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    How Chinese Students Abroad Navigate Race and Nationality

    Chinese international students in the U.S. are often criticized for a lack of engagement in racial justice. But how do the students themselves view their struggle?

    It’s not news that anti-Asian hate has been on the rise around the world in recent years. In the United States, a racially motivated shooting spree at several Atlanta-area spas in March 2021 focused the public’s attention on this long simmering problem and spurred a wave of rallies in solidarity in cities across the country.

    But building solidarity within Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities can be difficult. Americans tend to talk about racism in terms of skin color and stigmas like “yellow peril” or “model minorities,” but the targets of this discrimination — especially recent migrants — often see the issue in very different terms. The solidarity implied by the AAPI label masks the radically different perspectives on discrimination held by immigrants from Japan, Korea, China, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam, to say nothing of the different subgroups within each of these communities.

    Take Chinese international students, for example. They are often perceived by their peers as uninterested in social movements or social justice — a belief that strengthens existing stereotypes of them as “apolitical.” When I first began interviewing Chinese international students about their experiences of racial discrimination in 2020, I often framed my questions using the Chinese terms for “race” and “racism.” But I soon found that many students were hesitant to use these terms; some would even ask me to define “racial discrimination” before they responded.

    It’s not that they were immune from or unaware of anti-Asian sentiment. Many of the Chinese international students I interviewed reported being verbally harassed for wearing masks or being on the receiving end of xenophobic comments like “Go back to China” from strangers on the street — both before and after the outbreak of COVID-19. However, instead of directly adopting the term “racial discrimination” to describe these uncomfortable incidents, they generally associated these negative experiences with their nationality. In other words, they believed some Americans hold hostile attitudes toward Chinese, not because of their Asian features, but because they are from China.

    These geopolitical considerations are not unique to Chinese international students. Scholars have found that immigrants to the U.S. from other Asian countries often view their position in American society through the prism of their home country’s relationship with the United States. In her 2008 book, “Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA.” Nadia Y. Kim showed how the historic contexts of Japanese colonization and American military domination pushed pre-migration Koreans to understand race from the perspective of a global, nation state-based order of economic power. Deprived of recognition within the American racial system, they attributed their invisibility to the lower global power of South Korea.

    In my fieldwork, I found Chinese international students’ views of race and their place in American society were also influenced by their perceptions of geopolitics — namely, Sino-U.S. tensions. When they hear terms like the “Chinese virus,” they generally attribute the hostility behind the words to American jealousy of China’s rapid development and fears of China as a rising global power.

    Most of them are also aware of how Western societies perceive China as a non-democratic country. In public situations, including in class, campus activities, or professional conferences, some Chinese international students expressed concern that their peers might view them as merely an extension of the Chinese government, rather than as an independent person. Doctoral students and instructors mentioned that, after they revealed their background in class, they had seen students stand up and leave the classroom.

    Ironically, it is those international students with more progressive and liberal political leanings who tend to take this treatment the hardest. Many of them expressed a sense of deep disappointment in my interviews. A few wryly acknowledged that they had been more active in labor, feminist, or environmental justice social movements in China than in the U.S.

    Adjusting to the recent American reckoning with its founding political ideology can be particularly challenging for those interested in the country’s political traditions. For instance, one of my research participants recalled being criticized, along with several other Chinese graduate students, for defending the inclusion of political theorist John Locke on a sociology syllabus. Local students, who were arguing for excluding the philosopher on the basis of his participation in and support for the slave trade, saw the Chinese students’ defense of him as inappropriate.

    My interviewee said that the Chinese students in class became more cautious about participating in classroom debates with their American classmates after this incident, fearing that their lack of “local knowledge” might cause them to come off as arrogant if they participated too actively.

    This tendency to self-police and self-marginalize is reinforced by the intersectional function of national and racial hierarchies among foreigners in American society. For instance, Chinese international students usually distinguish themselves from international students from Korea or Japan. Yuhao, a fourth-year transfer student majoring in computer science, said that, because Korea and Japan have maintained a closer connection with America over the past 70 years, he believed Americans hold sounder impressions of Koreans and Japanese.

    Some Chinese international students internalize this geopolitical discourse and become hesitant to speak on their own experiences. Graduate students who reported being on the receiving end of unfriendly treatment in the classroom said they stopped telling others where they are from. Others said that they had mixed feelings whenever classroom discussions turned to China or anything related to their Chinese identity — a few said they were even less willing to participate in discussions of China or race than other topics.

    These attitudes make it harder for Chinese international students to forge social networks outside their own circles, reinforcing their marginalized position and reducing the odds they will take action in response to discrimination. Their perspective is crucial to understanding the complex situations they face and their tense position relative to mainstream society. It might also explain why Chinese international students, a group which has experienced lots of stress and discrimination, especially during the pandemic, seems less active in movements against racial discrimination.

    While it is important to highlight how Chinese international students interpret race and racism differently from American-born Asians and foreign-born Asians from other countries, it’s also vital to note the problems associated with viewing discrimination through the lens of geopolitics. Indeed, some Chinese international students realize their tendency to frame issues in geopolitical terms is bound up with rising nationalism on both sides of the Pacific. For instance, Haitao, a sixth-year Ph.D. student, said that treating American racism toward Chinese international students as the result of ethnonationalist jingoism prevents students from understanding the systemic racism of American society. This makes it more challenging for Chinese international students to establish common ground with other Asian or non-Asian minority groups, including Black and Latin Americans.

    In a 2002 paper, sociologist Bryan Turner argued in favor of what he called the “cosmopolitan virtues,” including care for other cultures, ironic distance from one’s own traditions, and openness to cross-cultural criticisms. These virtues are often elusive, but one place to start is recognizing our shared vulnerability and frailty in an increasingly fraught global geopolitical environment. By sincerely listening to and trying to understand the backgrounds and perspectives of people from other communities, we can build the kind of genuine mutual understanding necessary for international and cross-cultural solidarity.

    Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

    (Header image: Protestors march during a “Stop Asian Hate” rally in downtown Detroit, Michigan, March 27, 2021. Seth Herald/VCG)