Chinese students adjusting to American campus

By Jerome A. Cohen

The New York Times had a good op-ed over last week, “Chinese, Studying in America, and Struggling.” This is such an important topic that raises so many issues that we all confront today as teachers and have earlier confronted as students, whether in China or elsewhere.

I was an early Fulbrighter to France in 1951-52, a time when many French university students were hostile to Americans (Yankee, Go Home was a popular slogan) and some French professors, not only “leftists”, were not welcoming (One day in Lyon I greeted my professor of French history on the street and he said: “Mr. Cohen, I will forgive you since you are a foreigner unfamiliar with French customs, but in France a student does not accost a professor on the street”. I especially liked his use of the word “accost”. I used to tell this story at our Harvard opening day welcome to foreign LLM students in order to alert them to our differing custom!)

Chinese law students are generally a bit more mature than undergrads but obviously also have adjustment difficulties, many of them similar to those of other foreign students not native speakers of the English language, especially those from elsewhere in East Asia, and the more time we as educators can spend with them outside of class the better.

But I may add to the depression of some of the graduate students from China, not only in my classes but also when talking at Yale, Harvard and other schools, by giving frank assessments of the legal situation in China. I really hope to inspire them but see their deflated faces as I leave the room, which saddens me. They don’t argue back, perhaps because of my age, the way some other foreign students and American scholars occasionally do and are probably understandably conflicted and uncertain.

In class their silence often presents a challenge for their American instructors, particularly in seminars dependent on student participation. When I co-teach I always admire the greater success my faculty colleague seems to have in gradually stimulating Chinese participation. I find that Chinese women students generally— not always—are more reluctant to speak up than men, even though they are at least just as capable.