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  • Joanna Zheng

Asian-Americans | Asian/Americans

Recently, I’ve noticed an undercurrent of animosity in media portrayals of international students, especially those coming from China. Many public universities, impacted by budget cuts, have increasingly sought out international students as a source of funding, with China surpassing other countries in the number of students studying overseas. International students not only have to pay out-of-state tuition and additional fees with minimal financial aid but are also usually subjected to need-aware admissions processes when applying abroad. As such, a “nouveau riche” stereotype of Chinese students has arisen, with most students studying abroad belonging to a wealthier subset of China’s population. I’ve come across countless articles that condemn the reckless consumerism of Chinese nationals, showing videos of Ferraris and luxury clothes and thousand-dollar allowances. One headline actually demeaningly referred to these students as “cash heifers”, whose spending value is milked by the American economy. Even at home, a friend of mine who frequents the Goodwill next to Ursinus College tells me that the end of the semester is the best time to go thrifting. “International students just dump their out-of-season stuff when they can’t bring it back,” she texts me, sending a picture of a Gucci purse in near-perfect condition.

This inexplicable hostility towards Chinese international students occurs, surprisingly, in the Asian-American community as well. There is a type of cruel irony in that Rachel Heng, author of “Becoming a Person of Color”, was shoehorned into the Asian-American community at her college, only for a member of that community to define and teach her the meaning of “fobby”. I hear that word passed around here in Asian-American circles at university as well, spoken with careless spite: fobs smoke. Fobs are only here to buy things and party. Fobs can only afford tuition because of daddy’s money. It is perplexing to me that as children of the Asian diaspora, we continue to hold these prejudiced views. When reading “Transpacific Articulations: Student Migration and the Remaking of Asian America” by Chih-ming Wang, I left a comment following a passage about racial stereotyping towards foreign students:

Looking back as a Chinese-American person who grew up in a predominantly white area, it saddens me how true the term "embarrassing" was in how I perceived my own culture as a child. Many Asian Americans, shamefully including myself, have perpetuated or joked about the negative caricature of this "displaced and foreign subject" throughout their lives for the sake of distancing themselves from it. As such, foreign students in America unfortunately are subject to prejudiced scrutiny from both the native population and a smaller subset of related diaspora: the stereotyping of "fresh off the boat" male students, for example, is an enhanced version of the emasculation forced upon resident Asian men. I wonder if this image creates a positive feedback loop for international students - do these racial microaggressions and associated traits make communication less appealing, leading to reduced opportunities for internationals to adapt to a different language/culture and subsequently widening perceptual differences?

Yuhan, another member of the class, responded:

The additional language barrier and cultural shock definitely bring more obstacles for some international students whereas native born Asian(or Chinese)-American are less likely to face these disadvantages. Nevertheless, international students may suffer less from "exotic background" as that cultural background can be a source of comfort and identity. But for Asian-Americans, perhaps that background is more likely to be a sole "displaced and foreign subject" and cause embarrassment during childhood based on your description.

In “Transpacific Articulation”, Wang notes in his introduction that studies of Asian-American identity and history tend to exclude the narratives of Asian nationals. I think a part of that Asian-American bitterness stems from a desire to distinguish themselves from these ill-portrayed, hypothetical “foreign objects”, an endeavor made difficult by the general inability of the American populace to see Asian-Americans and Asian nationals as having separate identities. Back when I was in high school, I befriended Polly, a student that had just transferred from China. Polly was sweet, incredibly smart, and shy, but due to a slight lisp, everyone treated her like she could not speak English. I once found her in the hallway outside the school gym almost in tears, the P.E. teacher towering over her. When he spoke, he elongated his syllables like he was directing them towards an infant. The teacher pointed at her and shook his head in exasperation. “I can’t understand her at all,” he says, eyes drifting past her as if she was invisible. “Are you her sister? Can you translate?” There was nothing for me to translate. Polly’s English was perfectly intelligible. I told him what she had said to him already, that she didn’t have a school uniform because she didn’t know where to get one, and he sighed in relief as if I had divested him of a heavy burden. Later, turning to me, he asks, “how long have you been in the US?” I get that question a lot, along with variations of “where are you from?” and the inevitable subsequent “where is your family from?”, with the cherry on top being “your English is so good!” It is conflations like these, not nationals themselves, that deserve criticism; international students that come here to learn and are instead left with the burden of Westernization and assimilation should not be targeted in conversations regarding Asian and American identity.

Thinking about it now, the term “Asian-American” not only implies a fusion of two distinct entities, but also places an amalgamation of cultural and ethnic identities in contrast against American-ness. The view that the increased presence of Asian international students harms the American identity of Asian-Americans is a problematic misattribution: for every student that fits the mold of an exorbitant spender unconcerned with the issues that Asian-Americans face politically, there are without a doubt many others that act as important members of a transnational community and actively engage with issues like race, class, and gender. Casting international students as vapid tourists that only travel abroad for their own prospects, and doing so within Asian-American spheres, is harmful for both Asian-Americans and Asians in America. More empathy and less categorization are needed to promote mutual understanding between cultures.

Art by Adam Miada for The Atlantic. Sourced from Getty Images.

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