If I wait to return to the United States in late July or August, I will have to pay hundreds of dollars more in airfare. There are over 270,000 Chinese students coming to study at American colleges and universities. Airlines use this surge in demand to charge what the market will bear; their only constraint being the empty seats on the return flights to China.
These students join classmates already here. About half study in the science and related fields (STEM) and another heavy portion major in business. This influx of students has saved many U.S. colleges and universities from shrinking in size or closing. Their higher out-of-state tuition has served to subsidize American student tuition at a time when state legislatures are abandoning support of higher education as a public good.
Economists calculate how much money foreign students spend in university communities beyond the tuition fees. Higher academics turns out to be a major source of income. If all Chinese students were concentrated as the sole students of state universities, they would fill the equivalent of all of the public universities in Kansas three times over!
Since 1980, the U.S. has become dependent on some Asian graduates staying in the U.S. to fill critical positions in science and engineering. If we dictated that all foreign-born scientists and engineers leave the U.S., most areas of U.S. engineering would collapse today followed by physics, chemistry and biochemistry tomorrow. Foreign-born scientists now file the majority of patents.
They surpass us in every indicator of science advancement. For instance, only 15 percent of American students graduate in STEM fields in the U.S. But half of Chinese students and 60 percent of Singapore students chose science majors.
Until ten years ago, a larger portion of our Asian graduates sought jobs in the U.S. But that is changing. Since the U.S.-initiated Great Depression of 2008, many see greater opportunity back home.
This summer, I visited universities in Guangzhou, Nanjing, Shihezi (in Western China), Yangling and Beijing. In every case, there were professors and administrators who had been to the United States to study for at least a year, and often for a more extended time to get a masters or doctoral degree.
With so many students returning to Chinese industry, government and academia, there are America-savvy graduates embedded in every small community. If some local provincial spouts a belief that all Americans ride horses and shoot guns — as he has seen in some movies — there is a returnee nearby to correct that misconception and who can say: "I've been there and it isn't that way."
Simply, with 270,000 Chinese students coming here each year who speak enough English to get through our bachelors or masters or doctoral programs, and who live here for two to six years, and with a growing proportion returning to embed in Chinese society — China knows the United States.
In contrast, there will be from 11,000 to 13,000 U.S. students go to China this coming year. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them will never speak Chinese with any depth nor will they stay to study for several years. Most will spend but a few weeks sampling food, visiting various Chinese operas and museums, and trying to write a simple Chinese character with an ink brush. I call these superficial tours "make-a-pináta-courses" (wrong culture, I know).
A much smaller number of American students will stay to learn the basic language and spend several years understanding modern China. These hundreds that return each year are spread far too thin across American society to correct the many misconceptions we hold about China.