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an open letter to UIUC’s incoming Chinese international students

Hello there!

First, let me offer you some hearty congratulations on being accepted into the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.  As a student who has called this beautiful campus home for the better part of three years, I want to tell you that I think you’ve made a great choice in coming to the United States for college, and in coming to this institution in particular.  We rank just second in the nation in terms of the number of international students we welcome annually, and even though we may be surrounded by miles and miles of corn and cow, we’re a stellar academic and research powerhouse (with a killer social life to boot).

As you may have heard, there are over six hundred of your fellow countrymen coming to Illinois for the first time this year, which means that Chinese international students are slated to make up 1 in every 10 students in our fall’s freshman class.  Those numbers are amazing, considering there were just twenty Chinese international students in the class of 2006.  If my math is correct, that number has increased more than thirtyfold over the past several years, and officials expect it to continue to rise.

Over the past few years, several disparate factors have come together to draw students like you to our campus – for instance, it probably helps that we happen to excel in engineering, mathematics, and business, all fields that Chinese students are traditionally drawn to.  Our state is also facing a debt crisis, which naturally places Illinois in dire financial straits.

You might not know that the government of Illinois actually owes its universities over half a billion dollars.  Subsequently, related budget crunches are at least partially responsible for our school’s recent surge to recruit more international students like you, who, after added penalties and fees, we’re happy to charge over $50,000 a year to receive an education here.

jumping into the sea

welcome, new money students!

I just read a Chicago Tribune article (it actually ran on the front page yesterday) that discussed what our university has been hoping to do with this influx of Chinese students.  (By the way, the Tribune is Chicago’s biggest newspaper…here are part 1 and part 2 of that article if you’d like to read it.)  I learned that our school has hired staff and created new positions to help reach out to students just like you.  We’re hoping to develop more programs to encourage socialization between international scholars and domestic students, and I understand that a goal we have is to help Chinese students “adjust better” to life here in Illinois.

According to that Tribune article, our President and a few other university officials even traveled to places like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou to hold orientation sessions informing you and your parents about what sort of things to expect at our school.  (Maybe you were at one of these meetings.  They actually sounded kind of fun.)

While I don’t want to scare you without reason, I am a bit concerned you might not have gotten the full picture of what life can be like for international students at the University of Illinois.  For instance, the Tribune article recounts that one prospective student swilled a glass of wine and remarked that our school is “friendly to Chinese students.”  Another current scholar added that “the diversity on this campus has been well established.”

Popular media campaigns like Champaign Welcomes You and the great number of Chinese UIUC students and alumni may feed into perceptions like these.  And on some level, I do agree that our campus can be very friendly to Chinese students and that our student body is somewhat racially diverse.

“Two years ago, the U. of I. commissioned a survey to gauge international students’ satisfaction. About 3,000 students responded, and the results were eye-opening.

The survey suggested the university was falling short in a couple of key areas. Students did not feel welcomed when they arrived in the U.S., and they were disappointed by the difficulty in making American friends and overall lack of integration into U.S. culture.

These results hint in the faintest way at something our students and faculty have known for years – we have serious race and gender problems at our school.  And as colossal as these problems are, you might not have heard about them.  It isn’t exactly the kind of thing we print brochures about.  So I just want to spend a few minutes introducing you to the situation as I see it, because the racism on our campus is going to affect you, and is most likely not going away anytime soon.

But first, before I explain myself, me ask you this: have you heard of Paris Syndrome?

It’s fascinating.  It’s this bizarre psychological disorder that primarily affects Japanese tourists who are vacationing in Paris, France.  Basically, it is a well-documented mental condition that afflicts these tourists frequently enough (around twelve cases a year) that the Japanese embassy in France offers a specialized 24-hour hotline for potential victims.  Well, what happens if you’ve got Paris Syndrome is that hallucinations, delusional thinking, erratic paranoia, and a huge mental break all occur, experts think, because of a kind of severe culture shock that has something to do with how rudely your romanticized view of Paris smacks up against the brutal reality of how Paris actually is.

Though there’s no such thing as Champaign Syndrome, I do think it’s important to try and make sure your idea of the “diversity” and “race relations” on our campus isn’t completely at odds with how things actually are here.  And while I believe our university is taking some important steps towards providing a safe and welcoming environment for your incoming class, I am also worried that you may not be aware of the racially-charged, uh, firecracker/powder keg into which you’re about to step.

I know this may have been a lot.  I hope it hasn’t been too overwhelming.

Maybe we can pick this up tomorrow, with part 2 – I can tell you a little about me, and about some of the experiences of xenophobia and racism that my friends and I have experienced here.  And we’ll see where to go from there.

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