A Gap Between Chinese International Students And American-Born Chinese in Northwestern University

Increasing numbers of Chinese internationals are choosing to attend universities in the United States. As the international population grows, a gap between international Chinese students and American-born Chinese students on campuses becomes more noticeable. At Northwestern University, this divide is particularly evident between Chinese Students Association (CSA) and Chinese International Students Association (CISA). There is little interaction between the two groups and between the two subcultures in general. This study aims to understand the underlying reasons for this polarization specifically at Northwestern University.

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Complicating the issue is the fact that most students are not purely international nor purely American-born, but somewhere in between. Many international Chinese students at Northwestern had some experiences in the United States or other English-speaking countries before attending Northwestern, or they attended international schools in which English was the main language. Similarly, many American-born Chinese students have often spent some time in China and grew up with traditional Chinese parents, becoming semi-fluent or fluent in Chinese. To say a complete dichotomy exists would be exaggerating, but for simplicity’s sake, we will refer to these two camps as international Chinese and American-born Chinese.

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Methods and Ethics

Several qualitative research methods were employed in this study. First, fifty-minute unstructured interviews were held, one with an international Chinese student and another with an American-born Chinese student. These respondents were chosen based on their leadership status in the Asian community and wide range of experience. Second, two hour-long life history interviews were held with a Chinese professor at Northwestern University. This respondent was selected for her cultural experiences immigrating to the United States as a graduate student. Finally, a ninety-minute focus group was held with five students who volunteered to participate.


The main reasons for the separation seem to be culture and language. Interestingly, the American-born Chinese student interviewed, age 21, thought the language barrier was the greatest difficulty for international students to surmount. Her reasoning was international students are not sure what to say around native English speakers, so they feel left out of the conversation and eventually stop making contact altogether, preferring to converse in Chinese with people from similar backgrounds (4/23/14). On the other hand, the international Chinese student interviewed, age 22, stated cultural differences were the greatest barrier for him (4/24/14). The food, music, and sports, among other topics, were different in China. Coming to America, he found it difficult to know what to talk about. He could bring up a musician famous in China, but an American-born Chinese person may not know or care about that person. The language barrier, he said, was not too bad because international students have to pass rigorous English exams before being allowed to attend Northwestern University (4/24/14). Similarly, in the first interviewee with my life history respondent, age ~38, she mentioned she had no problems with conversing in English but found it difficult to relate to the American culture, which emphasizes false positivity and individualism – two qualities not seen often in China (5/1/14).

Student groups may be important in facilitating polarization between the two camps. The international interviewee said when international Chinese students are first accepted into Northwestern, they are contacted by members of CISA, who help answer their questions and alleviate the usual fears of incoming students (4/24/14). When these students first arrive on campus, they naturally gravitate towards those who have already reached out to support them. They start hanging out with older students and in this way, they are funneled into the CISA community. This kind of support network is great for incoming students to have, especially those who may be arriving in a new country, but it tends to limit their social options. For example, my international respondent said incoming freshmen may choose to room with each other rather than go random and possibly get an American roommate (4/24/14). They make the safe choice, forgoing the prospect of an enriching relationship with someone of a different background. Whereas many freshmen are very open to new experiences in college, this kind of support network serves to reduce the open minds of incoming freshmen.

Interestingly, both of the interviewees and four out of thefive focus group participants said they have many friends of the other group and try not to confine their social interactions to only those within their student groups or subculture.However, keeping in touch with friends from another culture is difficult. For example, respondent A in the focus group, age 21, described a time when she asked her international friends to speak English in front of her Chicagoan roommate so as to not exclude her roommate from the conversation. Her friends thought that request was strange and confronted her about it later. We’re Chinese – why shouldn’t we be allowed to speak our native tongue, they argued (5/9/14). This experience highlights one of the many obstacles students encounter when attempting to bridge the cultural gap.

The focus group also discussed how the social aspect of student groups facilitate group differences (5/9/14).As student groups hold more social events and fewer cultural events, respondent C, age 21, argued, participants in the events become increasing limited to those involved in the student group, excluding outsiders. Respondent A, also age 21, added to this point, stating, “You wouldn’t just go out to sing karaoke with a bunch of people you don’t know, right?” (5/9/14) It seems the cultural aspect of these cultural student groups are being lost in favor of fun events that promote intragroup bonding rather than inclusiveness.


The interviewees and focus group participants in this study shed much light on the roots of the gap between international Chinese students and American-born Chinese students. The causes involve both language and culture, and student groups play a large role in widening the barriers. Individual efforts to make friends with those of a different culture are difficult to maintain. Student group bonding is important, but student groups may want to hold more inclusive events to bring together the Northwestern community.


As a freshman arriving at Northwestern, I had hoped to make friends with various groups of people. I had come from a predominantly white school and neighborhood and had few interactions with other cultures. The first student group I joined was Chinese Students Association, and I became very close to many members of that group. We held numerous internal bonding events I loved attending. At first, I did not realize my social interactions had become limited to mostly CSA people. I knew some acquaintances from my PA group and my residential college, but my main social circle consisted of American-born Chinese students like me.

In general, the Asian community is very fragmented by culture and student group. The Korean Americans hang out with each other, the Korean internationals never talk to anyone who is not also a Korean international, the Chinese Americans have very little interaction with Chinese internationals, etc. This divisiveness is acknowledged by members of the Asian community, but it is rarely discussed. Essentially, it seems to be a taboo issue for most people. However, because it is brought up from time to time, I know many others like me are interested in talking about it.

I chose this topic as the focus of my research this quarter because I wanted to understand the underlying causes behind the fragmentation of the Asian community. I narrowed my focus to Chinese internationals and American-born Chinese because they are the groups I was most familiar with. In reality, the divide between Korean Americans and Korean internationals is much more serious, but I did not think I knew enough Koreans to be able to conduct a research study. A lesser reason I chose this topic was because I was fairly certain recruiting participants would be easy. I was well-connected within the Chinese community, and I was confident the issue was controversial enough that people would be eager to participate as interviewees and focus group participants. Indeed, this was the case. My recruiting went smoothly, and there were no major difficulties in making all my interviews and focus group happen.

Being within the community I am researching lends itself to a high degree of bias. I understand my research this quarter and my conclusions in this paper are largely a product of my own interests. That being said, I tried to remain as neutral as possible. I intentionally chose participants from both spheres, the international one and the American-born one. My questions were fairly open-ended and allowed the participants to speak their mind without being too influenced by my questions. What I could have improved on is asking questions about cases of cultural cooperation as well as cases of cultural fragmentation. I suspect the data I would have received from these questions would be highly useful as well and may contribute to a less one-sided discussion of the issue.

My paper focused mostly on what causes the gap between Chinese international students and American-born Chinese students. That was the most conducive framework for discussing the data I obtained. I could have addressed several instances of cultural cohesion, but those incidents were sparse in my data and would have made the issue appear more balanced than it is. More interviews with students, especially older students who have seen the Asian community grow for several years, would help in this aspect.

Overall, the results of this study apply only to Northwestern University. Other campuses may experience similar issues but with entirely different reasons. It would very interesting to study this subcultural divide at other universities, especially those with a larger Asian population.

Works cited

  1. Chen, D. (2015). International student migration and social stratification in China. International Journal of Educational Development, 44, 63-71.
  2. Fang, Y., & Wei, W. (2018). International student mobility from China: trends, opportunities, and challenges. Journal of International Students, 8(2), 651-671.
  3. Guo, S. (2019). The formation of Chinese American identity: a study of second-generation Chinese American college students. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 10(1), 59-70.
  4. Ha, L., & Wood, J. L. (2019). US higher education institutions and international student recruitment in East Asia: policy and practice. Higher Education Policy, 32(3), 397-418.
  5. Jia, X., & Tian, Y. (2019). Chinese students’ integration experiences at a US university: insights from their perceived academic and social supports. Journal of International Students, 9(4), 1005-1027.
  6. Li, Q. (2018). Campus politics in China and the United States: a comparative analysis of Chinese Students and Scholars Associations and student governments. Journal of Chinese Political Science, 23(1), 1-17.
  7. Li, S., Gao, S., Zhang, J., Liu, X., & Zhao, Y. (2021). Chinese international students’ experiences of friendship development in the United States. Journal of International Students, 11(1), 163-186.
  8. Luo, Y., Wang, M., & Yang, B. (2017). The influence of Confucianism on Chinese students' learning behavior: a perspective from social-cultural psychology. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 2123.
  9. Peng, J. (2017). Understanding Chinese international students’ social interaction patterns and integration experiences in US higher education. Higher Education, 74(5), 859-874.
  10. Zhang, X., Li, L., Li, Q., & Shi, X. (2020). Chinese international students’ experiences of identity change in US universities: a qualitative study. Journal of International Students, 10(3), 721-745.
Updated: Feb 23, 2024
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A Gap Between Chinese International Students And American-Born Chinese in Northwestern University. (2024, Feb 23). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-gap-between-chinese-international-students-and-american-born-chinese-in-northwestern-university-essay

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