It's Saturday night, and Wei, a senior majoring in economics and math, is having pizza and French fries with his American roommates in the dining hall of a prestigious liberal arts college in New England. Soon they head out to watch football, then to a frat party.
By 2 a.m., Wei is back in his room, browsing corporate websites – Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Co., Bain & Co. – to check out their recruitment process and job applications. He can't sleep, because he's worried about his future.
"I don't think I can find a job in the United States easily because of my visa status and the competitive job market," says Wei, who asks that his last name and school not be identified, as do the other students interviewed for this article. "But back in China, I have nowhere to go either. No one has ever heard of my college – it doesn't even sound like a university. How can I even get an interview?"
Also, coming from a middle-class family, he doesn't have the connections – or guanxi – that someone close to the Chinese Communist Party or from a prestigious Chinese university would have.
Wei's friends both in China and the U.S. envy him for his seemingly bright future, and to a certain extent his predicament sounds like the typical angst of a college senior faced with the imminent challenge of meeting his own, or his family's, high expectations. But the challenges he faces are real, not least the lack of broad appreciation in China for the value of an education from an elite non-Chinese university that isn't Harvard, Oxford, or Cambridge.
Wei's dilemma points to an inherent contradiction in the trend toward undergraduate study in the U.S. by young Chinese.
In just 11 years, the number of Chinese undergrads studying in the U.S. has risen more than 10-fold, from 7,500 to 80,000, according to the Institute of International Education. Some families sell their homes and drain their savings to send their only child abroad to study.
Speedy success from studying abroad may have been true 10 years ago. But today, the reality is more the opposite: With the number of returnees increasing, many with qualifications that Chinese companies don't appreciate, Chinese society reverts to the old networking game – finding a job becomes all about knowing the right people in the right places.
In addition, many parents have unrealistic expectations for their child, often their only child, who feels the pressure.
"You are expected to fare well after your family has made this huge sacrifice," says Ling, a recent U.S. college graduate from Beijing who works in Boston. She is one of the lucky few to find a job through on-campus recruitment – and an employer willing to sponsor her work visa.
"At the same time," she says, "I have few connections that can land me a good job in a well-respected company in China. The fear of going home and not being able to achieve great things is overwhelming."
If going home poses challenges, so does trying to stay in the US. Under American immigration law, employers must pay hundreds of dollars per year or more for a foreign worker's H-1B visa. Foreign graduates without a degree in a high-demand field may find the US job market especially challenging.
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For some Chinese, living in the U.S. can also be socially difficult.
"When I go back to China, I find it hard to have much in common with my high school friends," says Ling. "In the United States, I try my best to blend into the more open social culture. I go to happy hour and watch football. Yet deep down, I know that I am Chinese."
Family and political tensions also complicate the equation. For only children, in particular, the parent-child relationship can be intense.
"I can't bear to live away from my parents. I call them at night all the time," Ling says. "I have missed Chinese New Year the past four years. I feel like I am missing out a lot."
Yet the sense of personal freedom and security here makes staying in the U.S. attractive.
"The lack of academic freedom in China worries me," writes Jiao, an undergrad at Brown University, in an e-mail. "I wouldn't go back to do research."
Ling also echoes Jiao's opinion: "A country with more than 200 years of democracy has a more stabilized legislative and judiciary system than China. Working in the United States feels more stable. There is the rule of law, plus courts and regulations to oversee procedures. In China, you never know what's going to happen at the party and to your family. "
"Young people my age generally are very frustrated with the pervasive corruption in the party," Ling adds. "We are waiting for changes to happen for a more meritocratic system to allow people like me to find an appropriate job and contribute to the country."
Maybe it is the wait for better conditions at home that motivates some Chinese students in the US to go straight to graduate school here after finishing their undergraduate degree. When asked about staying in the United States, Jiao's schoolmate Jie offers a typical answer: "Why? Why not? I will stay at least for a bit to go to grad school."
Grad school, at least, offers another credential to make him more competitive in the job market, either in the U.S. or in China.
Despite students' pessimism, some employers in China recognize the value of an American college education. Among them is Adil Husain, the Pakistani-born CEO and founder of Emerging Asia Group, a consulting firm in Shanghai.
"I think a four-year liberal arts undergraduate education in the United States is superior to other options, such as studying in the UK or Australia," says Mr. Husain, a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont. "The critical thinking skills, writing skills, and reading skills that you gain from a well-rounded education are the kind of skills that employers like us are looking for."
Meanwhile, Chinese high school students still dream of college in the US. Study abroad means meeting great people, taking great classes, forming a global network, and accessing great job opportunities, writes Panxi, a high school senior in Guangdong in response to a query on a message board.
As for Wei, he says he will continue his American student lifestyle for now: go to class, keep job-hunting, hang out with friends on the weekends, and catch up on studying in the library on Sundays.
Eventually, he says, he will "figure something out."