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Chinese Students Adjust to American Education

When East meets West, differences abound


Lili Gu recalls his initial trepidation at the flood of white faces in his Massachusetts high school when he came to America for 10th grade. There was the hulking football player who noticed that Gu was lost one day and said—here, Gu speaks in a guttural half-grunt—“‘Hey, you want to go to the gym?’ And I’m like, dude, is this guy going to rob me?” He struggled with English, too. The writing skills he arrived with, he says, would be at home in the fourth grade. But an English-as-second-language program made him comfortable after a semester. Then his formidable Chinese secondary education kicked in.

Gu (ENG’13) says he breezed through high school, especially math, sprinting through the curriculum and into Harvard night school for advanced calculus. The easy ride ended at BU, however. If Chinese high schools are more rigorous than those in the United States, the reverse is true for universities, Gu says. Back home, “as soon as you step in the front door of a great university, it’s almost like your motivation ends, because in China, GPA is not a big deal. Whether I’m a C student or D student, as long as I have that diploma, I’m awesome. If I wanted to graduate from BU with Cs, I’d probably have had a very good time.”

The differences between Chinese and U.S. education matter in both countries, as students from the People’s Republic surge onto American campuses. That includes BU, where Chinese students are the largest foreign contingent (about 2,000 undergraduates and grad students, 6 percent of the total) in an increasingly international student body.

A new book by Jin Li, Cultural Foundations of Learning: East and West, argues that the two systems fundamentally diverge: our Western education aims to convey knowledge to comprehend the world, while Chinese schools stress learning as a means to develop inner virtue. New York Times columnist David Brooks celebrates this supposed Chinese approach, crediting it with “awesome motivation explosions.”

But Li is middle-aged—she grew up during China’s 1966–1976 Cultural Revolution—and Chinese students here think her take is outdated. “Seriously? Cultivate virtues? I don’t think so,” says Yijing Lu (SMG’15).

Instead, the students interviewed by BU Today characterize the differences like this: Chinese high schoolers bust butt compared with their American counterparts in pursuit of the Holy Grail of university admission. “Failing the college entrance exam means the end of the world,” says Lu, whose high school forbade dating because it was a distraction from studying. Once at a university, however, many students in China goof off, either from burnout in high school or simply because they can. “Some of my friends who study in Chinese colleges tell me that they play the video game Dota day and night,” says Lu.

Ying Zhang, Boston University international students, Chinese students

Ying “Phoebe” Zhang (CAS’15) loves BU, but says other Chinese students may be happier at a Chinese university. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

There’s also truth, according to our interviewees, to the claim that Chinese education stresses the memorization of facts, while BU, and by extension other US schools, demands self-education outside the classroom and practical applications of the class knowledge they impart.

“Schools in China equal boring and pure memorizing,” says Lu. “Schools in the United States are places of studying.”

Ying “Phoebe” Zhang (CAS’15) says the Chinese have a phrase, “learning machines,” for students who pursue top grades out of obedience to demanding parents, and they’re not universally celebrated. “For my parents, they don’t want me to be a learning machine,” she says. “You have to learn how to be a human, how to get along well with others.”

At the same time, says Haisu Yuan (CAS’14, COM’14), China is bathed in traditional Confucian respect for learning, and “nerds are welcomed.”

Students say adjusting to the American system was not a huge problem. For them, the main hurdles were the language barrier and occasional xenophobia. Zhang, who came to Massachusetts starting with 11th grade at a private school, remembers her roommate announcing up front “that she hates Chinese.” The roommate talked on the phone late into the night, unconcerned that she was disturbing Zhang’s sleep. Overcoming her initial hesitation about speaking up—a reserve many Chinese feel when they’re just learning English, Zhang says—“I had a really huge fight with her.” The roommate backed down, eventually becoming Zhang’s best friend.

Ying Zhang, competition at Chinese high school

Zhang competed in an event at her Chinese high school four years ago. Photo courtesy of Zhang

Like Gu, Zhang found high school “super-easy.” She was one of a trio of Chinese women who got their own special class in advanced calculus. She also got some behind-the-back teasing for her smarts. “At first, it really bothered me. Later, I was like, ‘OK, just let them say what they want. This is my life. I have the control.’”

At BU, her biggest adjustment was learning to take outside-the-classroom initiative for learning, rather than being a passive receptacle of professorial lectures. “Professors are there to help you out when you have problems,” she says. “They can give you some hint. But you have to think outside of class.”

Gu and Yuan say American universities’ emphasis on student responsibility for learning is an advantage. “US schools are more about helping students to explore their individual power,” says Yuan, while in China, “study is only for exams, so all you have to do is just practice, instead of learning.”

GU was vice president of the BU Chinese Students and Scholars Association (BUCSSA), which tries to ease the adjustment for Chinese newcomers. Its efforts begin before students set foot on campus, he says. The BUCSSA uses social media to reach newcomers the summer before they arrive, offering to arrange airport pickups and transportation to dorms. Its Chinese-language orientation each fall offers guidance on things from cultural issues to keeping track of visas and other travel documents; last year, it invited a local banker to discuss (in English) how to open a bank account.

While columnist Brooks lauds Confucian learning-cum-virtue, Zhang says the question of which system is better depends most on a student’s personality. “I would say half of the Chinese students here are happy about their life,” she estimates, with the other half “desperate” to return home after graduation. “They feel kind of hopeless. They really want a sense of hope, they want to feel welcome, with people they can talk to.”

“If you have a high level of self-regulation, it’s definitely a good idea for you to come to America,” says Zhang. “You can enjoy your life, and meanwhile you are actually learning something that’s useful when you are in society later on. But if you just want to get rid of the whole pile of work in China and enjoy a vacation…forget about it. Your life will be much easier there.”

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

17 Comments on Chinese Students Adjust to American Education

  • Kim on 05.22.2013 at 5:53 am

    Seriously!!?? You are interviewing two people who never had the chance to go to university in China. WHat?? GPA is not important?? Ok. here is the thing. In Bu, most students started their class from 9 am. We actually have to arrive at school at 7:15am. The mugar library is only busy during final. And in my university, you have to try your best to look for a seat in library every day!! I have been through the College Entrance Examination in China and spent two years in college in China. Please do not take their opinion as the common sense. I totally disagree with any and I can ensure you all my classmates in China would hold the same opinion as me. One or two who has never experienced the life is really like a kid… This is ridiculous….

    • AP on 05.22.2013 at 10:29 am

      You do not have to be in the library to study hard! I studied very hard while I was at BU, but I tended to avoid Mugar because it’s dusty and bothered my allergies. Most of the library’s resources are online and there are plenty of quiet study places in the dorms, especially at night. Studying is still studying, even if no one sees you do it.

      That said, I think it would have been worthwhile to interview some graduate students who earned their undergraduate degrees in China, but came to the US for their graduate degrees. They would be familiar with how both universities work.

      • Emily on 05.22.2013 at 11:29 am

        Cannot agree more!

      • Well on 05.22.2013 at 5:35 pm

        “Studying is still studying, even if no one sees you do it.”


        Presence in a library has nothing to do with studying.

    • Leo on 05.23.2013 at 2:58 pm

      Well said, Kim.

    • shao on 10.04.2013 at 7:18 pm

      a teacher in china told the parents and other educators the same thing. Having relatives in china, i know why they say that about education in china.The whole learning machine and memorizing usually takes plane in elementary to high school.

    • Xulong on 10.22.2013 at 6:02 pm


  • G on 05.22.2013 at 4:11 pm

    I agree with Kim that the sample selection is just way too bad. There are many graduate students at BU who have been studying in universities in China. This is not convincing at all.

  • Michael on 05.22.2013 at 4:15 pm

    I think it would have been worthwhile to interview some graduate students who earned their undergraduate degrees in China, but came to the US for their graduate degrees. They would be familiar with how both universities work.


  • M on 05.22.2013 at 4:26 pm

    Honestly,it is pretty tough to get through College Entrance Exams in China, especially into “GOOD Univeristy”. And we have also very excellent students in these Univs. They are not”learning machine” or just play DOTA games. These young kids interviewed in this article have never got a chance to enjoy the college life in China in person. Their comments make no sense….

  • Barney on 05.22.2013 at 8:41 pm

    You interview someone who came to the US for 10th grade and expect him to have a good sense of what’s life like in China’s universities? Seriously?

  • Eric on 05.23.2013 at 9:29 am

    None of the students ever studied in universities in China. This is rather stupid.

  • Lisa on 05.23.2013 at 1:18 pm

    “ “Failing the college entrance exam means the end of the world,” says Lu, whose high school forbade dating because it was a distraction from studying. ”

    This is funny. I did my undergrad in one of the best universities in China. And I went to a high school which is one of the best local high schools in my hometown. Failing the college entrance exam is never the end of the world. Many of my classmates who did poor to enter a good Chinese university got accepted in pretty good US colleges. Actually many wealthy Chinese families always tell their kids not to worry about doing bad in high school study in China or on college entrance exam, because they can always apply to US colleges.

    By the way, dating is not forbidden at all. It is just not encouraged. Many high school teachers in China today often make nice jokes about dating and the “couples” in class.

    And about Chinese high school education, for those who found US high schools “super-easy”, why do you think this is the fact? Probably because you had a hell lot of practice in Chinese schools, huh?

    • Fang Hui on 07.07.2013 at 9:07 pm


      The reason wealthy Chinese families can tell their kids not to worry about doing bad in high school is because of the corrupt college agent system in China. Anyone with 30,000 RMB or more can pay one of those companies to create an entire fake application and profile for their kids. They can bribe their kid’s high school to change their transcript. You know it, we all know it. It does not speak poorly of the US schools—it speaks poorly of Chinese lack of morals, because so many are cheating to get into foreign schools.

      • Fang Hui on 07.07.2013 at 9:11 pm

        You know and I know that 80% of Chinese students use agents to get into schools like BU. Google it.

  • xingfenzhen on 06.09.2013 at 6:26 pm

    “Failing the college entrance exam means the end of the world,” says Lu, whose high school forbade dating because it was a distraction from studying. ”

    Tell that to Jack Ma….

    “Ma was born in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China. Although he failed the entrance exam twice, he eventually attended Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute….. He founded Alibaba.com in 1999, a China-based business-to-business marketplace site which currently serves more than 79 million members from more than 240 countries and territories. Ma now serves as chairman and CEO of Alibaba Group, which is a holding company with six major subsidiaries – Alibaba.com, Taobao Marketplace, Tmall, eTao, Alibaba Cloud Computing and Yahoo! China.

    In November 2012, Alibaba online transaction volume exceeded one trillion yuan, Ma thus labeled “trillion Hou” in the title.”

  • A on 06.17.2013 at 1:17 pm

    I found this article enlightening though I do understand that the opinions of 2 students may not represent the reality of the situation. I read this as more of an op ed.

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