+ Haigui (海归) currently studying in the USA (Haigui, literally “Sea Turtles” is the name given to Chinese students studying abroad). Van Fleet discusses not only the challenges of interaction between international and domestic students, but also the economic impact for both host and origin country.

Citing data compiled by the Institute of International Education (IIE) as part of its “Open Doors”, van Fleet notes that contributions from visiting Chinese students alone is currently worth around $5bn per year to the US economy. The total contribution from students from all countries, according to the IIE report is in excess of $20bn.

It is perhaps this prize that is encouraging governments around the world, not to mentionindividual universities, to seek out and recruit international students actively. The USA, for example, has an entire government department devoted to encouraging academic and cultural exchange and the British Council runs a comprehensive online portal with a similar purpose.

Another attraction for governments could be the medium and long-term “soft power” benefits to a country. In the case of China and the USA, Van Fleet suggests that easier political relations between countries could be one major long-term benefit, for example. However, there are barriers to long-lasting connections from forming in the first place.

A soon-to-be-published article in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication by Elisabeth Gareis of Baruch College, City University of New York, presents the findings of a survey into “intercultural friendships” between international and domestic students in the USA. The article makes for worthwhile reading, both as a piece of research in itself, and for students interested in studying in the USA, as preparation for the type of cultural experience that is likely to await.

Highlighting linguistic hurdles and differences in cultural expectations as possible factors, Gareis finds that over a third of international students report having no American friends. She finds that East Asian students, predominantly from China and Japan, have a particularly tough time forming friendships. Among this group of students, difficulties can in part be attributed to doubts about their own ability in terms of language or self-confidence. While she notes significant variation depending, for example, on native language and whether the student is in a large city or small town, the country and culture of origin seems to present the major obstacle to integration and establishment of long-term, meaningful relationships.

If this limitation on the integration of the Chinese Haigui into American student life could be overcome, the benefits for both hosts and origin country would be much more rewarding. The goal of attracting students is therefore only half the challenge for governments and universities. The greater one is encouraging an environment where integration between foreign and domestic students can take place, so that long-lasting connections can be fostered between them and the way prepared for strong economic and political ties in the future.

Photo Credit: kinouN