Young people gathering round an Apple laptop and talking

The number of Chinese students that go abroad to study has grown exponentially every year for the last thirty years. Each year hundreds of thousands of Chinese students travel to America, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Great Britain to begin a new life of overseas studying. But for many of these students, their dreams of what they imagined this life to be are shattered. Apart from the obvious cultural differences, there are great issues of adjusting to a new country along with other more sinister concerns of racism and mental health.

Yet the wave of Chinese students arriving each year gets bigger. Western schools, colleges and universities welcome these students with open arms as they bring with them the promise of higher international fees. Because of this, Chinese students often account for a very large percentage of all the student enrolment. In America, Chinese students make up 33% of all international students across the country. In Australia, it is 30% and in Great Britain, it is 33%. With such large numbers, one would think there would be great support provided for all the Chinese students on the campus. But still the problems arise every year and there seems to be no response to it.

What are these problems exactly and why are they happening?

The Chinese Dream of Studying Abroad

Many Chinese students hold a great fascination with studying in the west. They get all their information of the west from TV, movies and social media and they become thrilled at the prospect of studying abroad. TV shows such as High School Musical, Glee and Gossip Girl feed the Chinese students a false illusion of what to expect abroad. By the time they arrive they are often starry-eyed and expecting a similar life.

A few short weeks after being in the country and their world crashes in around them. If we understand the way Chinese students have to study, it is easier to understand how they become seduced by studying abroad. Long hours of study — a minimum of eight hours at school a day — followed by an entire evening filled with doing homework. Test after test after test which makes many students question the purpose of studying at all. No time for any activities after school or for friends. Is it any wonder that Chinese students watch American TV shows and become seduced with studying abroad?

A Question of Identity

But once Chinese students arrive in the west, they are then faced with the idea of their true identity. The local students ask them where they are from. This is then followed with a barrage of questions related to China. Some of which, many Chinese students have never considered before. In China, they never have to think about their identity. They look around the classroom and everyone is Chinese. The teacher is Chinese as are all the other teachers. Everyone in their life is Chinese. Then they arrive in a western city and come face to face with multiculturalism. It is something they have never experienced before. Neither have they experienced the questions about who they are, what they are and everything else about their identity.

The Issue of Insecurity

This then leads to a massive sense of insecurity. Most Chinese students who are arriving in the west are around eighteen years of age or younger. At this age, they are insecure of who and what they are as a person due to Chinese people being painfully shy and modest. They meet western teenagers of the same age and they are the polar opposite. Confident, outgoing and easily engaged with other students in the school or college. Chinese students feel they cannot compete and this is where some real issues occur.

The college invites the Chinese students to social gatherings and other events. But they do not attend because of a massive feeling of insecurity. They believe they are nothing like the native students. And so they stay away from any parties or activities that involve large groups of local students. Instead, they often stay alone in their rooms or just hiding away from any social activities.

The Belief in Poor English

One of the main causes of the Chinese students’ insecurity and chronic shyness is their English. Chinese students often study English for many years. By the time they are in high school, they may have studied the language for ten years or so. But they are often unable to speak at great length about anything. This combined with having no faith in their abilities shuts them off from the local student population.

Another issue is that schools and colleges have pushed to lower the admission standards in every western country. To gain a place in high school or college these days requires a lower English proficiency level than twenty years ago. This results in thousands of Chinese students arriving in the country unable to speak English properly. Many cannot understand what people are saying in the class.

Through no real fault of their own, they arrive abroad to study and then find they cannot communicate with anyone in English. The schools and colleges want to reduce the admission standards so they can take advantage of the high international fees that Chinese students have to pay. The colleges are treating them as cash cows because the colleges are strapped for cash themselves.

This hardly seems fair.

The Issue of Mental Health

As a consequence of arriving in a strange land, coming to terms with who they are as a person, being isolated and lacking any belief in themselves, it is hardly surprising to find that Chinese students suffer considerable mental health issues when studying abroad. The two most common ailments are depression and anxiety.

There have been many cases of Chinese students losing a lot of weight (and they are hardly a nation known to be obese in the first place), of students locking themselves in their rooms and refusing to talk to anyone and, in extreme cases, suicide. The thing that western schools and colleges need to understand is that in China the concept of mental health is largely a taboo subject. While in the west we may make jokes about losing our minds, going crazy because of work or a relationship, in China, this is very rarely talked about. The very idea of admitting to your peers that you are feeling down and may be unable to cope well is something that Chinese people would never do. They have an almost stoic attitude to life where certain things must be endured. The middle-school student in China laden with homework until midnight just shrugs his shoulders and says: I have to do it.

Schools and colleges in all western countries offer help in the form of counsellors and other trained professionals to help students with any issues they may wish to talk about. For the average Chinese student the notion of going to ‘talk to someone’ would fill them with dread. They simply would not do it. Coupled with this is the question of their English and their belief that they cannot speak English very well and all their concerns are magnified. Hence the problems they continue to face in western schools and colleges today.

What to do?

First, western schools and colleges need to have more support for Chinese students. These institutions are making a large amount of money out of Chinese students, the least they can do is offer adequate care for them. Welcoming Chinese students and greeting them with big smiles is not enough.

Ideally, it would be best if the schools or colleges could offer international student support from a Chinese speaker. This would reduce any fear from those students trying to express themselves in English and there would be a better cultural understanding too.

Another thing that needs to happen is that the English proficiency test for Chinese students should be of a level where they can communicate effectively with other English speakers. At the moment it seems that English is merely a test that Chinese students do in order to study abroad. This is not good enough. They should be able to discuss a variety of topics and have conversations in English before even getting on the plane.


Thousands of Chinese students will attend schools and colleges in every English-speaking country this year. It is their dream to do this. But due care needs to be taken for the welfare of these students. There is an onus on the educational establishments of these countries to communicate more effectively with the Chinese students and to understand the cultural differences that exist. Just throwing up a message board of all the extra-curricular activities and declaring ‘Join in the fun’ is not good enough. These people are far away from home — often for the very first time — in a strange land, in a wildly different social setting and too shy to speak out a lot of the time. Chinese students will continue to study abroad in the west. The schools and colleges need to provide adequate care to ensure they are safe and happy.

 My name is David Buckley and I am the owner of  I write about learning English and teaching English. Feel free to visit my site and take a look around.