How Chinese Students Experience America

When I met Jack for lunch, I initially didn’t recognize him. He had lost twenty pounds, because in Pittsburgh he had adopted a daily routine of a four-mile run. “In middle school and high school, my parents and grandparents always said you should eat a lot and study hard,” he said. “I became kind of

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When I met Jack for lunch, I initially didn’t recognize him. He had lost twenty pounds, because in Pittsburgh he had adopted a daily routine of a four-mile run. “In middle school and high school, my parents and grandparents always said you should eat a lot and study hard,” he said. “I became kind of fat.”

He had assimilated to American life more successfully than most of his peers, and his English had improved dramatically. He told me shyly that he had become good friends with a girl in his department. “Some of my friends from SCUPI are jealous because I have a friend who is a foreign girl, a white girl,” he said. “They make some jokes.”

He said that he would always remember Pittsburgh fondly, but he expected his departure to be final. “I don’t think I’ll come to the U.S. again,” he said. “They will check. If they see that you work with rockets, with the military, they won’t let you in.”

On the afternoon of January 1src, 2src23, at around three o’clock, in the neighborhood of Homewood, Vincent was stopped behind another vehicle at a traffic light when he heard a popping sound that he thought was fireworks. He was driving the Prius, and a Chinese graduate student from Carnegie Mellon sat in the passenger seat. Vincent wore a Sig Sauer P365 subcompact semi-automatic pistol in a concealed-carry holster on his right hip. The Carnegie Mellon student was preparing to get his driver’s license, and Vincent was taking him to practice at a test course in Penn Hills, an area that was known for occasional crime problems.

At the traffic light, Vincent saw a car approach at high speed and run a red light. Then there were more popping sounds. Vincent realized that they weren’t fireworks when a bullet cracked his windshield.

He ducked below the dashboard. In the process, his foot came off the brake, and the Prius struck the vehicle ahead of him. The shooting continued for a few seconds. After it stopped, the Carnegie Mellon student said, “Ge, brother, you just hit the car in front!”

“Get your head down!” Vincent shouted. He backed up, swerved around the other vehicle, and tore through a red light. After a block, he saw a crossing guard waiting for children who had just finished the day at Westinghouse Academy, a nearby public school.

“Shots fired, shots fired!” Vincent shouted. “Call 911!”

He parked on the side of the road, and soon he was joined by the driver whose car he had struck. They checked the bumpers; there wasn’t any damage. The driver, an elderly woman, didn’t seem particularly concerned about the shooting. She left before the police arrived.

A woman from a nearby house came out to talk with Vincent. She remarked that shootings actually weren’t so common, and then she walked off to pick up her child from Westinghouse Academy. After a while, a police officer drove up, carrying an AR-15. Vincent explained that he was also armed, and the officer thanked him for the information. He asked Vincent to wait until a detective arrived.

For more than two hours, Vincent sat in his car. The Carnegie Mellon student took an Uber home. When the detective finally showed up, his questions were perfunctory, and he didn’t seem interested in Vincent’s offer to provide dashboard-camera footage. A brief report about the incident appeared on a Twitter account called Real News and Alerts Allegheny County:

Shot Spotter Alert for 2src rounds

Vehicles outside of a school shooting at each other.

1 vehicle fled after firing shots.

Later that year, Vincent took me to the site. He recalled that during the incident he had repeatedly said, “Lord, save me!,” like Peter the Apostle on the Sea of Galilee. The lack of police response had surprised Vincent. “I didn’t know they didn’t care about a shooting,” he said. For our visit, he wore a Sig Sauer P32src-M17 on his right hip. “Normally, I don’t open-carry,” he said. “But this gun can hold eighteen rounds.”

It had been four years since Vincent arrived in my class at Sichuan University. Have you ever been involved in a situation that was extremely threatening, or dangerous, or somehow dramatic? Back then, he had written about what happened when the Chinese Internet police came to his home. Now Vincent’s American story was one in which the police effectively didn’t come after twenty rounds had been fired near a school. But there was a similar sense of normalcy: everybody was calm; nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The following month, four students were shot outside Westinghouse Academy.

I asked Vincent if the incident had changed his opinion about gun laws.

“No,” he said. “That’s why we should carry guns. Carrying a gun is more comfortable than wearing body armor.”

At Sichuan University, I also taught journalism to undergraduates from a range of departments. Last June, I sent out a detailed survey to more than a hundred and fifty students. One question asked if they intended to make their permanent home in China. A few weren’t certain, but, of the forty-three who answered, thirty said that they planned to live in China. There was no significant difference in the responses of students who were currently in China versus those abroad.

Since the pandemic, there have been increasing reports of young Chinese engaged in runxue, or “run philosophy,” escaping the country’s various pressures by going abroad permanently. A number of my students pushed back against the idea that runxue had wide appeal. “I think that’s just an expression of emotion, like saying, ‘I want to die,’ ” one student who was studying in Pittsburgh told me. “I don’t take it very seriously.” He planned to go to graduate school in America and then return home. He said that in China it was easy for him to avoid politics, whereas in Pittsburgh he couldn’t avoid the fact that he was a foreigner. During his initial few months in the city, he had experienced three unpleasant anti-Asian incidents. As a result, he had changed the route he walked to his bus stop. “I think I don’t belong here,” he said.

Cartoon by Paul Noth

Yingyi Ma, the sociologist at Syracuse who has surveyed Chinese students in the U.S., has observed that almost sixty per cent of her respondents intend to return to their homeland. She told me that young Chinese rarely connect with the political climate in the U.S. “But what makes America appealing is the other aspects,” she said. “The agency. The self-acceptance. Over time, as they stay in the U.S., they figure out that they don’t have to change themselves.”

One former student told me that she might remain in America in part because people were less likely to make comments about her body. She’s not overweight, but she doesn’t have the tiny frame that is common among young Chinese women, and people in China constantly remarked on her size. In Pittsburgh, I met with Edith, the student who had written about her graduation banquet. Now she had dyed some of her hair purple and green, and she avoided video calls with her grandparents, who might judge her. Once, she had gone to a shooting range with Chinese classmates, and she had attended church-group meetings out of curiosity. She told me that recently she had taken up skateboarding as a hobby.

It was typical for students to pursue activities that would have been unlikely or impossible in China, and several boys became gun enthusiasts. Nationwide, rising numbers of Asian Americans have purchased firearms since the start of the pandemic, a trend that scholars attribute to fears of racism. One afternoon, I arranged to meet a former student named Steven at a shooting range outside Wexford, Pennsylvania. I knew that I was in the right parking lot when, amid all the pickup trucks, I saw a car with a bumper sticker that said “E=mc2.” On the range, whenever the call came for a halt in shooting—“All clear!”—a bunch of bearded white guys in camo and Carhartt stalked out with staple guns to attach new paper covers to the targets. Steven, a shy, round-faced engineer in glasses, was the only Chinese at the range, and also the only person who used quilting pins for his target. He told me that the quilting pins were reusable and thus cheaper than staples. He had come with a Smith & Wesson M&P 5.7 handgun, a Ruger American Predator 6.5 Creedmoor bolt-action rifle, and a large Benchmade knife that he wore in a leather holster. At the range, he shot his rifle left-handed. When he was small, his father had thought that he was a natural lefty, but he was taught to write with his right hand, like all Chinese students. He told me that shooting was the first significant activity in which he had used his left.

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