Changing faces, trading places

In 2003, 62,000 Chinese students came to study in the United States, while 4,737 American students enrolled in Chinese schools.

Roughly, 10 years later, the number of Chinese students in America is at 160,000, while the number of U.S. students in China is 15,000.

To make this more interesting, the United States and China are jointly targeting having 100,000 American students in China within a few years.

So, what does it mean? It depends upon what you are interested in.

For schools on both sides it adds headaches and opportunities. Headaches in terms of trying to accommodate and educate foreign students, opportunities in terms of creating an internationally connected student alumni base and of course the cash that comes with them.

On one side, it puts young people and professors in direct contact, which should spread understanding and tolerance. On the other hand, it could just as easily leave a sour taste for those involved, if poorly managed.

Having talked to students both in China and the United States who have experienced education abroad, it can be variable. There is always the possibility that you may be lucky enough to host the next Xi Jinping (new president of China who spent time in Iowa), in which case you can look forward to a visit to the Chinese equivalent of the White House and, since they do not offer tours, some impressive pictures for the holiday card.

Economically and politically, these kinds of person-to-person exchanges could be useful in tempering the edges, as the rivalry between the United States and China heats up.

Keep in mind, that in the last five years, China has overtaken the United States in the number of countries with whom they are the No. 1 trading partner.

Even when the economic doldrums depart, as they must eventually, it is difficult to see how we will make up this kind of ground. One major change issue could be virtual energy independence. Using this, we could overtake our European competitors and claw back some lost ground all around the world. There is the question of whether this is real or just clever public relations to advance the interests of energy exploration companies. I guess we shall see.

In terms of China, though, as nationalism, economic interests and spheres of influence collide, the hope is that there are enough cool heads and mutual understanding to prevent military confrontations. Such cultural and linguistic comprehension can only be achieved through direct contact.

The fact that China’s new president spent formative years in the United States will have an impact on the relations between the two countries, hopefully positive.

On a personal level, these exchanges sometimes create more lasting bonds, as decisions of where to live, work and whom to marry come into play. They bring with them complex family and cultural baggage which adds to the learning experience often in unexpected ways. The recent newspaper cartoon depicting a visibly chagrined foreigner sitting on the toilet, while his Chinese father-in-law brushed his teeth, is an example of personal space and cultural issues that have no translation. Understand, this is the same father-in-law who would have to be roaring drunk just to express even a hint of personal feelings.

Luckily, the silver lining of these exchanges is most apparent on the broad cultural level. As China’s renaissance takes shape and draws on the currents of its past and the world it finds itself in, these physical and mental exchanges will produce (as they say in the Harry Potter books) “great things.” These benefits will not belong just to China, but to the students, professors, interested parties and the world as a whole. We all need some new writing, art and ideas to stir our imaginations, and hopefully China’s economic development will be the fertile ground that brings them forth.

On this note, I bid you and yours the best of holiday cheer and a prosperous happy New Year. n

Einar Tangen, formerly from Milwaukee, now lives and works in Beijing, China. He is an adviser to Heilongjiang Province, Hebei Province QEDTZ,, China International Publishing Group, Beijing Baotong and DGI DESIGN. He is also a weekly public affairs commentator for CCTV News’ Dialogue and the author of “The Kunshan Way,” an economic development history of China’s leading county level city. While in Milwaukee, he was a partner at Jackson, Morgan and Tangen, president of E-Tech and a senior vice president at Stifel Nicolaus. He chaired various boards in Milwaukee and was a member of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago. Readers who would like to submit questions or suggest areas of interest can send an e-mail to

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