Yangwentao Fang, junior in Engineering, has spent the last four years in the United States.
He had dreamed of visiting the U.S. since middle school, and when his high school in Hunan, China, offered a foreign exchange program for his senior year, Fang jumped at the opportunity. During his first year spent in Tucson, Arizona, he began searching for colleges with the best engineering programs and, eventually, landed at the University.
“I wasn’t nervous because I was really, really excited,” he said. “I didn’t see anything (as) scary because I was ready for new things.”
While Fang had been in the U.S. before the start of college, other Chinese students come to the U.S. for the first time as University students. In fact, Chinese students make up half of the total international student population — approximately 22 percent of the total student body. But Fang believes the number of Chinese international students on campus is a means of both comfort and hindrance for those students.
“Chinese students want to adjust to the American way and engage in American activities,” he said. “But it’s hard for them to find the opportunity because most of them are afraid to talk to Americans and don’t know what they would talk about.”
The University has brought in a large amount of international students in recent years, in light of cuts to state funding. Tuition for international students ranges from $31,626 to $38,764, which is considerably higher than Illinois residents’ tuition range of $15,636 to $20,640 in the 2015-2016 school year. Over the past decade, many universities have opened admission offices in China, as exemplified by the University’s Shanghai office opening in December 2013. This past year, approximately 600 Chinese students were admitted, making up 10 percent of the Class of 2018.
A major factor that contributes to feeling comfortable in America, according to Fang, is the notion that foreigners are often more in tune with American culture than U.S. residents are with other countries.
Fang listed watching American news stations and shows, such as “House of Cards” and “Game of Thrones,” as ways that allowed him to learn about English and American culture quickly, while also providing him with topics of conversation with his American friends.
However, Fang said that he came to school in America in order to learn about the culture, not to continue his Chinese one.
Even though it’s been over four years since he came to the U.S., Fang said there are significant cultural differences between the two countries that he still isn’t fully used to, including food, social scenes and American perceptions and thought processes.
“Americans think certain things are funny that Chinese people don’t,” Fang said. “They also like parties, and it is not in Chinese culture to have parties unless they are for big celebrations.”
Haoyu Wang, freshman in DGS, first came to America in August. Without having been here for even a year, he said he understands parties are a significant aspect of American culture, specifically on a college campus.
“I think American culture is different because there’s lots of activities to do and lots of parties. … I had never done that before,” Wang said. “Traditions like Unofficial — those are interesting.”
Although he did not participate in Unofficial activities, Wang said the culture is much more social, in general, than Chinese culture, which has allowed him to meet many different types of people during his time in the U.S.
According to Fang, Chinese people are also notorious introverts, occasionally making it difficult to branch out from one another in strictly social settings.
But for dining, campus boasts a wide selection of authentic Asian restaurants; Fang said he frequents Cravings each week. Fang added that the American intake of cheese is overwhelming to him and other Chinese students, as most of them are lactose-intolerant because cheese is rarely used in Chinese dishes. But he does admit to loving Mexican food and deep-dish pizza.
Despite the cultural differences, Fang said he’s been able to adjust to the American and campus way of life due to the support system on campus.
“It’s easy in my department because there are a lot of Chinese students, so I spend all day speaking Chinese,” he said. “I came to America to experience the American life; I can speak Chinese at home. I’d like to see more students from other parts of the world.”
Yeye Zheng, freshman in DGS, said she takes comfort in the fact that she is able to speak Chinese during the day.
“I think it’s good to be with people from the same country,” she said, “Because it’s sometimes easier to communicate.”
But she and Fang also like to go beyond their comfort zones — Fang has been able to expand his friend group by joining the Flippin’ Illini Gymnastics Club, a registered student organization, He said he is proud to be the only Chinese student in the group.
“It’s party first, and gymnastics second,” he joked.
Through the club and its social aspects, Fang has become more adjusted to the American way of life by surrounding himself with people he isn’t normally exposed to. Now, he has a group of Chinese friends and a group of American friends.
“My Chinese friends like to go out for Chinese meals and then study, or go into the city because they have cars,” Fang said. “My American friends would rather sit and hang out in the apartment, and I like that better.”
He credits his American friend group with why he feels he is an integrated member of the Illini community.
Wang, Zheng and Fang will each stay in the U.S. for spring break due to the amount of time and money it costs to return to home. They each said they hope to stay for the summer, as well, and take on engineering internships.
Fang admits he does not miss his family too much, except during important holidays.
“I wasn’t able to celebrate the Chinese New Year this year because I had two exams,” he said. “My family was at a festival, and that was hard.”
Once he was finished with his exams, he celebrated the success and the New Year by eating dumplings and watching his favorite Chinese TV shows on YouTube.
Despite wanting to be surrounded by a different culture, Fang occasionally finds reasons to appreciate the means of comfort that is always necessary when being in a foreign place.