How Chinese Students Get to Studying in U.S. Schools

A student is overwhelmed by posters of various kinds of Education agencies in a Chinese university. Photo from

Students interviewed here are using fake names.

Cathy, 21, recalls walking into the education office in Beijing, sitting down and feeling worried.

“I want to study in the USA,” said Cathy. “I don’t have a preference on schools. It would be better if it’s a top 100 university, but I do want to study in a safe and convenient area.”

“Of course,” said the agency representative. “Let me know more about you first.”

The woman who offered help to Cathy is a consultant. She listened attentively to Cathy’s background and requirements and narrowed her choices to 10 universities.

“They let me make my own decision. I wrote a personal statement and resume by myself, and they helped me correct mistakes and apply for the universities,” said Cathy. “But I also applied four universities by myself when I got to know the application procedures.”

Four months, five offers, plus days of deliberation and discussions led to her final decision — a university in Massachusetts.

“It’s a wonderful combination, both academically and geographically, ” Cathy said.

Cathy is not the only one who came to study in the States with the help of education agencies. In fact, most Chinese students resort to intermediaries to shepherd them through the admissions process.

“Students in the United States have counselors for the most part in schools that can help them,” said Marco A. Chávez, senior assistant director for international recruitment at the Ohio State University, “But students in China don’t have counselors that can help them navigate the application process of U.S. universities. That’s why they turn to agencies for help.”

With China sending more students to American colleges than any other country, the competition for spots at the top schools has soared. There were 157,558 Chinese students studying in the United States in the 2010–2011 academic year, a 23.5 percent surge since 2009, according to the Institute of International Education.

But in China’s test-centric culture, students, especially those at high-school level, usually find themselves ill-prepared for the admissions process at American colleges. Instead, they spend most of their time preparing for the gaokao, or the national college entrance exam, often at the expense of extracurricular activities, to secure a coveted spot at one of China’s over-subscribed universities.

John, now 22, started to study in a New Jersey college in the spring of 2009. He took the National College Entrance Exam along with his peers after graduation in 2008, but did not achieve a high enough score for admission in China. So he decided to study in the USA.

“I know little about U.S. schools at that time, and my academic background was weak,” John said, “So I hired an agency to do the application and help me polish my background.”

However, the so-called “background polishing” involved faking the background.

“I said I didn’t study well in high school, and I had nobody to write a reference for me. They said don’t worry, they would figure that out,” John said, “And it turned out to be a fake transcript and references.”

For research for this story, I posed as an undergraduate student and talked to Echo Liu, an agency consultant, online.

“Look,” I typed, “my situation is like this: GPA 3.0/4.0, no internships, no references, poor English level, don’t have time to get application documents done, but I want to study in the USA in fall, 2013. I know it’s kind of late right now, but can you help me?”

“No problem,” said Liu, “We have like a ‘package service’ for you.”

I asked if it was possible to get a “better” transcript and internship certification, and if they could write a personal statement for me. She became cautious but did not decline.

“Why don’t you leave your name and telephone number so we can talk in details?” she said.

A 2010 report by an education agency Zinch China could better illustrate this issue: 80 percent of Chinese undergraduate students use an agent to file their applications; 70 percent of college application essays are not written by the students, and half of all high school transcripts are falsified.

It is all about money. The more you pay, the more time you save, and the more “comprehensive service” you can get.

John said he paid more than $2,000 to the agency, and was satisfied with the result.

“The agency took care of everything for me, even of visa application, and booking a flight ticket,” said John. “All I need to do was sending money to them regularly, and they would let me know if I was admitted or not.”

But Cathy complained about being over-charged.

“I paid almost $5,000, but got little help with my materials,” said she. “I mean it did save me a lot of time, but I don’t think it’s worth of the money.”

She also added that there are agencies that refuse to provide details for the application status and prevented students from getting access to their applications.

“I heard from some of my friends that some agencies would create an email address for your applications, but they didn’t tell you the password. They only let you know the result, like which university rejects or admits you,” she said. “So you don’t even know what happened in between.”

The industry’s aggressive practices have not escaped the universities’ notice.

“It de-values the degree from the university,” Chávez said. “If everybody comes in with a fake document, then the integrity of the admission process is definitely compromised.”

But Chávez said if Ohio State finds students have fake documents, their acceptances would be revoked. Although he could not disclose how the admissions office discerns counterfeit applications, he did say that Ohio State has various means to determine which  students are really good, or which are too good to be true.

“But there are accidents,” Chávez said. “If we find out there are students who are already here but with fraudulent documents, we will revoke the admission and expel the students,” he said. “But for those students we don’t know, what can we do? We don’t know, and we can’t take actions.”

The students who are “over-cared” by agencies often take longer time to adapt to the American class and society. John recalled the loneliness and perplexity when he first arrived with no one to rely on and speak to.

“My English was extremely poor at that time. I sat in the corner of the classroom and had no friends,” he said. “I could not understand what the professor said. When he asked me a question, I was even unable to utter a word. All I could respond was by shaking my head. My classmates thought I was dumb or a fool.”

He said he longed to go back to China. “I missed my family and friends so much, but I couldn’t tell them,” he said. “I couldn’t tell them I was having trouble. They would be worried and disappointed.”

It took him more than six months to adapt.

“I knew I couldn’t be like that anymore,” John said, “Life goes on, and I should be tough. So I encouraged myself to speak to Americans, make friends, and I even marked ‘making my first phone call’ as a milestone.”

Now, after almost four years of living in the States, John’s English has dramatically improved. He was even the leader of an association in the university.

Chávez said the ever-increasing numbers of Chinese students did pose some challenges to the university, including having proper resources on campus to help them.

To better reach and take care of Chinese students, Ohio State has a Global Gateway Office in Shanghai, China, which provides pre-departure orientation for students in that region.

“Chinese culture is different than American culture,” Chávez said. “We need to make sure that our numbers of Chinese students are increasing. We’re addressing their needs and their concerns in regards to eating on campus, having roommates, classes, everything.”


OMG! New Craze of Learning AmE?

Jessica Beinecke wrote for her fans. Photo by Yiyi Yang.

Joe Keppel, an American teacher at Beijing Jiaotong University, has been puzzled by a question recently — how have some of his students, once the victims of “Chinglish,” become masters of American slang?

During an oral English class, one of his most troublesome students incredibly uttered words like “jiggy,” “muffin top” and “badonkadonk” when talking about the risks of obesity. “Avoid binge, and try not to inhale during your meal,” the student said confidently, “Those are the simple ways to control your weight.”

Though startled at first, Keppel didn’t pay much attention to this change. However, as pearls of the American lingo fell from his student’s lips, it was hard for him to ignore the remarkable progress.

“Finally, I asked whether or not they took some special classes on summer holiday, and it turned out to be a web show,” he said, adding, “Can it be that helpful?”

Keppel is by no means the only one who queries the power of this show. As a matter of fact, nobody will expect a coarse, homemade, and only two-to-three-minute-long web show to assist millions of Chinese students in unlocking the mysteries of American buzz words and expressions while navigating the kaleidoscope of American culture.

Nor will Jessica Beinecke, a 25-year-old Ohio native, a staff member at Voice of America (VOA) and the host of this web show, or “daily webisodes,”to be more accurate.

One of the episodes, “Yucky Gunk,” went viral, garnered more than 2 million hits and became an overnight sensation online. And consequently, she unwittingly shouldered the responsibility of delivering American slang for pop-culture-hungry Chinese fans.

“At the beginning, I thought it might take two years for 2 million hits, but after somebody put it on Renren (a popular social media website, the Chinese version of Facebook), things went crazy,” she said. “Now I really want to have an account there.”

Called “OMG! Meiyu” (in Mandarin “meiyu” means American English), this is a trendy, cross-cultural English teaching feature that mainly targets Chinese students. It was produced by VOA’s Mandarin Service, but was taped and edited by Beinecke herself on an aging MacBook.

For each episode, Beinecke sifts through American lingo, venturing beyond the limit of dictionary definitions and exploring the words, phrases and expressions. Then, in a quirky, comical, and exaggerated style, this energetic blond bounces around her Capitol Hill apartment while introducing them through her fluent Mandarin Chinese.

“I started learning Mandarin Chinese only six years ago. My major used to be music, and I found this language very musical because of its various tones,” she said, “That’s why I love it, it’s beautiful!”

For students who prefer to go online rather than follow a stiff class, OMG is perfect.

Qizhou Gao, 22, a sophomore at Essex County College, is a die-hard fan.

“I have been watching OMG for more than a year, and I think it is absolutely brilliant,” he said, “We are taught the native American English in an interesting way. And by the way, her Chinese is really perfect!”

“The topics she chooses are small but practical,” said Jiaxin Wang, a first-year graduate at Seton Hall University. “Like buying a cup of coffee, you thought you’d know how to order that because it’s too simple. But the truth is that you are always stuck there at Starbucks, not knowing how to express yourself. And that’s what OMG gives us. It focuses on the details of your life.”

As the show has rapidly continued building its online popularity, Beinecke created an account on Weibo (a Twitter equivalent in China), where hundreds of thousands of fans flocked to her page and followed her, checking, commenting and reposting all of her micro-blogs almost every minute.

This becomes an incubator for ideas. Most of the themes, ranging from food and makeup to family and relationship, are user-generated.

“I post ‘what do you want to learn next week’ in Chinese, and they suggest topics all the time. I think we will never run short of ideas,” she said, crediting her followers for their participation and inspiration. “I gather the ideas and pick the most popular, sometimes the easiest one.”

And also an effective platform for interaction, where floods of unbridled affection can be found. As part of the assignment, they are required to embed their comments with slang and fashionable words learned from the show.

After watching the show focused on “Body”, user @gaby_澎 posted: “I know I’d better to not wear my heart on my sleeve, but I’m head over heels for you. I can barely understand English by the skin of my teeth, but I have a good head for learning English. I decide to become one of your fans to make learning easier.” “LOL Very good!!” Beinecke replied.

“I check and repost their comments from day to night every day,” she said. “This is my favorite part of the program. I like to read their comments. They are so funny, so smart, and so passionate!”

Jessica Beinecke reported in front of the Capitol Hill about Chinese police beat foreign journalists covering Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. Photo: Youtube.

Renowned as OMG is, suspicion and sensitivity still exist. On Baidu Post (a BBS-like social website), a user named “腐烂的猫(in Mandarin Chinese it means a decayed cat)” warned of the omnipresent infiltration of Western culture by presenting a video of Beinecke covering foreign journalists who reported Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution got beat by Chinese police.

Not everyone is buying it, though. Wave upon wave of criticism and opposition is written by some, calling it like “nonsense” and “omnipresent Wumao,” which refers to the 50 Cent Party, the legion of young Chinese Internet users who paid 50 mao, roughly 7 cents, to post comments on blogs, news articles, bulletin boards, etc., that are pro- the Communist Party, essentially to drown out critical voices).

“Then what about testing English in our National College Entrance Examination, isn’t it infiltration?” Wang said. “I don’t understand why there are always narrow-minded people who make things distorted.”

The producer of the show disagrees.

“We are not giving a bad influence. We don’t create a word,” said Yuyang Ren, Beinecke’s co-worker and a VOA video journalist. “The topics are not chosen by us. They’re by the audience. We just let them learn the words they want,” she said.

From Beinecke’s perspective, OMG is just “a platform for us to find common things.”

“I don’t think it is culture infiltration, that’s not what I want when I made this show,” said she. “Sure we have different cultures, but the more we communicate, the more we will know each other and find the similarity between the two cultures.”

Most Chinese students said they feel the same way. As Gao said, “Learning English can be a good way to help people get closer with each other, especially for people from different countries, and different cultures. This show teaches us English through culture. At the same time, we learn culture through English.”

And that’s why Beinecke created this show.

“I’m very glad that I can help young Chinese with their English,” she said. “I had great experience … learning Chinese, both at home and in China, and I hope they do as well. I can see their energy and eagerness, and I’m inspired and moved by them. For those who study English abroad or in China, it’s time for me to offer that back.”

But what she really hopes is that the craze of learning English remains for long, rather than fades and disappears quickly.

“The good way of learning English is to practice it every day and make it a habit, and of course, watching OMG every day,” she said.