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For Chinese studying in US, graduating into an uncertain future

More Chinese students are enrolled at American colleges than ever before, but US degrees that aren't from Harvard aren't widely valued at home, meaning connections are still what matter most.

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For some Chinese, living in the US can also be socially difficult.

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“When I go back to China, I find it hard to have much in common with my high school friends,” says Xue. “In the United States, I try my best to blend into the more open social culture. I go to happy hour and watch football. Yet deep down, I know that I am Chinese.”

Family and political tensions also complicate the equation. For only children, in particular, the parent-child relationship can be intense.

“I can’t bear to live away from my parents. I call them at night all the time,” Xue says. “I have missed Chinese New Year the past four years. I feel like I am missing out a lot.”

Yet the sense of personal freedom and security here makes staying in the US attractive.

“The lack of academic freedom in China worries me,” writes Jiao, an undergrad at Brown University, in an e-mail. “I wouldn’t go back to do research.”

Xue echoes Jiao’s opinion: “A country with more than 200 years of democracy has a more stabilized legislative and judiciary system than China. Working in the United States feels more stable. There is the rule of law, plus courts and regulations to oversee procedures. In China, you never know what’s going to happen at the party and to your family. ”

“Young people my age generally are very frustrated with the pervasive corruption in the party,” Xue adds. “We are waiting for changes to happen for a more meritocratic system to allow people like me to find an appropriate job and contribute to the country.”

Maybe it is the wait for better conditions at home that motivates some Chinese students in the US to go straight to graduate school here after finishing their undergraduate degree. When asked about staying in the United States, Jiao’s schoolmate Jie offers a typical answer: “Why? Why not? I will stay at least for a bit to go to grad school.”

Grad school, at least, offers another credential to make him more competitive in the job market, either in the US or in China.

Despite students’ pessimism, some employers in China recognize the value of an American college education. Among them is Adil Husain, the Pakistani-born CEO and founder of Emerging Asia Group, a consulting firm in Shanghai.

“I think a four-year liberal arts undergraduate education in the United States is superior to other options, such as studying in the UK or Australia,” says Mr. Husain, a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont. “The critical thinking skills, writing skills, and reading skills that you gain from a well-rounded education are the kind of skills that employers like us are looking for.”

Meanwhile, Chinese high school students still dream of college in the US. Study abroad means meeting great people, taking great classes, forming a global network, and accessing great job opportunities, writes Panxi, a high school senior in Guangdong in response to a query on a message board.

As for Wei, he says he will continue his American student lifestyle for now: go to class, keep job-hunting, hang out with friends on the weekends, and catch up on studying in the library on Sundays.

Eventually, he says, he will “figure something out.”

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