Crossing the Divide

Published on October 14, 2015

My Chinese parents came to America to raise a Chinese baby. Silly parents. The moment I was born in Englewood Hospital and Medical Center, a doctor held me by the ankle and dunked me into the melting pot. America was the midwife. I was Chinese hyphen American, with the name Karen, not Yingzi, seared onto my birth certificate.

When my cousin from Beijing came to visit, I saw myself in her. Same black hair with little flyaways at the part. Our eyelids curved the same way downward. She was around the same age as I was. But we weren’t twins, because there was something alien to her in the continental way I said “hello” and to me in the way she didn’t. She did not grow up in John Winthrop’s city upon a hill. To me, her identity was as much the absence of America as it was the presence of Asia. I was probably the same to her: an absence of one, presence of another.

At Columbia, there are Korean Americans and Chinese Americans. There are also Korean internationals and Chinese internationals, the largest groups of international students from East Asia on campus. According to a 2013 report by Columbia’s International Students and Scholars Office, 2,849 Chinese students and 537 Korean students attended Columbia.

“The divide between Asian internationals and Asian Americans is huge,” says Jamie Song, a junior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and an international student from Seoul, South Korea. Song, who is president of the Korean Students Association, agreed to speak with the understanding that her views do not reflect those of her organization.

Columbia College junior Anna Fu, a Chinese American from New York who is president of the Asian American Alliance and agreed to speak under the same condition, says, “I honestly don’t even see Asian internationals that often. I never really have opportunities to see them.”

The Asian-American and Asian international students who enter Columbia’s gates come from worlds as ideologically distinct as they are physically distant. On campus, the two groups represent different cultures and move in separate spheres.

The ocean between them comes down to one fundamental difference: their definition of the American college experience.

The view from East Asia

On a summer morning in 2012, Cherry Zhang, a Columbia College junior, was at an SAT prep class in her home city of Changsha, China. Changsha’s summers are long and hot and full of rain, and the sun hung high outside the classroom window. The class lasted from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., every day for an entire month. Every two days, she’d take a mock SAT test.

“This was considered intense,” Zhang says, “but SAT prep is normal in China for people who want to go abroad for college.”

SAT prep classes can cost thousands of dollars for Chinese students. New Oriental, China’s largest and most popular college consulting agency, offers test prep classes costing from $1,000 to $12,000.  By comparison, the Princeton Review’s most expensive course costs $1,599.

It doesn’t end with SAT prep. The total cost of a Chinese student’s college application can equal up to one year’s worth of private college tuition, around $60,000. This includes the immense cost of testing: China’s only SAT testing site is in Hong Kong, so if a student from, say, the northern city of Harbin has dreams of studying abroad, they must buy a plane ticket, fly 1,800 miles south, and book a hotel room for a night or two.  

The price tag also includes the cost of services from college consulting agencies—sleek, behemoth machines that have utterly commercialized the application process for students across the country. Like travel agencies selling three- or five-night bundles for vacations at a tropical resort, some college consulting agencies offer “package deals” for the number of universities to which a student would like help applying. A six-school package, for example, comes with a bundle discount that isn’t available with a four-school package.

“The market is highly developed,” Coco Weng, a Columbia College junior, says. Weng herself paid $5,000 to an agency in order to apply to just two schools.

Taurus Education, one of Shanghai’s biggest agencies, can cost up to $50,000 for its full services, which includes providing SAT boot camp, devising a prospective college list, editing essays, choosing what activities to reference in the application, booking college tours, filling out visa documents, and more. The most premium services essentially apply for college on behalf of students.

“They assess you and decide what colleges you should apply to,” Weng says. “The agency makes a list, and the parents approve it.”

Why is it so appealing for an agency to take care of everything for you?

“A lot of Chinese students get confused about applications, particularly if they’ve never studied abroad before,” Weng explains. Plus, all the time freed up by an agency can go into studying more for the SAT.

That time can also be used for college tours, another costly expense. Some students opt to visit U.S. colleges on their own, like Zhang, who toured both the West and East Coast for two weeks with her father before flying back to China.

Other students use the agencies, some of which have varying “levels” of tours. Based on students’ scores and academic profiles, an agency estimates what colleges they are likely to attend and sends them on the corresponding tour. Like platinum, gold, or silver members of a travel agency, some students will go on an Ivy tour, while others a tour that only visits state schools.

A thousand miles away from Changsha where Zhang attended her SAT lessons, Song was going through a similar experience in Seoul. Late at night in the city, certain streets become packed from the second rush hour. The first rush hour, around 7 p.m., happens when everyone gets out of work. The second one, around 11 p.m., happens when everyone gets out of hagwons, or after-school schools.

“The education system in Korea is really competitive,” Song says. “We have hagwons for everything. We have hagwons for like, soccer.”

“And everyone goes to college—it’s not even a question.”

But for students applying for colleges abroad, the game gets even harder, especially with the intensity of college consulting agencies.

“Everyone around me was applying to over 10 schools,” Song adds. “The goal is just to get in somewhere. You don’t think about what exactly you want in a college.”

South Korea also has a market for college counseling agencies. Just like the ones in China, they help students research schools, write essays, and book interviews, among a myriad of other services. Real SAT, one of Seoul’s top agencies, charges $15,000 for essay consulting and another $15,000 for SAT prep.

Ephraim Park, a SEAS senior and vice president of Korean International Students at Columbia, sat in an SAT prep course at a hagwon for a full summer. Classes lasted four hours a day, every day, and included homework.

“We had to memorize 100 SAT vocabulary words a day, and they’d test us,” Park says. “The class was definitely a full-time thing.”

Some students use a college consulting agency’s services before they even attend high school. At 14 years old, they’ll walk into a consultant’s office. The consultant will give them the specifics of exactly what kind of person a particular school would like. If one top-ranking school prioritizes fencers, for example, then that young student’s parents would enroll them in fencing.

Their lives for the next four years are groomed for the admissions process.

‘Don’t even bother to apply’

How is this decadent, myopic competitiveness a cultural norm? Well, let’s rewind.

Over 1,000 years ago, students across China and Korea sat at rows upon rows of desks for imperial exams, a civil service examination system that paved the way for young scholars to become elected as government officials.

“The exams became a source of reputation and respect,” Weng says. To achieve top scores meant acquiring a prestigious bureaucratic position and reaching success. Though election via exams was considered a revolutionary way to ensure that the most qualified (rather than the richest) students succeeded, it also became the historical basis for a society that sees academic competition as the way to prestige and power.

The past reaches across the centuries with a ghostly hand. It taps on the hunched shoulder of a present-day student, head bent over the SAT.

Last year, according to a Forbes article titled The Chinese Are Willing To Pay $60,000 For A College Application, over 40,000 Asian international applicants sat in rows and rows of desks at SAT testing sites that echoed the drafty rooms for civil service exams. The outer sides of their writing hands shone with graphite from resting on their test booklets’ penciled-in bubbles. Occasionally, they looked up and cast their eyes around. Maybe something drew their gaze west.

A lot rode on that test. The competition is manic: In the past decade, the number of international students studying in the U.S. has increased by at least 50 percent. Students applying abroad aren’t your typical Asian teenagers. Their parents collectively paid over $18 billion on college prep. They’ll settle only for the best score possible for their children—Li Taibo, a Beijing applicant with a 2240 SAT score and stellar extracurriculars, was famously turned away by all 11 schools he applied to in 2011.

“In fact, if you don’t get over 2300,” Song says, “don’t even bother to apply.”

For international students, it can feel like a privilege to go to college in the U.S. Out of tens of thousands of classmates taking the SAT, only they were ultimately able to cross the Pacific. It feels like a precarious position to be in—a visa can be revoked in the blink of an eye.

“Visa issues are probably the biggest problems that distinguish internationals,” says Columbia College junior Julie Moon, an international student from Busan, South Korea. “When I think about getting a job in the U.S., I realize I have to prove to employers I deserve to be here. Only then they’ll grant me a visa.”

“We are under a different kind of pressure than Asian Americans—more, I think,” Song says.

An international student’s presence here is the result of a long and costly investment. There’s pressure to make a return on that investment, not to squander it. There’s an idea that they’re holding a precious, golden ticket.

This reflects how many international students I interviewed see college: a means to an end, not an end to a means.

“Everyone is using it to get to a career,” Tracy Shen, a Columbia College junior and an Chinese international student, says.

“In China, kids who go to the Ivy League are seen as not just smart, but awesome,” Weng says. “In every possible way. Not just academically, but even morally.” If achievement is a sign of virtue, then what does failing to reach achievement mean?

Model minority myth

The curse of achievement manifests itself further for Asian Americans. “There are issues that disproportionately affect Asian Americans. The biggest is the model minority myth,” Fu says.

Asian Americans are seen as the “successful” racial minority in the U.S. Just last week, the New York Times published an incendiary column titled “The Asian Advantage,” which fleshed out scholastic advantages that Asians supposedly have. Such a generalized conception detracts from real issues that face some of the population, including discrimination in college admissions.  

This summer, Sara Harberson, a former Ivy League admissions dean, wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that racially stereotyping Asian Americans is “alive and well.” This came after 64 Asian-American advocacy groups filed a unified federal complaint against Harvard University in May. They accused the school of using a racial quota and discriminating against Asian Americans in admissions.

When I was filling out the Common Application as a high school senior, I paused at the section asking about my race.

“What if I just checked the ‘prefer not to say’ part?” I asked my friend, who is also Asian American.

“It won’t work. They can tell by our last names,” she said. Her voice was resigned. In the admissions process, we were compelled to efface our Asian identity. Long before Harberson revealed the truth to everyone else, we thought we were less welcome than others. In that moment, the word “Asian” clung to “American” like a stain that would not come off.

I did most, if not all, of my application on my own, but my parents closely monitored my prospective college list. Columbia College junior Vincent Song, a Chinese American from Illinois, also had parents who strongly influenced his college list. “I didn’t like it, but they’re the ones paying.”

Vincent Song wants to go into banking. When I ask why, he cites money as one reason, but not as part of the cartoonish dream of flashy cars and mansions surrounded by topiary. He’s thinking about the future.

“Once I get there,” he says, “life will be easier for my kids, too.”

SEAS junior William Yu, a Korean American from Maryland, gives the same reason almost word for word. He wants to be a doctor and claims a passion in science—his father is an engineer—but also has a similar foresight as Song. “Following a low-paying dream is not good for children I’d have in the future.”

Chinese Americans and Korean Americans are often the children of immigrants. My own parents traveled 6,800 miles from China to get to Englewood Hospital and Medical Center.

Daphne Chow, a Columbia College sophomore and a Chinese American from Boston, says it more eloquently than I: “As immigrants, my parents are like, ‘We went through all this shit. We don’t want our kids to go through the same shit.’”

This is the origin story of the so-called “tiger parent”—the hyper-vigilant, aggressive careerist who steers their children towards top-ranking schools. For many Asian Americans, the college admissions process is often the culmination of perhaps decades of work on their behalves. During the process, sometimes I felt my parents were applying to college alongside me.

A lot depended on that application, but not just in the way of competition statistics or test score data. My application was the final overture of a song that had been composed a long time ago.

Safe harbor

So there’s already a vast divide between students’ experiences before they even arrive at Columbia. But it would be absurd to say a divide manifests purely because one group takes the SAT a different way than the other. Is the invisible line on campus inherent to the differences between groups, or is it deliberately drawn?

The Korean-American and Chinese-American students I interviewed estimated that on average, 6 percent of their friends are international. As for international students, they estimated that 4 percent of their friends are Asian American on average. Why is there so little group-to-group mingling?

Though the Chinese Students Club welcomes all members of the Columbia community to join regardless of background, only one Chinese international student sits on its 13-member executive board and committee. Global China Connection puts forward the same welcome as CSC, but its executive board consists of only two Chinese-American students out of the 10 members.

A similar ratio exists among Korean interest clubs. Out of the 20 students on the Korean Students Association’s executive board, only five are international Korean students. Korean International Students at Columbia, a newly formed club currently aiming for recognition from the Activities Board at Columbia, is open to any member of the Columbia community who shares an interest in Korea. No Korean Americans serve on its executive board.

Sitting in on each club’s meetings, I noticed KSA and CSC both opened their discussions with campus events they were organizing. KSA discussed Pojangmacha, a Korean food festival on Low Plaza. CSC worked on Night Market, a Chinese cultural festival also on Low.

GCC, however, focused on carving out a space, socially if not culturally, for its club members: Board members spoke about its “family program,” which places new members in “family circles” led by upperclassmen designed to give younger students on campus a broader support network.

Despite some evident social segregation on campus between internationals and Asian Americans, it’s lazy and inaccurate to lump Chinese and Korean international students together as one amorphous body and Chinese and Korean Americans as another. This kind of generalizing and stereotyping is also dangerous. So what does a phrase such as “Chinese international community” even mean? What sets it apart from “Chinese Americans?”

“Chinese international students are really communal,” Weng says. Due to the population’s small size relative to the rest of the University, all international students have at least heard of each other or have a couple mutual friends.

“A lot of us are part of a big WeChat group,” Weng says. WeChat is a popular Chinese messaging app. “We use it to organize outings, like going out and eating hot pot on Sundays.”

The community is close-knit enough, in fact, for the students’ parents to also form a group on WeChat. It’s impossible to imagine a group chat for all the parents of Columbia’s Chinese Americans, whether hailing from San Francisco or Boston, to discuss (read: gossip about) their children’s lives at college. But about a hundred parents from Beijing to Shanghai share and comment on photos they’ve received from their kids to each other. One parent posts a photo of dinner at Ferris Booth Commons. They analyze the meal. Another parent texts their kid about it.

“They’ll know whose kids hang out with whose kids on campus,” Shen says. This is some Big Brother stuff, I tell her. She shrugs. “My mom actually gets concerned because I never appear in these photos.”

Shen never appears in the photos because not many of her friends are international students. An exception to the 4 percent stated earlier, she has more Asian-American friends than international friends. “It definitely has something to do with my major,” Shen says. She’s an English and film studies double major.

“I’m interested in books from the West, art from the West, movies from the West,” Shen says, adding that her international peers typically aren’t. “So my interests are hard to translate. Literally, because they’re in English, but also my passions just aren’t the same.”

When I speak with Park, a computer science major whose majority of friends are international Koreans, he tells me that he doesn’t watch American TV shows. “I don’t have a favorite U.S. sports team and I don’t know a lot about U.S. politics.”

“There’s a spectrum, I think,” Park adds, spreading his arms wide. He waves his left hand and laughs. “I’m at this extreme end of it,” the less Americanized side.

Many Korean international students are just as communal as Chinese students, with few degrees of separation between members of their community.

“We end up knowing people from the same hagwons or international schools,” Park says. “It’s not just like this at Columbia. So if I met a Korean international student at Carnegie Mellon [University], I’ll ask him if he knows so-and-so. And we’ll have lots of mutual friends.”

In the summer, Korean international students back from abroad crowd certain bars in Seoul. Some will host open events inviting any students who study in the U.S. during the year and live in the area.

Shen, then, is at the other end of this gradient of Americanization for internationals—as is Moon, who lives in South Korea but grew up in Massachusetts.

“Sometimes when I see groups of people speaking Korean, I want to join them,” Moon says. “But I don’t, because I fear they’re not as Americanized as me, so we have less to relate to one another.”

Can we cross the sea?

When I went to elementary school in Beijing, everyone called me Yingzi. When I came back to New Jersey for middle school, my name was Karen again. I had two names and two countries and two labels: The word “Asian-American” was a pair of fraternal twins conjoined by a hyphen. A relationship intimate, yet fraught. Because the weight of identity was doubled, it was heavier, and because it was heavier, it was harder to wrangle with.

Identity: it’s a squirmy, tentacled word.

Michelle Lee, a SEAS junior and Korean American from Washington D.C., connects strongly with her Korean heritage.

“I get excited when I walk by someone speaking Korean,” Lee says, “but I know a lot of Asian Americans don’t care about it.”

It’s still not easy for Lee to cross that divide, though. “I guess one problem with Korean internationals is how insular they can be. It’s cold, sometimes.”

Yu also feels alienated when walking through Columbia’s crowds of students. “I’m always self-conscious of how there are so many other Asians are on campus,” he says. When I ask him whom he means by “Asians,” he frowns.

“When I say ‘Oh, there are so many Asians here,’ I’m referring to… Hm. Interesting,” he muses. “I guess I mean international students. I see myself separate from them.” Yu huffs out a laugh. “Like, I went once to Korea. It was scary seeing so many Asians.”

Regardless of which side of the Asian-American hyphen they would rather embrace, Asian Americans can never forget their otherness. It starts early in elementary school, when they see only two other children in class who have black hair and mono-lid brown eyes, or in the middle school cafeteria, when their mother’s pungent, glistening noodles disgust their classmates’ New American culinary tastes. Being other is lonely at best and dangerous at worst. Some internalize the idea that to survive, one must assimilate.

In the real world, the issues continue. Asian Americans have insufficient representation in politics: No Asian Americans at all sit in the Cabinet Room of the White House. Only about three in 10 eligible Asian-American voters actually cast a ballot. In the media, it’s the same: No Asian Americans were nominated in any Oscar category last year. While the Asian international’s angst is birthed from a relationship with Asia, Asian-American angst is birthed from their relationship with America.

Vincent Song believes a divide exists between Asian Americans and Asian internationals, but it’s invisible.

“Only Asians can see it,” he says, “Everyone else lumps us together.”

Setting sail

Written out, the formula almost looks obvious. Everything goes back to wherever we call home and our association with it. My relationship with Coca-Cola, neon billboards, the Gettysburg Address, Walt Disney, the Space Race, the societal compulsions to decorate houses with squash during fall months. My cousin from Beijing’s lack of relationship with any of it. But she can sing the ballads of famous Mandopop singer Fang Da Tong in a beautiful voice.

The absence of one country, the presence of another. Was it really about geography all along?

“I don’t think there should be a divide, but it’s the default,” Jamie Song says. If so, there’s not much one can do but play out one’s identity, as if reading a prewritten script in an actor’s role.

Fu disagrees. “Identity is not a defined set of experiences,” she says.

In this case, there isn’t a checklist of life events and memories for all Asian Americans to share, and another for all international students. Certainly, only international students have visa problems. Certainly, only my fellow Asian Americans and I grew up hearing our last names twisted by a middle school teacher’s clumsy, atonal tongue. But it isn’t these stone tablets of experiences that cause a rift between the two communities. If experiences don’t equate identity, then that suggests we don’t just passively allow identity to grow on and consume us like ivy. We wield some agency, some ruling power, in its formation.

If the divide on campus isn’t a default, then that suggests it was placed there. Maybe not consciously, but deliberately. Can one transcend geography and hospital addresses and summer school classrooms?

“It’s by choice to identify with an Asian or American culture,” Columbia College senior Michelle Tan, a Chinese international from Beijing, says.

Certainly, I could say I personally don’t have time to reach out to Chinese international students, or I don’t have enough faith in my Mandarin, or I don’t know how to play san guo sha, a popular card game among them, but those might not be true reasons. I could just have chosen them superficially.

Perhaps Chinese and Korean international students are the most American of all. They fit the Pilgrims’ Mayflower narrative, the early immigrants’ Ellis Island narrative, my parents’ narrative: throngs crossing an ocean to pursue a capital “D” Dream.

The main thing that distinguishes me from my counterparts on student visas may be geography, but it’s also the main thing that makes us the same. We are all Asians, in America.

In the end, the divide is only the size of the hyphen.

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