Most difficult problems for Chinese students in American Universities

With the development of China’s reform and opening up, more and more Chinese students choose to get a better, higher education abroad. It is known that thousands of Chinese students go to America to get a higher education and the number of them is still increasing every year. However, it is not an easy process to get a good accommodation in an unfamiliar place for an international student, especially when they have totally different languages and traditions. As Yan and Berliner (2009) mentioned in Chinese International students’ academic stressors in the United States that Chinese students are not only one of the biggest groups of foreign students on American campuses, but also one of the international groups that experience greater challenges adapting to the American educational system.

This paper is written in order to give some ideas and suggestions for future Chinese college students so that they can get used to their study life in American universities quickly and easily. The factors that lead to success in their studies for Chinese students studying in American universities fall into three categories: strong motivation, a good language skill, and a good accommodation of the culture.


Maintaining in an adequate motivation and passion during the study process all the time is hard for every Chinese student in the American universities. Chinese students will have to face many problems that they never met before and they have to do so by themselves with no family to rely on. So, what will affect the motivation of students? According to Chinese Students’ Motivations for Studying Abroad, written by Griner and Sobol (2014), the motivation for Chinese students could be broken up into five categories, which include personal dynamic, reverse motivation, parental influence, globalization persuasion, and outlying factors. Personal dynamic can be described as individual desire to go abroad, including education, career path, and social status. Reverse motivation discusses the reasons that Chinese students keep studying overseas for any length of time. Parental influence is about the parent’s desire, international experience and demographics influence on Student decision. Globalization persuasion claims the world globality effect on student interest, including China’s recent westernization and the open market. Finally, outlying factors contain arbitrary causes for student motivation, including status of relationships, and knowledge of study abroad opportunities. It is not hard to know, without parents, without friends, without familiar city are all make students feel lonely aboard. Living in China to Chinese students is like living in a green house, so when they leave from China to the United States, they cannot grow and live as easily as in China, and some of them lose themselves in alcohol and drugs, especially those who were born in a rich family, caused by tremendous differences from China to America. Participating in various organizations and leagues actively, making more friends, and immersing themselves in research are ways to make Chinese students’ lives more colorful and fulfilling during their life on American campus.

So, motivation exists in many ways, which influence Chinese students much in studies. Keeping in abundant interests and energies is important for Chinese students to get better accommodation in American universities.


Chinese students lose their confidence easily because the native languages between Chinese and English have totally different background and logic. The general trouble is hard to communicate with others, which makes students become more silent and reticent. According to the descriptions of two real Chinese students, “Although Y and F started to learn English when they were in elementary schools like most other Chinese children, the way English is taught in China emphasizes more on the written form than the spoken form. English is taught mostly through the traditional grammar-translation method” (Guofang Wan, 2001). Although all of the Chinese students have to take TOEFL, Test of English as a Foreign Language, before they go to American universities, they still cannot use English as well as a native speaker. Writing papers and academic documents is another difficulty to Chinese students. “Besides listening and speaking problems, academia papers also pose a problem especially for those students whose majors are in the humanities and social sciences” (Yan& Berliner, 2009). There are lots of unfamiliar vocabularies in a long paper for social science students and they have to read a large amount of books and resources, which takes a long time. However, not only the students who major in the humanities and social sciences have so many long papers to write. Those students majoring in engineering and nature science also have to describe their thoughts and experiments in academic words.

Chinese students have to improve their English using the appropriate way such as their school resource and local students. Hanging out and living together with other Chinese students instead of local students is a typical obstacle to improve English. I have a friend, Shuhan Chen, who has stayed in the U.S for 5 years can only use basic English. Communicating and talking English with American students is an important way to practice spoken English. Besides, some universities and professors do not offer appropriate ways to help Chinese students to practice their English. So, what should the international office do to help Chinese students? “The International Student Office should provide workshops and seminars that specifically focus on the differences between American and Chinese academic cultures” (Kun Yan&
David C. Berliner, 2009). So, what should Chinese students do in such a half-baked situation? Chinese students generally need more time to accommodate with American academic cultures before starting studies and to ask advisors for help whenever they meet a problem. Yubin He, a senior student who transferred to Ohio State University, told all his problems such as transferring credit and renting house to his advisor, and he got a great help from his advisor, which save him a large amount of time and energy. Advisors and universities will never know the problems and the troubles of Chinese students if nobody tells them. Lastly, Professors are the most important person to students in classes and studies. “American professors who work with Chinese international students might be encouraged to develop some knowledge of Chinese students’ special problems and needs so that they can be more attentive to Chinese students’ difficulties” (Lin, 1998). Sometimes Chinese students prefer to discuss with classmates rather than talk with the professor. However, it will be helpful if the professors support special knowledge for Chinese students’ needs.

To sum up this part, intending to practice English is necessary for new arriving Chinese students and they also need to use affluent resources from school,advisors,and professors maximally.


Finally, culture. Culture differences maybe the most constant and scabrous problem for all International students, especially Chinese student. Because China has a long history, and many cultures have been existed in thousands years which are being carved in every Chinese heart, students need more time to adapt the environment and accommodate the culture. Chinese students have totally different cultural ideas about study. Studies indicate that Chinese students are highly motivated to get achievement in the study. In Chinese traditional culture, being academically outstanding and the benefits of education and hard work are deeply rooted in every student. “Confucian philosophy job prospects and even more important as a means for building one’s character. Influenced by this philosophy, Chinese family values and socialization experiences emphasize the need to succeed educationally.” (Yan& Berliner, 2009) This kind of philosophy put Chinese students under too much pressure because it is not easy to be excellent in America higher education system for a foreign student. Zhang and Carrasquillo (1992) introduced that requirements and expectations of performance and upward mobility, guilt on the need to respect the sacrifice and duty of parents, respect for education and social compare with other Chinese family in terms of specific educational outcomes are all the values or practices in typical Chinese families.

Another way that culture restricted students to get involved in American universities is that Chinese students are not likely to search for help from their advisors and professors. “When asked the reason for Chinese students’ unwillingness to present problems to their advisors, most of the respondents attribute that characteristic to the Chinese culture. In China, those workers who express the fewest problems are valued more. They are seen as more intelligent and hardworking. Chinese students’ willingness to demonstrate their effort and devotion to work, however, has exactly the opposite effect on their supervisors.”(Yan& Berliner, 2009) Hard working on himself or herself is a common phenomenon showed in Chinese students. However, American universities not only underline individuals’ research, but also emphasize teamwork and cooperation.

In a word about culture, culture affection is in every corner around study and life, adapting and integrating into American culture is important for Chinese students who want to make more friends and get great success in study.


“Culture and education disparities between China and America, together with Chinese students’ language deficiencies contribute to their difficulty in having effective communications with American faculty members.” (Yan& Berliner, 2009) From what has been discussed above, a reasonable conclusion can be arrived is if a Chinese student wants to get succeed in American university, he or she has to face and concur many difficulties. If one keeps internal motivations, surmounts language chasms, and converts traditional Chinese cultural ideas to American thoughts, he or she would have a rich and colorful life in American universities. Overcoming problems mentioned above will be helpful for a Chinese student to study and live in America more smoothly.








Griner, J., & Sobol, A. (2014). Chinese Students’ Motivations for Studying Abroad. Global Studies Journal, 7(1), 2-14.

Yan, K., & Berliner, D. C. (2009). Chinese international student’s acdamic stressors in the United States. College Student Journal, 43(4), 939-960.

Wan, G. (2001). The Learning experience of Chinese students in American universities: A cross-cultural perspective. College Student Journal, 35(1), 28.

Zhang, S. Y. & Carrasquillo, A. L. (1992). Chinese-American students: A review of the literature. (Eric Document Reproduction Service No. Ed369682)


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114 thoughts on “Most difficult problems for Chinese students in American Universities

  1. What do you think high school students in China should do to prepare for study in America? What resources should they take advantage of in China? What resources aren’t available yet that you think would be useful for them to have?

    • I’m an American teacher who has been teaching in China for 5 years. I only teach students who will study abroad. The biggest focus for preparing them to study abroad is language. The must be able to listen to and understand lectures. They also need to speak well in order to interact (thus, enhancing their learning) in the classroom.

    • Be exposed to Western educational methods that supports individuality and CRITICAL THINKING. In China, a society that to this very day, still preaches absolute adherence to social norms and expectations, and uses an iron fist to repel any criticism that might endanger the status quo, you’re not likely to experience any practice in criticism thinking, devoid of any bias and mental conditioning, apart from a very few international schools with ludicrously high fees reserved for the wealthy elite.

      • As a Canadian student actually in China, I would say that most of what you said is definitely true. However, there are some precisions that I would like to bring up.

        China has a terrible record when it comes to critical thinking and personal development, this is true. However, this result is mostly fostered by the Chinese Ministry of Education because, due to the nature of the evaluations, it does not develop several creativity skills and it tends to hinder the capacity of self-expression. However, despite very bleak perspectives, some students are still able to manage to develop those skills but they tend to get weeded out by the most conformist elements.

  2. Hello,
    Thank you for writing this article. I appreciate the deconstruction of the main problems for a Chinese student — motivation, language, culture — which are enormous when combined! For those students how have learned to not only survive, but to thrive in a new country, they have earned more than just a degree. They are better at living!

    Are you still a student at Ohio State? I am particularly interested in seeing how these ongoing problems can be somehow addressed. As an educator and someone who is bi-cultural, I find these problems to be fascinating and a challenge that can be overcome.

    Feel free to email me if you’d like to continue this discussion. Maybe you have ideas.

    Thanks again,

    Grace Liaw

  3. Hello,
    I would like to share my knowledge and experience.
    My wife I have been hosting Chinese grad and undergrad students living with us in our home for the past nine years. My name is John and my wife is Christine. I am a retired skilled tradesman and Christine is a full time working medical professional, proof reader and English teacher and our daughter Jaclyn is married has two children and is a guidance counselor at a local high school.
    Our students usually arrive here at JFK Airport New York City and we are always there to pick them up, it is comforting for them to know we are there to greet them when they arrive.
    In our home we provide everything for the students, their own bedroom, bathroom, wi-fi, internet, tv, laundry and full use of our home. After work Christine always prepares a home cooked meal with help from everyone and we all sit at dinner table enjoy the meal and talk about our day.
    We also take the students out for fine dining on weekends. We also take them to family events, birthday parties, weddings, entertainment and cultural events every chance we get.
    We stress good hygiene, exercise and eating healthy. We have a basketball court, exercise equipment and table tennis at home to keep everybody fit. I teach the students physical things, the everyday things of keeping a home in order and Christine teaches them home skills like cooking. We both help with everyday English and terminology which improves there English very quickly.
    We are very much involved with the students and the local University. We encourage our students to mix with all cultures, participate in class, challenge the professors.
    What we offer goes above and beyond any accommodation. Our students have firsthand knowledge of the true economics of middle class America and return home with a passion, understanding and maturity and not just a paper degree.
    Feel free to contact us anytime, we are always here to help and have so much to contribute there is not enough room on one sheet of paper.
    Best wishes everyone, John and Christine.

  4. Very interesting article! I’m an American teaching in Beijing at Renmin University and this helps me understand the challenges of Chinese students studying abroad. Thanks!

  5. As a Chinese student I found many resources on campus. I also took advantage of online communities for assistance and sites like for course help. I’ve been successful in my studies and grateful for my experience in this wonderful country.

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