This episode is part of the National Committee’s Coronavirus Impact Series. To hear the full, unabridged interview, please listen to the podcast below.

Sociologist Yingyi Ma assesses the difficult decision many Chinese international students at American universities currently face: whether to remain on closed campuses or travel back home. She also discusses how students have had to experience anti-Chinese stigma and navigate the mixed messages from their home country, parents, school administrators, and their country of residence.

Speaker Bio

Dr. Yingyi Ma is an associate professor of sociology and the director of Asian/Asian American studies at Syracuse University. She is also a senior research associate at the Center for Policy Research in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. A specialist in education and migration, Dr. Ma’s latest book is, Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese Undergraduates Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education (Columbia University Press 2019). She is the co-editor of Understanding International Students from Asia in American Universities: Learning and Living Globalization (Springer 2017). Professor Ma is a NCUSCR Public Intellectuals Program fellow. She has received grants from the National Science Foundation, Alfred Sloan Foundation, and Association of Institutional Research. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from Johns Hopkins University in 2007.


With most universities across the U.S. moving to remote learning, are Chinese international students choosing to remain on campus or travel back home?

Yingyi Ma: It’s really not clear cut. I think in the near term, not even talking about graduation, but for people who are not graduated yet, as a very, very fraught one. I think they are really in the midst of making their decisions. I think on my home campus, a few students have already left, but a majority of students are left behind. They’re still staying on campus. As of now, the university has actually encouraged them to leave because the New York state governor has a new order of shutting all the cafeterias and restaurants, so only takeout food is available. But what makes this decision contentious is that it is both very costly and risky to travel, as you can well imagine. The ticket now has reached tens of thousands of renminbi and it’s extremely hard to get a ticket. I think a lot of students, and their parents, tens of thousands of miles away, are extremely anxious and worried.

For Chinese international students graduating from U.S. universities this year or maybe next year, how do you think this crisis might impact their decisions about staying in the United States for work or returning to China? Because that is already a big decision for any Chinese international student: whether their prospects are better in China now, or in the United States. How might this crisis influence that decision?

Ma: I have to make a disclaimer here that my book has not really included anything about the virus. It was published in December 2019, so it was really prior to virus age, but there is a chapter in my book that looks at this specific question of Chinese students’ future planning. So, before the virus, my study showed that sixty percent of Chinese undergraduate students in America plan to return to China for work. But still a majority of them actually wanted to study in graduate school here in America and then go back to China. So that is what they were planning for the future back then, before the pandemic. With the virus, I really don’t really have any sort of scientific data or evidence to report on. But I think it definitely will make their decision more difficult.

How should we expect the pandemic to affect flows of Chinese international students to American universities?

Ma:In the near term, there will definitely be some kind of decline in numbers, due to various reasons. People are not only concerned about safety, about travel, but also about an economic downturn that could totally diminish their capacity to pay for higher education. And for the economy in America, we can see that the stock market has plummeted. For the Chinese economy, this is also devastating. A lot of small business owners are already struggling to pay for their children who are currently enrolled in American higher education. So, I think in the near term, the fact is pretty obvious that we will have a downturn. But in the long-term, I’m not really that pessimistic. I think the desire for American higher education is still very strong. And China still has the largest middle-class population in the world and they are hungry for American higher education.

Recently there have been increasing reports of harassment of Asian and Asian American people in the U.S. Has this been a problem for Chinese international students?

Ma: Yes, it has been. There has been reports from various universities that Chinese students were shunned, they were avoided. There was definitely a stigma. Discussions about this stigma, and Chinese students’ anxieties about this stigma, are pretty pervasive online. You can see that there are various examples that are widely circulated. I think Chinese students are very worried.

I think for a lot of the students, to some extent, they’re caught in between this clash of different signals that Chinese society and American society have instructed them to do. I’ll give you one example. In terms of wearing a facial mask, there is a huge difference in terms of what they’re told in China, even though for some of them, they’re not physically in China. They’re told by their parents, they’re exposed to Chinese media, all those kinds of images and news from China. Everyone has this mandate to wear a facial mask; they are told, a facial mask will help you for basic safety.

But here from the experts, to the university, and people around them, few people wear a facial mask. If you wear it, people think you are sick. Sociologists call that a double bind. They’re calling this a double-bind situation: they want to wear it because they’re influenced by their Chinese community and their parents, and some parents actually call them and plead them to wear facial mask. But they’re very concerned how they will be perceived by their American friends and their classmates and their community here. And ultimately, I think they’re very confused as to what to do.

How can university administration and faculty positively counteract these problems faced by their Chinese international students?

Ma: What American higher education can do at this point, I think, is to provide the best support they can. I know that they’re sort of stretched thin already. But still, I think it’s very important to provide what support they can to the current Chinese international students in various ways. Academically, psychologically, socially, to send a positive signal to them and their parents, and to students who are looking at the current situation, thinking about their future plan in China.

What I want to point out especially in my book is that I found oftentimes Chinese students are caught in these cross-cultural behavioral differences. And coronavirus is one specific context, for example, as I said, in terms of the expectation to wear facial masks—that is one specific example of behavior. But other types of behaviors, for example, classroom behaviors, in terms of raising questions, how to interact with American professors, how to participate in classroom discussions. In my book, I emphasize that classroom participation goes well beyond language proficiency. It’s not that, for some of them, probably yes, their English is a major barrier, but for a lot of them English is not the barrier, culture is the barrier, education system is the barrier.

That’s actually what I’ve been researching in my book, and it’s a big part of my book. Is that these cross-national, cross-educational differences that really cause a lot of anxieties and make Chinese students unsure of how to behave. I think American higher education, their teachers, and American administrators are going to be better off knowing about those differences so that they can provide better support to the students.

Many issues that you address and the research that you bring up in your book is very relevant. And coronavirus is just one lens on a lot of these issues. Could you give a description of your book and some of the issues that you bring up?

Ma: My book is titled: Ambitious and Anxious: How Chinese College Students Succeed and Struggle in American Higher Education. One of the most important themes that I tackle in the book is trying to situate Chinese international students, especially the wave of Chinese international students who are undergraduate students, and largely self-funded, and situate them in this big context of rapid social transformation in China. I just mentioned cross-cultural, cross-educational differences. This is the generation that was born largely in the 1990s, and are sort of coming to age in both China and the United States, navigating their formative years in both the Chinese education system and the American education system, which are very, very different.

One example is in regards to classroom participation. China has undergone a lot of rapid social transformation. In this generation of many only children are more individualistic than their parents’ generation. Still, Chinese education and their schooling is more collectivist-oriented than the American education system. By that I mean in the classroom setting, for example, they are not very accustomed to speaking spontaneously to their teachers in class. And there is usually not very much dynamic classroom discussion compared to the American education system. So, even for very academically-able students who are working very hard and their English proficiency is high, speaking up in class poses an extremely big challenge for them. So, in my book, I emphasize that classroom participation goes well beyond language proficiency. Perhaps for some, English is a barrier, but for a lot of them English is not the barrier, culture is the barrier, education system is the barrier.

So I use that as a way to raise awareness about the differences that they navigate between the two education systems. And they are aware of the expectation here, but they’re just not able to do it. So that really requires a lot of patience and a caring approach, probably a more proactive approach from American professors. I raised some suggestions, such as American professors could play a more active role in reaching out to some of the students. Or conducting more small-group discussions, or encouraging more prepared discussions instead of spontaneous speaking in the classroom setting to provide a more equitable speaking opportunity for Chinese students.

So now that most universities have moved to remote learning, would you say that using videocalls and webinars might just compound the challenges of classroom dynamics faced by Chinese students?

Ma: That is the great question. I don’t really know. I think that this provides a great opportunity to collect data. And I think this is going to be a challenge, not just for Chinese students, but for everyone, including American students, and American professors. A lot of us have no experience in online teaching. And all of a sudden, the coronavirus has pushed us to make that big leap almost overnight. So you know, it remains unknown what challenges that presents. I think everyone has huge challenges. But what specific challenges or unique challenges Chinese international students are going to have, it’s really a new question that I don’t know the answer to at this point.