Searching for Belonging Between China and Europe
There’s a widespread myth about Chinese students abroad that goes something like this: We’re smart, hardworking, and maybe a little nerdy, but poor at socializing and hesitant to integrate into local society. It’s a belief shared by well-meaning educators who fear that their students are wasting their youth; prospective Chinese study abroad candidates who worry they won’t be able to maximize their time overseas; and even politicians who see scaremongering about unassimilated Chinese scholars and immigrants as a way to win elections.
As a Chinese graduate student in Europe, I used to share this anxiety about integrating into life abroad. I shouldn’t have. Two years ago, I was admitted to the European Union’s Erasmus Mundus program, named after a Dutch philosopher who himself was an early paragon of global citizenship. As an aspiring global citizen myself, I found the international student house at my university a bubble of cosmopolitanism. Ironically, I felt freer to explore my identity there than in my own hometown.
Yet questions like “But where are you from, really?” dogged me wherever I went. As innocuous as these inquiries might seem, they forced me to face the reality that I might never be afforded the sense of inclusion I’d imagined when I decided to study in Europe.
I’m not alone in feeling this way. In her book, “Dreams of Flight,” the Australian scholar Fran Martin notes that it’s not uncommon for Chinese female students abroad to see studying in another country as a route to the more cosmopolitan life they aspire to at home. Contrary to the stereotypes, members of the Chinese international student community generally desire to explore alternative ways of life and are fully capable of developing meaningful friendships and relationships with non-Chinese. The challenges we face are often external more than internal: An intense academic calendar forces us to spend our time in the library or isolated apartments separated from the local community, while strict immigration policies hang over our post-collegiate plans like a dark cloud, limiting our prospects of getting a job — and thereby staying — in our host country.
The COVID-19 pandemic and increasing geopolitical tensions between China and Western countries haven’t helped. Politicians in Europe and the U.S. now view Chinese students abroad with suspicion. To name just one example, 50 Chinese students faced mandatory departure from the United Kingdom under new, stricter measures to prevent the unauthorized access and theft of sensitive academic research.
In other words, perhaps the trouble Chinese have integrating into other countries has less to do with our own actions and more to do with how those countries perceive us.
This isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. Not long after China sent its first educational mission to the United States in the late 19th century, the program was aborted, in part due to domestic Chinese conservatives’ concerns about Western education’s influence on the next generation. Meanwhile, Chinese immigrants and students in the West have faced consistent stigmatization, whether from fears of a “yellow peril” or a McCarthyist panic about unassimilated spies.
Often, the pressure comes from both sides: From 2020 to 2022, many overseas Chinese couldn’t return to China due to the country’s strict COVID-19 controls, while they faced rising Sinophobia in their host countries.
Desperate for a sense of belonging, some Chinese resort to a kind of rejection of their Chineseness. That includes distancing themselves from the Chinese community, or any event related to China. But this just wasn’t a feasible option in my case. I felt a sharp pain whenever I read news stories from home about rural women who had been chained up by their husbands in a small village, and I worried constantly for my family and friends when COVID-19 finally swept through China late last year.
So, instead of striving for a sense of belonging, I decided to embrace the in-betweenness of living abroad, starting a Chinese-language podcast in which I drew on my experiences living in Europe to discuss social issues in a way accessible to Chinese both at home and around the world.
Occasionally, listeners living outside China will ask how they can better integrate into their new homes. There’s no easy answer. The varied experiences of Chinese in Europe reflect the diversity of the Chinese diaspora more broadly. I’ve been discriminated against by strangers on the street, but I’ve also made some treasured friends in Europe.
I increasingly see narratives about “inclusion” as based on a false proposition. The Chinese diaspora is not a monolith, and there is no single formula for inclusion that meets the needs of every member. And when we talk about the “local communities” we are supposed to integrate into, we all too often overlook underrepresented groups such as minorities and immigrants from other countries. It is not our culture, but the framing of inclusivity itself, that hinders the Chinese diaspora from embracing a more fulfilling and multi-dimensional identity.
Editor: Cai Yineng.
(Header image: rudi_suardi/VCG)