Tue, Nov 09, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Increasing number of Chinese embracing Western education

By Dan Levin  /  NY Times News Service

In her ballroom dance class, Li Wanrong has learned to tango and cha-cha. At lunch one day, she tried a strange mix of flavors — pepperoni pizza, the spicy sausage and oozing cheese nearly burning her tongue. Then there was that Friday night before going clubbing for the first time when new friends gave her a makeover, and she looked in the mirror to see an American girl smiling back wearing a little black dress, red lipstick and fierce eyeliner.

“I say ‘wow’ a lot,” says Li, a freshman at Drew University, a small liberal arts school in Madison, New Jersey.

Against her parents’ wishes, she studied for and took the SAT in Hong Kong, a three-hour bus ride from her home in southern China. She told them she was going there to do some shopping. Her parents eventually came around, persuaded by her determination and a US$12,000 scholarship that would take some of the sting out of the US$40,000 tuition at Drew, which her high school teacher had recommended.

Describing her whirlwind transformation to college kid sometimes leaves Li at a loss for words and sometimes the cultural distance seems too much, especially when facing dining options in the cafeteria.

Li is part of a record wave of Chinese high school graduates enrolling in US colleges, joining the fabric of campus life as roommates and study partners and contributing to the global perspectives to which colleges are so eager to expose their students.

While China’s students have long filled US graduate schools, its undergraduates now represent the fastest-growing group of international students. From 2008 to last year, more than 26,000 were studying in the US, up from about 8,000 eight years earlier, according to the Institute of International Education.

Students are ending up not just at nationally known universities, but also at regional colleges, state schools and even community colleges that recruit overseas. Most of these pay full freight (international students are not eligible for government financial aid) — a benefit for campuses where the economic downturn has gutted endowments or state financing.

“The Chinese are going to invest in anything that gives them an edge, and having a US degree certainly gives them that edge back home,” says Peggy Blumenthal, a vice president at the Institute of International Education.

US colleges offer the chance to gain fluency in English, develop real-world skills and land a coveted position with a multinational corporation or government agency.

Ding Yinghan grew up in a modest apartment with his mother, a marketing executive and his father, a civil servant in Beijing’s work safety administration, whose own mother is illiterate. A child of the “new China,” he is fully aware that his generation has opportunities unavailable to any before.

His parents pushed him to study hard — and study abroad — because they have little faith in the Chinese education system. Sipping tea in their living room one sweltering August afternoon, Ding’s mother, Meng Suyan, reflects on the Chinese classroom.

“In the US they focus on creative-thinking skills, while in China they only focus on theory,” she says. “So what university students learn here doesn’t prepare them for the real world.”

“Chinese values require me to be a good listener, and Western values require me to be a good speaker,” Ding says.

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