Many of Penn State’s 2,400 Chinese students spend much of their time together. As a result, others have just a peephole view into the lives of the group that dominates the campus’s international student population.
“All they see is that we wear nice clothes and drive expensive cars,” said Nan Xu, a Chinese student with light purple hair cropped just above her shoulders.
In conversations with more than 10 Chinese students, all of them agreed that their culture, the places they frequent, and where they live have nursed misunderstandings between them and non-Chinese students.
They are noticed because they are 37 percent of the nearly 6,600 international students at University Park and just more than 5 percent of the entire student body.
NiaoNiao Ma, a sophomore from Beijing who plans to major in supply chain management, appeared the fashion connoisseur when she wore a flat-brimmed hat and trendy sneakers to meet with a reporter. She said her well-dressed, coordinated fashion sense had made it hard for her to identify with her American roommates in her freshman year in East Halls.
“One day I remember that I wore a pair of heels to pick up a package, and my roommates asked me if I had a date or a party,” Ma said.
The flamboyant colors, fashionable accessories and high heels are related to the Korean wave of pop music that influences China and surrounding countries as well as the enclaves of foreign students studying in the U.S., said Emma Monaghan, an American Penn State student who grew up partly in China.
Everyday fashion is more formal in China, Ma agreed. Even dating is more formal, some Chinese students said.
A new, hot-to-trot generation has sprung from China’s modernization and rising affluence, opening students to influences like Korean pop music and the prospect of studying in America.
Xin Liu said his generation’s parents didn’t have televisions when they were young. Few had studied abroad.
“We are more ambitious — our generation. We want to do something on our own,” Ma said.
Many of these students said they have a hard time relating to their parents’ hopes of having their children return and marry into a good family.
However, the opportunities for Chinese students abroad are undisputed, even by parents, all the students said.
Most of the Chinese students interviewed said that because Chinese universities are relatively inexpensive compared with American universities, the number of citizens with degrees far exceeds the jobs available.
Rose Lee-Yong Tan, coordinator of Asian engagements at Penn State’s University Office of Global Programs, said that if students aren’t accepted into the Chinese equivalent of Harvard or other top-notch schools, a degree from a lesser Chinese university will not further their careers.
Thus, many Chinese students look to the United States and to schools like Penn State.
But the nearly 7,000 miles between Beijing, where many are from, and State College isn’t just a geographical distance. It’s also an indication of the large social space between the lifestyles of Chinese and American students.
“Often Chinese students are perceived as being uninterested or not very enthusiastic, but it is because of deep-rooted cultural values that they have lived in all of their lives,” Tan said.
Communication differences are just one reason Chinese students bond more closely with one another.
“Something is funny to us but it is not funny to Americans, and vice versa,” said Yue Yu. “And our childhoods are different, so the cartoons we joke about are different.”
Chinese students are considered not communicative, Tan said, but it is because they have a more indirect communication style.
Many of the students interviewed also said it is lonely living so far from home, so getting together with students in the same boat alleviates the homesickness.
The feeling is nothing new to three interviewed students who attended high schools in America where each was the only Chinese student.
“It was sometimes very lonely,” Jingyi Li said. After being the only Chinese student at high schools she attended in Texas and Washington, she chose Penn State after hearing about its strong Chinese community.
In China, newly accepted Penn State students can meet and ease the cultural transition by going to summer orientation sessions put on in the country’s largest cities by the Office of Global Programs at Penn State, in partnership with the Chinese Student and Scholars Association.
Yichun “Cherry” Tang, a freshman from Shanghai who intends to major in communications, said she met her now-best friend through such a session.
Social media also has a role in bringing Chinese students together. Penn State’s Chinese Undergraduate Student Association, with more than 500 students on its Facebook page, invites students who are accepted to Penn State to a WeChat group so they can get to know one another before coming to America.
WeChat is a mobile text and voice application developed in China that is its dominant social media platform. Many Chinese students use WeChat instead of Facebook.
Yu said Penn State’s WeChat group for incoming freshmen has more than 100 members. She met her best friend through the chat.
The student association’s weekly Thursday meetings are a place for Chinese students to hang out with one another. However, Tan said she has noticed a growing number of Chinese students immersing themselves in American culture.
Xin Liu is one. “I am so curious about everything, so I would just talk to random people,” said Liu, who speaks with enthusiasm about coming to America and going to fraternity parties with the friends he met in his dorm. “This is new, everything is new.”
When the sun sets and Chinese friends do spend time together, it is karaoke — not the typical American bar scene — that rules.
Icy Snow KTV’s blue sign hangs above an arm's-length space beside the Dunkin’ Donuts at 204 W. College Ave., and leads to an underground BYOB karaoke lounge catering mostly to Chinese students, who rent the lounge’s private karaoke rooms.
Karaoke is popular throughout China. For example, Li, a sophomore studying marketing, said she started doing karaoke with her friends in middle school in Shanghai.
When it comes to dinnertime, most Chinese students prefer cuisine that tastes like home. Peisen Qin likes it more than his occasional splurges at steakhouses. The best food, he said, is made by his girlfriend, who is also from China.
All of the Chinese students interviewed said eating dinner at friends’ houses is common among Chinese students. Li said if the rooms are booked at Icy Snow, her friends will cook dinner together instead.
Another favorite meeting spot is Tea Time, a Chinese-operated cafe hidden behind an awning on McAllister Alley that draws mostly Chinese patrons. The staff uses high-tech mixing equipment to create authentic Chinese bubble teas.
On a Monday afternoon Qin ordered the passion fruit tea with lychee jellies at the bottom. He takes his with extra sugar.
On another weekday afternoon, Nan Xu, wearing a sweatshirt, casually met two groups of other Chinese students there.
“Xie xie,” she said, thanking the Chinese barista for bringing her cold, lime-green tea to her table.
On weekends, some Chinese students, without obligations to Thon, Greek life or other activities, take road trips.
Yu, who said she came to America to “broaden her horizons,” and her Chinese friends play paintball near Altoona, ride coasters at Hersheypark or hit the ski slopes.
Many male students pass the time playing basketball instead of football, Qin and other Chinese students said.
The Chinese students association is just starting to participate in Thon, but many Chinese students don’t participate in other Thon groups because of a lack of understanding.
“I didn’t know what Thon was until I joined a sorority, and they told me what it was,” said Xu, who also works at Icy Snow and is a member of a sorority for Asian students.
While many students in Greek life live with their sorority or fraternity, Xu lives at The Heights, a new complex of townhouses for students on Blue Course Drive.
Many Chinese students have made housing communities away from downtown, like The Heights, The Pointe and Copper Beech their home away from home.
Of 11 Chinese students asked, nine live in housing more than a mile from campus. Eight live at The Heights and a ninth is moving there in the fall.
Yu said she chose to sign a lease at The Heights to be closer to her friends. The house across from me — my friends. The house to the left — my friends. The house to the right — my friends,” she said.
Space is usually more expensive downtown and roommates often share rooms in apartments there.
At The Heights, three students can lease a three-floor townhouse with three bedrooms — each with a bathroom and walk-in closet — a powder room, washer and dryer for $650 a month per student.
“If we can afford it, we like to have our own space,” Yu said. “We all have our own schedule and it’s hard to adjust for one another.”
Yihan Xia, a junior from Beijing who is studying finance, didn’t always live at The Heights. He once accidentally roomed with an American student. Different mentalities on personal space made it hard for him to live comfortably with his roommate, he said.
“What is more important in Chinese culture is the individual’s obligation to the other,” Tan said.
Although differences in diet, housing preferences and hang-out spots still motivate students to stick with others of similar backgrounds, the Chinese community encourages Chinese students to branch out.
“It really depends on both sides,” said Xu, who is far from shy and had many American friends at the high school she attended in Texas. “Both Americans and Chinese students have to want to be friends.”