Attaining 'success': Chinese scholars and their journeys in the US

US academic Wu Guo looks into what makes Chinese scholars a success in the US. Were they already considered a talent in China before heading to the US, or did they become talents only after completing their studies in the US? And while these Chinese scholars have gained recognition in the US, they are still anxious about being “seen” by mainstream American academics and building rapport with their American students.
People visit a pedestrian street on the Bund in Shanghai, China, on 14 February 2024. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
People visit a pedestrian street on the Bund in Shanghai, China, on 14 February 2024. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

I recently came across the following question online: among the Chinese talents in the US, how many were already recognised as talents in China before heading to the US and how many became talents only after completing their studies in the US? 

Distinctive personality that may even be controversial

This is an interesting and thought-provoking question that involves several other concerns: one, were there Chinese talents that were unrecognised or suppressed in China and only managed to make a name for themselves in the US? Two, taking it one step further, is this because the US offers a more inclusive and incentive-based institutional environment that allows immigrants from China and around the world to maximise their talents after arriving in the US, and break away from obscurity? Three, what is the definition and criteria for “being a talent” or becoming one? 

In particular, in the era of globalisation when talent mobility is on the rise and an individual often has several roles and self-identities, it is indeed worth studying where talents originate from, just like determining where exported goods that are outsourced for processing before being sold back to the company’s headquarters are produced.  

This also appears to be related to the issue of “talent studies”, which aroused widespread interest in mainland China in the 1980s. 

People realised that the concept of “talent” was not about producing cookie-cutter heroes...

Traffic along a road leading to the Jing'an Temple in Shanghai, China on 9 March 2024. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
Traffic along a road leading to the Jing'an Temple in Shanghai, China, on 9 March 2024. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

The progress of a society is ultimately driven by a handful of outstanding talents who in turn bring benefits to the general public. Thus, in the 1980s, the political culture of mainland China began to be more diverse, moving away from just glorifying pan-political and stereotypical “war heroes” and “model workers”.

People realised that the concept of “talent” was not about producing cookie-cutter heroes; under emerging standards of diversity and personalisation, more of them started to prize individual talents and unique professional contributions, and to be tolerant of individual shortcomings.

Against the backdrop of such a shift in values, Chinese society in the early 1980s worshipped non-political academics such as mathematician Chen Jingrun, geniuses and gurus who seemingly lacked the ability to take care of themselves. Subsequently, Chinese society also adored a group of distinctive reformist talents who boldly implemented enterprise reforms or were the first to manage state-owned enterprises by contract.

... multinational “talents” could well be stuck in the process of adapting to and learning about the foreign society for a long time or even their lifetime, instead of challenging and reforming it, after arriving in a foreign land.

In this way, a talent is an individual who possesses some kind of expertise and talent, the ability to maximise their strengths and a distinctive personality that may even be controversial. Such talents have more personality and charisma than the indisputable and traditional “war hero”; their contributions are not limited to moral appeal either but rather a more practical advancement of social change or academic research, while at the same time helping the public become aware of the significance of value pluralism, sparking deeper thinking among the people. 

For example, Chinese actress Liu Xiaoqing’s absolute confidence and female Chinese novelist Yu Luojin’s pursuit of self-perception have both challenged the social norms and marriage models of their time.  

A couple is seen during a pre-wedding photo session on a bridge in Shanghai, China on 6 March 2024. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
A couple is seen during a pre-wedding photo session on a bridge in Shanghai, China, on 6 March 2024. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

However, the impact an individual could exert on conventional values and the challenges he could bring about to an archaic social system is very different under a transnational context. For those who have left their home country, adapting to the dominant culture of a foreign country is an arduous process.

That is to say, multinational “talents” could well be stuck in the process of adapting to and learning about the foreign society for a long time or even their lifetime, instead of challenging and reforming it, after arriving in a foreign land.   

Shaped by their Chinese families

Returning to the original question, it should be noted that most Chinese who achieved success in the American science and academic communities — specifically the first-generation immigrants who settled down in the US as adults after completing their studies or immigrating there — already had a set of worldviews, values, emotions or some invisible factors that fundamentally drove their success beyond the scope of their professions prior to moving abroad. 

Simply put, these “talents” already possessed the basic conditions and potential for success before they were ultimately and visibly “nurtured” by the American system of higher education and research, and some had already made their initial contributions. Among the conditions they already possessed before arriving in the US is an important but often overlooked factor — the influence of the traditional Chinese family.       

Their spirituality and lifelong academic aspirations have long been shaped by their families, the turbulent history of modern China of which they have been a part, and the relationships with their Chinese mentors...

From the experiences of the older generation of Chinese-American social scientists — such as Ho Ping-ti, Yu Ying-shih, Tong Tekong, Lin Yu-sheng or Chang Hao who have all passed, as well as Philip C. C. Huang, who is still active in academia — we observe that they came from elite families with great economic and cultural capitals during the late Qing and Republic of China periods, and received the best higher education in China before arriving in the US. 

Their spirituality and lifelong academic aspirations have long been shaped by their families, the turbulent history of modern China of which they have been a part, and the relationships with their Chinese mentors (Huang’s mentor K. C. Hsiao; Ho’s mentor Lei Haizong; Yu’s mentor Ch’ien Mu; Lin and Chang’s mentor Yin Haiguang; as well as the mutual support between the Hsia brothers C.T. Hsia and Tsi-an Hsia, who became literary greats). 

Students walk to class at the University of Texas at Austin on 22 February 2024 in Austin, Texas, US. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images/AFP)
Students walk to class at the University of Texas at Austin on 22 February 2024 in Austin, Texas, US. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images/AFP)

Indeed, the US offers a more standardised and modern academic training, cutting-edge research theories and paradigms, the halo of prestigious schools, and an English-language publishing and research environment that has gained a foothold in academia. 

Yet as we read in Ho’s memoir 60 Years of Reading History and Living Life (《读史阅世六十年》), we see that while Ho also thanked his American supervisors for their affirmation and recognition of his doctoral dissertation, the people whom he sincerely remembered in individual sections of the book were his mentors and teachers from when he was studying in China — a whopping nine people including Zheng Tianting and Feng Youlan. Not a single US professor was given a detailed section in his memoir, and neither was there a mention of any US student, despite Ho having taught at the renowned University of Chicago for decades.

Reflecting on his academic career, Philip Huang admitted that his "sense of problem" and its changes are fundamentally driven by emotions. In fact, “emotion” here boils down to feelings towards China and an inquiry into the Chinese revolution, social structure and the fate of the people, rather than feelings towards a particular American university or academic mechanism.       

American-style doctoral education, academic research methods, innovative approaches and even the tricks of the academic publishing system were just grafted onto the foundation of their Chinese experience laid in the first half of their lives.

Time spent on imitation and assimilation instead

Among the group of US-based mainland Chinese historians I am more familiar with, most of the older generation of academics born in the 1950s have already completed their graduate studies in China before furthering their studies in the US. In fact, many of them had even taught at universities and published monographs before going abroad for further studies. 

These academics were already spiritually mature before they came to the US. Their family background, academic heritage, personal experiences of post-1949 China, as well as their pain, determination and struggles were entrenched in their consciousness.

In the process of reinventing themselves, American-style doctoral education, academic research methods, innovative approaches and even the tricks of the academic publishing system were just grafted onto the foundation of their Chinese experience laid in the first half of their lives. 

People walk along Times Square on 13 February 2024 in New York City, US. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images/AFP)
People walk along Times Square on 13 February 2024 in New York City, US. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images/AFP)

Hence, while it can be said that they achieved self-improvement, expanded their horizons and elevated their academic careers in the US, it is not the case that they only became talents after arriving in the US. That is, in terms of the “critical thinking” that Americans love to talk about, why would Chinese university teachers overcome so many challenges just to study in a foreign country if they are not already critical thinkers themselves?   

However, just as I have mentioned above, as first-generation immigrants spend much of their time observing, learning, imitating, assimilating and expressing themselves academically as non-native English speakers in culture shock, it is difficult for some of them to make breakthroughs in their research. Instead, they tend to argue for the Chinese case in paradigms already established by the Americans or the research precedents already established by their mentors, and conduct technically detailed empirical research.

... many Chinese academics who have achieved academic excellence themselves are often stuck in third-rate schools in the US, unable to have high-quality interactions with their students...

And because a lot of time was spent on imitation and assimilation, this group of academics did not formally participate in the writing of a single debate of the English-speaking academic community on some of the major issues of Chinese history — be it the existence of a public sphere in modern China in the early 1990s (Philip Huang participated as a scholar from the older generation with a non-mainland Chinese background) or the new Qing history that gained prominence a few years ago. Instead, they are still anxious about being “seen” by mainstream American academics at major conferences.      

What I want to point out is that the visible successes of US-based Chinese academic talents in the secular sense, such as obtaining degrees from prestigious schools, earning tenure and publishing monographs, could have masked many neglected issues — the difficulty of making breakthroughs, the lack of involvement in major issues and the challenge of forming a rapport with their American students to achieve mutual growth, to name a few, which makes it difficult to fulfil the ideal of “academic inheritance” that many Chinese academics have in mind.

University students attend a job fair in Wuhan, Hubei province, China on 6 March 2024. (AFP)
University students attend a job fair in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, on 6 March 2024. (AFP)

And this is indeed the case — many Chinese academics who have achieved academic excellence themselves are often stuck in third-rate schools in the US, unable to have high-quality interactions with their students, as clearly stated in Ray Huang’s memoir Yellow River and Blue Mountains. He had repeatedly recounted his attempts at telling the story of Wu Zetian, the controversial woman emperor in China, well in the American classroom, but he never elaborated if American students were receptive to his narrative.       

Breaking through the ‘box stuffed with Chinese-ness’

In the average American university, Chinese professors often spend a lot of energy thinking about how they can get a better evaluation from their students and how they can bridge the gap between their experiences living in two multicultural societies. There is also a background and cognitive gap, as well as an intangible but real ideological and emotional divide between “China” scholars with specialised social science research experience and the large number of students from small towns in inland US with simple experiences, a worldview that is heavily influenced by US corporate media and who are sometimes hostile to China.

While it is indeed necessary and the teacher’s rightful duty to bridge these gaps and make clarifications, this is but a question of dissemination or “enlightenment”, and hardly counts as the ideal state of high-quality academic exchanges between teachers and students or a high-quality spiritual resonance. And perhaps it is exactly because of this that a post-50s Chinese-American scholar with outstanding achievements in both Chinese and English academia shared with me that he hopes to pass on his life’s work to the graduate students in China whom he teaches part-time. 

In a separate case of a late academic with a strong background and a great deal of academic expertise, I have always believed that if he had taught at a top university in China, he should have the ability to influence more students in China than in the US, and should be more likely to become an indispensable leader in the relevant field. And it was also this academic who later realised that Chinese scholars should have a clearer sense of subjectivity and selfhood, and should not remain as people who keep adapting to the American research paradigm and replicating the American narrative of China.

... the challenges and struggles that foreigners face in the assimilation process can be more complicated than simplistic “success stories”.

People walk on a sidewalk in the central business district in Beijing, China on 28 February 2024. (Greg Baker/AFP)
People walk on a sidewalk in the central business district in Beijing, China, on 28 February 2024. (Greg Baker/AFP)

Returning to the question posed at the beginning of the article, I think that Chinese “talents” in the US have invariably benefited from China’s changing times and social experiences, as well as their families, education backgrounds, reading experiences and the accumulation of memories and reflections. 

In fact, even novelists who gained fame for their creative writing in English, such as Ha Jin, Li Yiyun and Yan Geling, write about China and about themselves. Meanwhile, Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is not about Russia. It is only in his memoir Speak, Memory that we see the Russia he remembers.

Undoubtedly, how we can break through a “box stuffed with Chinese-ness” worldview in terms of thinking, creation and values is another issue. At the same time, there are people who did not make a name for themselves in China but who became more successful in the US, and there are also Americans who did not do well in the US but who thrive in China — this could be related to individual circumstances. 

Next, the US certainly has a more tolerant system and mentality that allows a massive number of immigrants to make the best possible use of their talents for the benefit of the US. But in this field of power, the challenges and struggles that foreigners face in the assimilation process can be more complicated than simplistic “success stories”.

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