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.