Why Chinese students in America should care about how they – and China – are perceived

In 1949, I resolved to travel to the United States to study. A childhood fondness for Hollywood movies and a fascination with Western culture helped spark this decision. While I was focused on how the US would live up to my imagination, the Ministry of Education reminded me that I would not just be representing myself abroad, but also the Republic of China.

I was instructed to behave as a model student and not allow China to lose face. After making this assurance, and fulfilling numerous other requirements, I was finally cleared to travel to the US. 

At this time, I was one of a small number of Chinese students studying in America. Altogether, there were 1,500 to 2,000 Chinese studying throughout the United States. The Chinese embassy was able to keep track of every student and monitor their behaviour, understanding that it could affect how Americans perceived China.

I was one of the last students from the Republic of China to travel from the mainland to the US in 1949; when the People’s Republic was founded, such educational ties between the mainland and the US stopped. After the end of the Korean war, students from Taiwan, where the Republic of China government now resided, began going to the US. These students were similarly instructed in their behaviour and well behaved. Relations between Chinese students and Americans were largely positive.