Treason is a serious charge. It refers to the highest crimes against a nation—say, supporting the secession of a territory or speaking out too publicly about the past. Consider becoming the citizen of another country and chances are no one will call you a traitor. They might criticize your lack of patriotism, but either way you can still maintain your American citizenship. If you’re Chinese, the situation is a little bit different, especially if you choose to leave home and venture west for college. At Penn, native Chinese students are a large, if quiet, presence on campus. Though they may be from a country considered America’s “rival,” some of these students are drawn to a life outside of China after studying abroad, wishing to continue their international experience after graduation. For that, they may need a U.S. (or other) passport, and for them, it involves a more difficult choice than many other international students face.
Chinese citizens cannot take dual nationalities: according to Chinese law, if a citizen applies for and receives citizenship in any other nation (after a long naturalization period in the United States, for example), his Chinese passport immediately gets revoked and he becomes a citizen of his new country. Though the older generation of Chinese citizens may still hold their homeland in high regard, the current college–age generation doesn’t necessarily feel the same way. They opt to study abroad for college, even taking American internships over the summer and possibly failing to return home for the better part of a year. Though some Chinese high schools compare to Western programs, offering AP and IB courses, others are suffocating—they force students to study subjects the government considers important and limit leadership, extracurricular activities and even budding relationships.
**********Steven Xu*, an M&T sophomore, hails originally from Nanjing, China. His government–regimented high school curriculum was standard across many Chinese local schools, including classes on Maoism and Chinese politics. Once Steven made it to junior year, he had two choices: either take classes aimed at preparing him for the gaokao, a college entrance exam that excluded China’s prestigious “priority schools,” or begin the equally intense international application process. Steven applied to Penn because he found the atmosphere at Chinese universities to be similarly censored and stagnant.
According to Steven, most native students “work really hard all through high school, then go to college [in China] and wait until graduation.” He didn’t want to have that kind of numbing college experience. Steven wants to become international: he wants to experience all the diversity that the world has to offer, rather than restrict himself to traditional Chinese culture. Because the population of China is more homogenous than that of the United States, guarding national identity and culture is more of an issue than in the American melting pot—few U.S. citizens would try to maintain their “American” identity abroad. Where Steven’s stifling school experience encouraged him to come to Penn, not all Mainlanders (citizens of the People’s Republic of China, not Hong Kong or Taiwan) follow the same path.
Christine Du, a College sophomore with Australian citizenship who graduated from the Shanghai American School, “never considered going to school in China.” Instead, she opted for schools in the United States, England and Australia because she had heard that the Chinese university system resembled “an extension of Chinese high school,” marred by unmalleable curriculums and censorship of critical material. Christine’s high school curriculum closely mirrored that of its Western equivalents, including AP and IB programs—though certain subjects like Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen (“The Three Ts”) remained taboo. “If you grew up in [an international Chinese school’s] environment, it helps you develop this awareness of other cultures. I’m not saying I’m not patriotic, but I have a much more critical perspective of my own culture and my own country,” she says.
Of course, Christine’s situation differs drastically from Steven’s. She’s lived in China for most of her life but isn’t a Chinese citizen, so she can take whatever additional citizenship she desires. Despite this, Christine says that if she could take Chinese citizenship “[she] would, but they don’t allow it.” Ultimately, Christine still considers herself a “Chinese person who speaks English,” albeit one more easily able to take residence elsewhere than her native counterparts can. By virtue of this, she has become an international citizen.
**********While high school may expose some Chinese students to broader perspectives, others come to Penn and experience diverse, international cultures for the first time. Lynda Yang, a Wharton sophomore from the southern city of Shenzhen, has immersed herself in one of Penn’s largest demographics—the Jewish community. She lives on the Jewish Cultural Studies floor of Rodin College House, and she says she has “learned how important faith and religion are to Jewish people.”
“[Recently], during Shabbat, two of my floormates actually came to my room and asked me for help turning off their lights and the fridge.” She went on to explain: “They told me they’re glad at least one non–Jewish person is living on the floor.” Delving into this culture has made Lynda feel like it’s “one of the best decisions [she’s] made at Penn,” undoubtedly expanding her worldview compared with those native students who stick to more closed, Chinese groups. Regardless, newly international Chinese students often find themselves wanting to explore the United States and, in many cases, the world.
Steven aims to move to the United States permanently to work in the tech industry or in finance—ideally in cities like San Francisco or New York. As a means to this end, Steven is willing to become international and exchange his Chinese passport for a U.S. one. He is not ready to transform into what he calls “a real American,” assimilating to American culture and losing a sense of his Chinese self. Though he may be part of a new generation, Steven recognizes that his family members are “very traditional Chinese people... They’re hard working, they love their country, they love their hometown [and] they want to stay there all the time.” With allegiance to his family as a priority, Steven wants to be able to visit them frequently, wherever he is living. He even would be willing to move them to the United States. Steven admits that he eventually wants to take American citizenship because he believes it has financial benefits. When asked why he would so easily revoke his Chinese citizenship, Steven hesitates: “It’s really hard, once you move here, to maintain a great passion for your home country—and I’m not confident that I’m that kind of person.”
Lynda shares Steven’s vision: “My ideal job is to be able to go everywhere. I really like the life as a foreigner and an immigrant… I hope eventually I can base myself in the U.S. and visit emerging countries with developing economies.” While Lynda is interested in becoming an international citizen, she wouldn’t necessarily give up citizenship to her home country because she “doesn’t see the point.” Even so, Lynda sounds optimistic. “I think it matters less on patriotism. I love my country, but I don’t think I have to prove it with citizenship.”
Others, like College and Wharton sophomore Connie Kang (an associate photo editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian) are being pushed towards applying for U.S. citizenship by other factors. Connie’s parents are planning to immigrate first, as they “think the political situation in China right now is very doubtful.” Once they’re here, they believe she will have a chance to “take residence in the near future,” though not necessarily citizenship. Connie desperately wants to return to Shanghai herself, though she, too, knows that Shanghai’s economy is “on the bubble,” ready to succumb to a crisis at any point
Unlike Lynda or Steven, Connie wants to return to China rather quickly—but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t become international in her own right. She founded Penn Chinese Theatre last year after a trip to see a similar show at Princeton. PCT isn’t “Peking Opera,” as some of Connie’s audience first believed; rather, Connie aims to introduce Penn students to contemporary Chinese theatre. Connie “feels very obligated to promote this culture on campus,” and she says that her friends who saw the show last semester thought it was worlds away from other theatre groups on campus.
Connie may not have a desire to attain citizenship; she’s still facilitating cultural exchange between American students and herself, becoming international as a result. Although Connie wants to return to China more urgently than Lynda or Steven does, she has the same choice to make. Should the Chinese economy fall into a recession, she may be forced to find work elsewhere. From then on, it’s a question of allegiance to country or to quality of life; for example, take citizenship and tax breaks in the United States or remain in China and deal with visas or green cards.
The curtain goes up and the sing–song, occasionally jarring, tones of Chinese fill the air. Characters in modern, if traditional, dress walk around the stage, yelling, pleading and weaving a tale of woe—of two mistresses in 1940s Shanghai. This is the latest performance by the newly formed Penn Chinese Theatre, and a chunk of the audience won’t understand it. But at least the Chinese community has provided subtitles, lowering the language barrier temporarily and facilitating cultural exchange. After watching the show, the students are a little more international than when they entered.
To varying degrees, Chinese students' time at Penn makes them more international than when they first arrived in Philadelphia. For many of them, their time abroad will significantly broaden their perspectives. It will give them ideas and plans to contribute back to China, allowing them to “stabilize” the economy and political situation, as Connie puts it. In the end, patriotism and national pride are not tied to citizenship but to the time spent in a country and to its value. Although Chinese law may prohibit dual nationalities, becoming international and being Chinese are not mutually exclusive. As a result of their experiences at Penn and beyond, some of these students will grow into leaders of both industry and government. From then on, China’s future may come to depend on these international perspectives. The Middle Kingdom hasn’t been the center of the world for some time, but with some help from its newly international citizens, it could play a leading role on the global stage.
*Indicates name changed due to request for anonymity.
Alex Hosenball is a senior from Annandale, VA, studying in Communication and Chinese. He is Online Managing Editor of 34th Street Magazine.