“Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education” by Yingyi Ma

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where football games are now broadcast in Chinese (via Wikimedia Commons) University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where football games are now broadcast in Chinese (via Wikimedia Commons)

From being targets of American soft-power, a significant service export and a major financial prop for institutions of higher-learning suffering from uncooperative demographics and withdrawal of government funding, Chinese students in the US have recently come to be seen—in certain quarters, anyway—as vehicles for Chinese government influence. Yingyi Ma’s new study—based on data collected mostly in what were still the halcyon days of 2013-16—does not deal with these issues. But it attempts to explain what Chinese students in the US think about themselves and their journey, and might therefore usefully inform the rising debate.

The title gives away the conclusion: they are ambitious and anxious, something one might have guessed without survey data. It takes considerable get up and go to take oneself off to for several years to a foreign country, culture, language and educational system; if American undergraduates suffer from anxiety, it is hardly surprising that Chinese students do as well.

Indeed, little in Ambitious and Anxious will come as a surprise to those of us in East Asia who have either been through this, have friends who have, or who have read the great many stories, op-eds and profiles that appear in the regional press. Ma’s study will be of most use to educators—professors and administrators—who perhaps find their Chinese charges a bit of a puzzle.


Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education, Yingyi Ma (Columbia University Press, February 2020)
Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education, Yingyi Ma (Columbia University Press, February 2020)

It is worth remembering how new this influx of foreign students is. Back in the old days, before the 1990s, say, at a time when many if not most of today’s educators were going through their own educational rite de passage, international students were anomalies—at least in the US. I wrote in the SCMP in 2012 that


It was not all that long ago that a degree from an elite domestic university—an École normale supérieure, perhaps, or University of Tokyo—was required for a top job in government or industry. Education was local and a foreign degree could be taken as a sign that the possessor couldn’t hack it at most competitive schools at home…


But since then


elite national universities seem to have lost their lock on the domestic job market and a foreign degree is considered by many a status symbol and, in a perhaps self-fulfilling feedback loop, a ticket to a better life. We are seeing the globalisation of higher education.


Hong Kong students have on the other hand long gone to Britain—the most prestigious institutions in Hong Kong’s system of tertiary education were, de facto, Oxford, Cambridge and LSE: it was just assumed that the best students, except perhaps those destined for law or medicine, would head off to the UK—with Canada, Australia and New Zealand making up for a shortage of university places in Hong Kong itself. The US was normally considered relatively expensive.

It was only in 2014, notes Ma in one of many charts, that the number of Chinese undergraduates in the US overtook that of graduate students, the rationale and financials for whom were different. And despite the reported cooling in demand as a result of changing US policy, all that has happened is that the rate of growth has slowed, although Britain has reportedly as a consequence seen a surge in Chinese demand for university places.


Ma’s methodology—a combination of online surveys and a few dozen interviews—is, as she notes, subject to sampling bias. Yet what comes across is how normal the kids seem. Ma makes the point, on several occasions, that they are not all “wealthy”: a good proportion (although Ma doesn’t give stats) come from “ordinary” families, still by Chinese standards in the upper tiers of wealth and income distribution, but who had to make significant financial sacrifices to send their children for further study in the US. She also documents that most students take their overseas education seriously, not treating it as the diploma equivalent of a Versace handbag.

Ma takes aim at some other misconceptions as well, for example, that exposure to the United States and an American education turns Chinese students into evangelists for American liberalism and democracy: on the contrary, and perhaps ironically, she quotes students saying that American liberal arts courses on various aspects of Chinese history and culture helped them understand and appreciate their country better.

Ma also makes some prescriptions, such as recommending that more efforts be made to integrate Chinese students into American university social life. One arcane but probably quite effective example is the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign’s launching of Chinese-language broadcasts of its home football games.

Some of her recommendations are based on the assumption, which she never questions, that large numbers of Chinese students (or international students in general) are unmitigatingly a good thing:


Admissions leaders and officers do not fully recognize that there is a mismatch between the holistic admissions system in the United States and the test-based system in China, which creates a massive void for third-party brokers to fill and to profit from. The American higher education system needs to invest more in direct recruiting in China.


While China has no monopoly on high-priced education brokers, consultants, test prep and the like, the relative lack of information and jurisdiction probably makes the situation worse. However, this dodges the question I asked in 2012: “Who, in the end, are universities for?”


For themselves, to some extent: to become the best possible. For their students, obviously: to provide the best education and opportunities for those enrolled. But universities also form part, usually a subsidised part, of the societies that nurture them. Large numbers of foreign students are not necessarily entirely compatible with this relationship… Global aspirations and institutional objectives are not identical to national ones. When foreign students were rare—as they were even relatively recently—the various potential contradictions in everything from curriculums and academic standards to financial support were largely hypothetical; they may not remain so for much longer.


These contradictions are starting to become manifest. Ma’s book helps document a population particularly affected by the outcomes of discussions that have recently risen to the level of newspaper headlines.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.