More than a quarter-century ago multinational companies ventured into China not knowing what to expect but seeing the many opportunities. Now students from around the world are here studying for the same reason. So what's the verdict on the Middle Kingdom?
China can be "extremely foreign," said Richard de Saivo, a senior at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. "I'd never been to China before so I had no idea what to expect," he explained. "It turned out that the language is so foreign, the people are so foreign and virtually everything is so exotic."
De Saivo is spending the fall semester in Beijing. At the recently enlarged program of the Chicago-based Institute for the International Education of Students (IES) in the capital he studies Chinese for four hours every day and also takes courses in country's economy and history.
He and many of his young compatriots have found the Middle Kingdom to be a new magnet. China has become a favorite Asian destination of students from the US studying abroad.
In the 2004-05 academic year nearly 6,400 students came to China. This is a 35 percent rise from the year before, according to a report published last month by the New York-based Institute of International Education (IIE) with funding from the US Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
With such dramatic growth China is now the eighth-leading host destination for American students and the only Asian country in the top 10, the report said. And the number of Chinese students studying in the US remained steady at around 62,500.
Both educators and students agree that the reported increase in the number of US students coming to China in the 2004-05 academic year is only the prelude to an even greater boom.
Michael Zhao director of the Study-in-Beijing Program of the IES, a non-profit organization that runs study-abroad programs around the world said, "I'm sure that in two or three years the Beijing program will become the largest among IES' programs in 15 countries by exceeding the current leader which is Barcelona."
The primary reason so many students pick China is undoubtedly its economic and social development. "It's simple," de Saivo said. "There are a lot of opportunities in China and I wanted to have a look there."
De Saivo said he became interested in China long before he arrived. He started learning the language at 14 when a Chinese language course was offered at his boarding school. He continued learning Chinese at college but majors in anthropology. "I think it's important to be able to use the Chinese language," he said. "If you want to be good at a language it's best that you go to the place."
Chen See, a senior majoring in biochemistry at Northeastern University in Boston, also said that she came to China mainly to improve her language skills. Chen, whose parents are from China, could speak and read some Chinese before she joined the IES Beijing program in September. However, she required to improve her writing skills.
"My skills in the Chinese language will help with my future career," she told China Daily. "There are so many Chinese in America and I can speak with the Chinese patients. That's going to be cool."
Tyler Sossin, a senior international relations major at Stanford University, said he chose China because of the country's growing importance in world politics. "I study world relations and you can't miss China when you do that," he said. "I'd like to be a China expert."
The rapid rise in the number of students heading to China and to a lesser degree India has come as little surprise to educators given the prominence of the two countries in the world economy, Mary Dwyer, IES president, told the US-based Chronicle of Higher Education.
Students were just more aware and said, 'Gee, China and India are major players. I better get there,' she explained. Her institution has had programs in China since 1990 and opened one in India in January.
Yaw Nyarko - vice-provost for globalization and multi-cultural affairs at New York University, which sends more students abroad than any other US university, was also quoted by the Chronicle of Higher Education as saying, "People are sensing that the economic boom is there. It's the future of the world."
Besides its booming prominence globally it was also because of the rapidly increasing number of reports about China in the US media that made it a top choice of American students, said Zhao, of IES' Beijing office. "People are reading much about China (in the US),” he said. "There's a 'China fever' going on."
Another factor was that China has impressed the world with a stable society that has kept it from being a target of terrorist attacks, Zhao said. "When parents think of sending their children abroad safety is naturally becomes their top concern," he said. "They believe China to be one of the safest places in the world."
So what are American students doing in China besides learning the language? Chen, from Boston, is taking a course on contemporary Chinese issues and doing an internship at the Beijing International Medical Center. "I'm doing mainly the receptionist work such as answering phone calls and arranging appointments," she said.
Sossin, from Stanford, is also doing an internship as a language polisher at China Radio International. "My tutor is really kind and she gave me a lot of good advice," he said.
During their internships most American students are found to have the ability to execute more than one task at a time and possess strong problem-solving skills and critical-thinking habits, Zhao said. "They always bring in different perspectives to problem-solving to a Chinese organization," he noted.
A senior manager at DaimlerChrysler China Ltd, who preferred to remain anonymous because of company regulations, told China Daily that his department was looking for American students as interns. "Our marketing department has a few American interns and they're very good, full of creativity and initiative and quick to adapt to a new environment," he said. "People have been more than busy at my department so 'why not have some interns share the work?' we began to think."
Besides the internships the American students are doing volunteer work in China. Some used to teach at a school for the children of migrant workers in Beijing and some have worked at a school for Tibetan kids in the rural areas near Kangding, Southwest China's Sichuan Province.
Traveling, both the organized and privately, is also an important part of the life of these young Americans in China. Sossin went to Kashgar, an oasis city at the border of deserts in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, during China's National Day holiday and many students joined an organized trip along the Silk Road this summer.
How do the American students feel about their stay in China? "It's very different having your daily life here from being a tourist," Chen said. She visited China a couple of times previously with her parents but even she had some difficulty in adapting to Beijing life. "When you first get here you can't get used to two things," she said, "first the traffic and second the air pollution.
"You have to get used to the local flavor, to eat the local food and to meet the local people," she said. "It's totally a different feeling from being a tourist and simply doing some sightseeing. But you will soon learn to love this place, especially when you improve in reading and speaking Chinese." She concluded that her experience in China helped her to become more open-minded.
De Saivo, from Tennessee, said this semester is giving him more of a cross-cultural perspective. He has been reading a lot about modern Chinese history especially the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
After spending one semester, one year or even more in China some of these American students will come back and work in this country, Zhao said.
As an example, Ruth Dowe, a graduate of Brown University in Rhode Island, who participated in the IES China program, is applying for a job at the US Embassy in Beijing.
"We even had one student who is now a college teacher in remote Yunnan Province," Zhao said. "Isn't that cool?"
(China Daily December 19, 2006)