Car wars: Luxury wheels common sight among Penn State’s Chinese students

A yellow BMW is one of many luxury cars parked at The Heights.
A yellow BMW is one of many luxury cars parked at The Heights. For the CDT

A bright-green Lamborghini, a Bentley Continental GT priced at over $200,000, a hot-shot yellow Ferrari — these have become symbols representing Chinese students at Penn State.

“There are a lot of nice cars at Penn State, and most of them are driven by Chinese students,” said Yihan Xia, a junior from Beijing who is studying finance.

He owns a white Mercedes GLK350 that he said is worth $53,000. Other Chinese students would consider his vehicle a midlevel car, he said.

Not all of Penn State’s 2,400 Chinese students come from wealthy families and own nice cars. Rose Lee-Yong Tan, coordinator of Asian engagements at the University Office of Global Programs, noted that using cars to make a bold statement is a trend among only a few.

Tan described students with expensive cars as “the wealthy second generation,” a culture that has grown out of China’s recent rising affluence. Many, if not most, of Penn State’s Chinese students do not have cars, she said.

And driving high-priced cars is not unique to Penn State students.

In December 2013, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that CNW Marketing Research found that Chinese students in the U.S. purchased about $15.5 billion in new and used cars between January 2012 and October 2013, while a comparable group of American students spent about $4.7 billion on vehicles in that time.

The automotive marketing research firm also found that Chinese students who bought new cars spent an average of almost $53,000, with 32 percent paying cash, the magazine reported. The group of American students surveyed spent an average of $19,000 on a new car, with fewer than 5 percent paying cash.

Many of the Penn State Chinese students interviewed for this story said their cars play an important role in their social life.

“Americans don’t pay attention to what cars they drive and the clothes they wear,” Xia said. “But Chinese students want to prove that they are attractive by having fantastic cars and wearing fantastic clothes.”

“If you don’t drive a nice car, people might think you are poor and not easy to communicate with,” Xia added. “If you have a nice car, you can become friends.”

“If we can afford to come to Penn State, it means our families are not poor,” student Nan Xu said.

Xia and Xu are members of the Chinese Undergraduate Student Association, the largest Chinese undergraduate student group at Penn State. Each semester it hosts a car show for current and prospective members where students can showcase their vehicles, club President Yongchen Liu said.

State College Motors sponsors the association, Liu said, and as part of these shows it brings groups of Chinese students to its showrooms. The company sells Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Volkswagen and Nissan cars.

There, the students enjoy free sushi, authentic Chinese bubble tea and other food and drinks set up in a buffet while they browse for cars, Liu said.

Members and prospective members who purchase a car on that day get a discount from State College Motors, he said, and members are eligible for the discount any time, as long as they present their membership cards. He estimated the discount at about $1,000.

Jeff Irwin, vice president of State College Motors, said the company had no comment.

Not all car-buying is done locally. Jingyi Li, who is Liu’s girlfriend, shopped online and bought her new Range Rover Evoque — with a starting price of about $41,000 — from a dealership in Pittsburgh.

When students like Li eventually sell their cars after graduation and return to China, the student association has a page on WeChat, the Chinese social-media platform similar to Facebook, where students can advertise and sell their cars to incoming Chinese students.

Many of the incoming students don’t own cars back in China, said Xiayang “Sunny” Lin, a graduate student. There are several reasons.

In China, the driving age is 18, but because air pollution is so bad, the government requires that people wait longer to get their licenses and drive only on certain days, said Yichun “Cherry” Tang, who is having a friend teach her to drive.

When she gets her license, she hopes her parents will buy her an SUV to keep at her apartment at The Heights.

China also imposes heavy taxes on imported cars, and import dealerships are known for high prices, especially for luxury brands, according to the International Business Times and other publications that follow Chinese business. As a result, U.S. prices for the same cars are a bargain by comparison.

Many students interviewed said their nation’s single-child policy also has played a role in why Chinese students buy cars once they arrive at Penn State.

For more than four decades, China has prohibited families from having more than one child, with some exceptions. That policy has been relaxed only recently.

According to research by Xuefeng Chen in the Harvard Asia Pacific Review, 90 percent of urban children in China and 60 percent of its rural children have no siblings. In his research, Chen said the single-child policy has created a different generation in that country.

Some parents see money as the only way to connect with their children who are studying thousands of miles away, said Lin, who is an only child but doesn’t have a car.

Lin said that parents are more inclined to spoil their child when they have only one and that parents are able to spend more when supporting only one.

Nan Xu spoke from a perceived perspective of her parents, who live in Shanghai, when she said, “I can’t give you love because I’m not around you, so all I can give you is money.”

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