Looking in: The unseen challenges of Chinese international students at U-M
I put my fingers on the scanning screen for the third time, as the machine was unable to recognize my fingerprints. After finally succeeding, I quickly put my mask back on as my fingers fumbled with my immigration documents.
“Please come with me,” a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer signaled in my direction after I passed the Canadian border into the United States, proceeding to walk me to a door on the side of the hall. I sat alone on the bench and waited for about 10 minutes before another officer came into the room and sat beside me.
In a calm manner, she asked me a series of personal questions: What were my private and school emails, what was my American address, how much cash I was carrying and lastly, “Do you have WeChat?”
WeChat is a multipurpose, Chinese social media application. Many people refer to it as China’s equivalent of WhatsApp, but with greater bandwidth. The services WeChat offers include, but are not limited to, e-transferring, mobile payments, ordering food at a restaurant without waiters, online shopping and location sharing. Recently, due to WeChat’s role in China’s oversea censorship and spreading propagandistic misinformation, the Trump administration has denounced the app as a national security threat and proposed its ban in the United States.
I reluctantly gave the officer my information. Though recently many Chinese international students have been subjected to harassment and interrogation at Customs and Border Protection, I was completely caught off guard by their line of questioning. I am not a Chinese citizen, but a Canadian one — the only indication of my Chinese heritage is my name and a stamp on my passport showing I had traveled there last summer. In that moment, my sense of surprise was overcome by fear and anxiety about my alien status in the U.S. Do I really belong?
The officer then put the notepad away and went into the back room for a pair of gloves, her demeanor seemingly pleasant but her actions and questions intrusive. She unpacked all of the pockets in my backpack, my pencil case, my wallet (and counted the cash) and my immigration files. She pointed at the Hangul characters in my notebook and asked “Is that Mandarin?” She was startled after I told her that it was actually Korean, a language I was trying to learn, and moved on with her search. She left in a haste after thoroughly probing all of my belongings. When alone, I realized that my legs were shaking.
Tensions between the U.S. and China escalated during the trade war of late 2018. Though economic pressures from both sides had calmed after a series of negotiations, more conflicts ensued in mid-February, when China expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters in the name of a racially insensitive headline: “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” — a phrase that carries strong undertones of European colonial history in China.
Though the reason for expulsion may be justified, this measure only provoked further retaliations — like limited staff for five Chinese news organizations in the U.S. — from the Trump administration. After China passed the National Security Law, which significantly infringes upon Hong Kong’s democracy, the Trump administration responded by ending Hong Kong’s preferential trade status with the U.S. and China vowed to retaliate. In late July, the U.S. had also shut down the Chinese Consulate in Houston, accusing it of espionage efforts. As a direct result, the American Consulate in Chengdu was ordered to close within a 72-hour time frame.
When the pandemic first started taking shape in the U.S., fear and ignorance about the virus fueled an increased sentiment of xenophobia. Asians have been assaulted on public transit and called “diseased,” and Chinese businesses in New York City reported an approximate 40% sales drop while Boston’s Chinatown had also suffered significant customer loss after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Massachusetts.
As U.S.-China tensions escalate, Chinese nationals tend to become the most vulnerable subjects of discrimination. Therefore, I spoke* to three Chinese international students about how they are persevering and navigating their lives in a country that does not want them.
*The following interviews were conducted in Mandarin Chinese, for the most effective and genuine form of communication, and translated into English.
**The following interviewee uses a pseudonym for fear of retaliation from the University.
It was one minute past our meeting time at 7 p.m. when Julia entered the Zoom meeting. She was sitting at her desk in her shared apartment near central campus. Throughout our conversations, I could hear loud bass music coming from her side and the occasional roaring motorcycles passing by.
“Do you ever hear parties like that where you live?” Julia smiled exasperatedly, “We get that all the time.”
Julia is a Chinese international student who just transferred to the University of Michigan last September. Julia made the choice to stay in Ann Arbor when classes moved online because she did not want to contract COVID-19 on her way home. She has stayed in the U.S. for more than nine months as the last time she went home was for Winter Break.
Coming to the U.S. was a big decision for her, but Julia wanted new possibilities in life and to challenge herself. Julia’s college experience has largely been positive, as she met many people who shared her passions in her program. But when the virus spread through the world last March, she began to develop a deeper understanding of racism and xenophobia on the campus that she made her home.
According to Pew Research Center, 31% of Asian Ameircans and 21% of Black Americans report having experienced racial slurs and jokes since the COVID-19 outbreak began. When I told Julia that earlier this year people would turn around to look at me while I’d speak on the phone with my mom in Chinese, Julia confessed that she has felt similar aversion and confusion from others.
“A white girl once told my friend during class ‘it’s the Chinese who brought the virus here,’” Julia recounted. “I was so shocked to learn this from my friend. Apparently the girl said it so blatantly in front of a lot of students, and I found that quite rude.”
Born into a racially homogenous homeland (Han Chinese makes up 91% of Chinese population), Julia said that she did not start thinking seriously about racial issues until after she moved to the United States. She told me she was particularly influenced by a sociology course she took this past summer, where the professor invited speakers from different ethnic backgrounds to share their experiences with race.
“That’s when I had an epiphany, that the color of your skin could dictate how others perceive you.”
Despite her unpleasant experience with xenophobia, Julia told me that she is still interested in pursuing her postgraduate studies in the U.S. However, she can also foresee the increased discrimination and retaliation that she might face as U.S.-China relations aggravate, such as further limited opportunities for international students and drastic changes in visa policies.
As one of the U.S.’s most profitable exports, higher-education institutions have always relied on their international students to make up for budget gaps. Nevertheless, many American colleges have already observed a sharp decline in Chinese international student enrollment rates prior to the pandemic. As the Trump administration continues to enforce travel restrictions and other policies that restrict work opportunities from international students, the road ahead appears uncertain. For now, though, Julia is willing to risk this uncertainty for her education.
“Now I just miss home cooked food.” Julia smiled again, this time not exasperatedly. “I have a lot of friends who went to the Shanghai Disneyland already and I am super jealous.”
On a warm Saturday afternoon, I met with Shuchen Wei on Zoom, me in my East Quad Residence Hall room and she in her off-campus apartment. Shuchen is currently in her last year at the University of Michigan, and she chose to stay in Ann Arbor in March in fear that further U.S.-China tensions could keep her stuck in China and meddle with her graduation plans.
“It has been a year since I last went home and I really miss my parents,” Shuchen said. “But if I go back (to China), attending synchronous lectures would disrupt my sleep cycles.”
Shuchen told me that homesickness is not an unfamiliar feeling for her, since she has repeatedly thought about going home as COVID-19 cases were increasing at an unprecedented pace in the U.S. She was also concerned about the armed demonstrations in East Lansing in protest of Governor Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders, seeing it as a sign of the U.S.’s poor pandemic strategies. However, booking a flight home was no easy feat: In March, 3,102 out of 3,800 planned commercial flights from and to China were canceled. China had also restricted many international flights to prevent their own citizens from bringing the virus home.
Additionally, on July 6, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a new policy (now revoked after backlash from various prestigious universities) that would have stripped international students of their visas if their coursework were entirely online. This also generated great anxieties among Chinese students about their immigration status and fears of never being able to return to their institutions.
“After the ICE policy first came out, a lot of my classmates who returned to China for the summer panicked,” Shuchen explained. “I know of some people who planned to quarantine in Cambodia for 14 days and then make their flight back. There were a lot of flight cancellations but some tickets did not offer refunds, which was also stressful financially.”
More so, U.S. government officials have recommended excluding Chinese students from critical technology disciplines to prevent espionage efforts, while Chinese international students have faced increasing scrutiny while passing through Customs and Border Protection. These policies have since turned many Chinese students and researchers away from pursuing their education here in the future.
Shuchen echoed a similar sentiment as Julia, telling me that while she is considering pursuing her postgraduate studies here, it does not seem likely. Her parents are greatly concerned about the growing feelings of hostility and desperately want her home.
“Even though personally I am more interested in American schools, my family encourages me to look elsewhere as well,” Shuchen said. “They think that the pandemic has allowed them to see America for what it really is. They are quite fearful for my safety.”
Since Chengyue and I both have hectic schedules, we made a plan to speak for 45 minutes on a Thursday morning. At 10:59 a.m., I rushed into our Zoom meeting from my Japanese class, and the first thing that came onto my screen was a beautiful beach with palm trees and dynamic waves. The person who sat in front of the Zoom background was Chengyue Qiu, a graduate student in her last year at the School of Information, connecting from her apartment in Northwood Apartments.
When I asked Chengyue about her previous summer plans, she explained to me how the outbreak significantly hindered her internship search for the summer. According to an April poll by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, about 22% of employers revoked their offers to interns for the summer of 2020. This damage is extended to international students, whose job search is already limited since many U.S. companies refuse to sponsor international student work visas. After the outbreak rendered many internships virtual, Chengyue became demotivated in her job search. But luckily, the U-M Information and Technology Services was able to grant her a position as a data analyst intern for the summer.
Though Chengyue has not experienced any personal attacks for being Chinese, she has witnessed various racist remarks towards Chinese and Asian Americans on social media, and the term “Chinese virus” coined by President Trump. The organization which she is a part of, Graduate Rackham International, has campaigned against the term and educated the student body about its harmful effects.
“I am just trying my best to do what I can.” Chengyue said. “As a non-citizen, there is not much I could change about the political situation.”
Chengyue then showed me a screenshot of a newsletter sent out in early February from the University’s Alumni Association. The first few words in the subject line say: “The Wuhan coronavirus.” And while the Alumni Association has since changed their phrasing when referring to COVID-19, Chengyue lamented that they never issued a public statement or apology.
I also asked Chengyue what she thought about the role of international employees in the recent strike of the Graduate Employees’ Organization, since she also works as a Graduate Student Instructor. Though GEO had already reached an agreement with the University by the time we spoke, Chengyue expressed her discontent with the University administration’s lack of care for international students.
“The University has merely agreed to add one more staff (member) to the International Center to assist with student concerns,” Chengyue exclaimed while holding up her index finger. “What is one more person supposed to do for us? They are only looking to resolve the issues for the majority, but they completely dismiss those of us in the minority.”
Chengyue also recently received an email from the University, asking her to donate to the International Student Emergency Fund. She found the idea ridiculous since thousands of international students already pay $500 in international student fees every semester, which is supposed to go towards the University’s international student support. GEO has been campaigning for the fee’s elimination since the fall of 2019, but has never received an official answer from the administration.
“There is absolutely zero transparency in how that money is used,” she said. “I think the university is merely exploiting international students as cash cows.”
In her last year at the School of Information, Chengyue remains uncertain about her future. Like the aforementioned interviewees, she is interested in staying in the United States for more work experience, yet is deterred by several factors. She finds herself apprehensive that racial
discrimination will continue, fueling worries of loneliness and how the lack of safety will take a toll on her mental health.
“If Trump is re-elected, he will be here for another five years, which will be quite an ordeal,” Chengyue explained. “My family is worried about my safety and it will be difficult to retain my rightful status in the U.S.”
As I take a break from typing this piece, I video call my grandparents on WeChat. When they pick up, I regretfully inform them of the WeChat ban and what this could mean for our weekly video calls.
“So what will happen to us?” My grandfather asks after a long silence.
I try to calm him, explaining that the ban won’t last for a long time. But I am lying. Our future remains uncertain and with the banning of WeChat, the 7,000 miles between us have never felt wider. While instructing my grandparents to install a new communication app over the phone, watching two 80-year-olds agonize over creating new accounts and verifying their identity on their Huawei phones, helpless tears slowly well up in my eyes. I don’t know how the WeChat ban will improve national security and prevent espionage efforts, but I do know that communication with my Chinese family just became 100 times more difficult.
After a moment of distress, I reach out to Julia, to see what she thinks about the ban.
“If the policy does come into place, it would have a huge impact on my life,” Julia expressed her concern. “Most of my friends in the U.S. use WeChat and I also use it to communicate with my family in China. (The ban) would cut me off from my family and friends at home.”
Many Chinese international students in the U.S. deal with similar dilemmas as Julia, caught between two countries who refuse to understand each other and compromise. The fears they face are not limited to that of xenophobia and racism; their entire future is determined by an unpredictable U.S. president and institutions like our University that sustain bigotry. For them, wanting a future in the U.S. is like walking a tightrope, teetering between their dreams and a sense of insecurity in this foreign land.
No one knows what the future holds, but what can be agreed on is that something needs to change. In times of confusion and despair, we cannot blame Chinese people for the outbreak and our suffering. We should not exploit international students on their wish for a better education.
The morning after my conversation with my grandparents, Judge Laurel Beeler of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California halted President Trump’s executive order to ban WeChat in the U.S. This news gave me a sense of skeptical hope as the future of Chinese nationals in the U.S. is still hanging on by a thread. A federal judge may be able to block an executive order, but she cannot eradicate the prejudice that people hold or is embedded in our system.
I think back to when I sat on that cold bench in Customs and Border Protection and how powerless I felt while watching the officer poke around in my belongings. I felt like a lost traveler who had stumbled upon my home, but was politely denied entrance when I approached the half-open door — until I could prove myself worthy. Now, behind me, the door remains half-open, seemingly welcoming others to join me, but the threat always looms, patiently, sinisterly, ready to reject someone again.
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