American dream doesn’t come cheap for Chinese students

To get into a U.S. college or university, Chinese students are required to take an English language test, either ILTS or TOEFL. SATs are not required for undergraduate studies, but GMATs and LSATs are required for graduate programs.

Taking the tests is an ordeal in itself; $600 and hundreds of hours are spent in cram programs prepping for the test.

Next in line are the testing companies that charge $150 for the test.

Some American colleges and universities also will require that a validation service be used to verify the information submitted at a cost $175 to $300. Then the wait begins as applications percolate through the system.

Finally, student and school are matched up, and the school sends an I-20, which is prerequisite for a student visa application. The next step is generally a visa specialist, who helps prepare your papers, including your proof of financial responsibility (ability to pay at least a year and a half of school and living fees) and get you ready for the oral interview at the U.S. Consulate. These “specialists” will charge whatever they can get. The more nervous the parents or student, the higher the fee. Think anywhere between $300 and $6,000. A $130 fee is then paid to the U.S. Embassy, and the interview date is set. On the day of the interview, people start showing up at the U.S. embassy an hour or two before the doors open.

Daunting experience

The United States opened a new imposing embassy complex in 2008 with an area specially set aside for visa applicants. I know. I have been there. On a cold day in December 2008, I waited in line outside in the cold with someone who was interested in opening a biotech research facility in America. They had an invitation from the Greater Milwaukee Committee, a successful business in China, a documented seven-figure net worth and had been doing business in the United States for over two years. It took 30 seconds for them to be rejected.

Eventually, after some intervention, which took two additional meetings, they received a visa, but it was clear that they were not pleased. Or maybe it was the experience of waiting in line for two hours while the embassy guards shouted, threatened and pushed them and everyone else around like cattle.

Having renewed my Chinese visa many times at the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, I feel lucky in comparison. It is very unfortunate that the first contact most Chinese have with an American official is so unpleasant. In chatting to other Chinese business people, a number of them have said they have not visited the United States because they refuse to subject themselves to such a rude and arbitrary process.

Now imagine you are a terrified student, who has not arrived in a chauffer-driven Mercedes, and has already spent what amounts to a small fortune in China in an effort to obtain an American education which will then cost a large fortune, and you are at the embassy waiting for some someone who has not read your file to make an arbitrary decision about whether you will pass the final hurdle.

The embassy approves about 70 percent of the applicants, but why some get a visa and others don’t is never explained. I have been informed that the embassy does have a list of suspect schools but that explains only a certain number of the rejections. After interviewing a number of students who have gone through the process, it is clear they were frightened and bewildered by the process.

Given the number of people who are in line, my guess is that the embassy in Beijing processes around 500 visa applications a day, which would come out to about $2.5 million a year. It is a nice additional piece of change for a service which brings in $15 billion a year to the United States.

In fairness to the embassy, it is clear that they have a running battle with fraudulent applications, everything from forged papers to bribery. But not all the problems are on the Chinese side. One U.S. embassy employee told me he had set up cooperation agreements with a number of Chinese student placement agencies which were paying him a fee for every student who got a visa. Business was great, because 70 percent got visas, and he didn’t have to do a thing.

Coming to America

Having received their visa and bought an airline ticket, the next part of their journey begins. In the United States, Chinese students face language, cultural, food and isolation issues.

Knowing how to pass an English proficiency test is one thing, but going to a society whose historical, cultural and political norms are unfamiliar is daunting. U.S. culture is like an iceberg. The pop culture world of songs, movies and celebrities which people see on TV and the Internet are only the visible portions of a society which is based on a complex cultural, economic and political history.

Unfortunately, few students, except those who study the humanities, get beyond the pop culture façade. Many schools are now providing support mechanisms such as “friend and family programs” which introduce Chinese and other foreign students to the “American way of life.” It makes the students’ impressions of the United States more complete, favorable and is a great alumni development strategy. I doubt anyone would be surprised at how far a little kindness goes when you’re a long way from home.

After they finish their education, the students face the decision to stay or go. Most are looking for opportunities to get experience and develop skills. Some want to stay in the United States, but increasingly they are returning to China. For some, it’s an opportunity to go home. Others feel it’s their patriotic duty to help their homeland, and for others, it’s about where they perceive the best opportunities are for them.

As employees, returning Chinese professionals (RCPs) can be valuable additions to your China team, but you have to scratch the surface of their resume to make sure you understand who they are, what they know and how useful they will be in helping bridge the gap between your U.S. and Chinese business interests and operations.

Do not assume because they did their undergraduate or post-graduate work study in the United States that they understand Puritanism or that they have been to a frat party.

My translator spent his four university years living with the same five roommates in a 120-square-foot dorm room. He may not have biological brothers, but it is clear he has fraternal ones. From watching him and others, it is clear that classmate networks are one of the closest and most useful networks which can be of value to them as well as you.

So remember to try to get to know your employees’ friends and networks. A little attention and a few drinks could be very beneficial to all concerned. Remember, China is a country where things happen mostly through trusted connections. 

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