Attract China Blog

Extracurricular Life of Chinese Students in the US

November 22, 2013

By Xiaoyu Yan, Senior Digital Content Specialist at Attract China’s Boston Office


Chinese students studying in America

Chinese students in America

More than 160,000 Chinese are enrolled at US colleges and Universities. That’s right: today, Chinese students make up nearly one third of all of the  foreign students studying at American universities. Chinese students are well known for their hard working habits and commitment to academic achievements in school. However, coming from a totally different culture, they face the same problem as many other international students: how to best adapt to this new, often times foreign, environment.

Some Chinese students are eager to integrate themselves into American culture, but many only spend their time with other Chinese students outside of class. So this begs the question: what do most Chinese students do in their free time? How is their social life different from American students? It’s time to reveal the answers direct from the source: Chinese college students studying in America.

Always shopping

Most Chinese students who study abroad are rich and ambitious; unless they receive a scholarship, tuition in America is extremely high compared to that in China. Like Chinese tourists, the students are big spenders overseas when it comes to shopping.

Asian women shopping and walking in the city.

Chinese students love luxury shopping

Local shopping malls, outlets, and individual shops are the main shopping channels for Chinese students. For example, Chinese students we interviewed in Boston usually go shopping with friends on Newbury Street, where there are numerous retailer stores and shopping centers. Newbury Street is only a minute from malls, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Lord and Taylor, and more. Once or twice a year, many Chinese students take a trip to Premium Outlets for affordable luxuries. Sometimes, they buy a lot luxury goods there as gifts for parents and friends before they go back to China.

Chinese students are particularly interested in buying luxury products. The reason is that those brands in China are much more expensive due to China’s relatively higher luxury import tariff. Most Chinese students were surprised at such price differences when they first came here. Shortly after, they were even more shocked by how many Chinese were purchasing luxury products here. “Every time I go to luxury stores like Chanel and Louis Vuitton,” said Meng, a Chinese student at Boston University, “I find so many Chinese students there and it seems like shopping in China… it’s really incredible!”


YES: Chinese male students also shop a lot

Female Chinese students are passionate about cosmetics, bags, and apparels. They also share sales information, product reviews, and shopping experiences on social media. They often search product information online and ask friends for advice before purchasing, very similar to planning a trip.

However, if you think male Chinese students don’t shop frequently, you are totally wrong. They may show less interest in shopping (although they are crazy about electronic products), but they actually shop a lot and spend a lot. “At the beginning of this semester, my college held a ‘one shopping day’ activity and took us to the Premium Outlets ” said Ying, a Chinese undergraduate student at MIT. “There were five guys who returned to the bus at the last minute with at least 10 bags each. How crazy it is! Who says guys don’t like shopping?”

KTV night!
Private room for KTV in China

Private KTV room in China

On a Friday night, many American students go to bars and clubs, while Chinese frequent KTV establishments. KTV, the Chinese word for “Karaoke,” means a place (kind of bar or club) where people go to sing and have fun. It is the most popular nightlife option for Chinese people, and you can find KTV joints everywhere in China.

KTV in China is very different from Karaoke in the U.S. In the U.S., people are used to singing Karaoke in a bar, on a stage, in front of many strangers. In China, however, singing in KTV is a more private affair. Due to its conservative culture, Chinese people feel embarrassed and uncomfortable to perform in public, so KTV is composed of private singing rooms.

Chinese students having fun in KTV

Chinese students having fun

A group of friends can book a fancy looking private room, complete with food and alcohol table service, to sing for an extended period of time (from 1 hours onward) with a group of friends. It is considered a good way to let out your emotions without being embarrassed in the public, although sometimes you may wonder whether it’s more embarrassing or less embarrassing to sing in a small room with your immediate friends versus a large bar mostly filled with strangers!

Chinese students in the U.S. look for KTV where they can book private rooms to sing. Unfortunately, they often have a hard time to find a moderately priced KTV with a well-functioning system. In fact, KTV in the U.S. can only be found in some major cities’ Chinatown area, and often cost three times as much as the KTV in China.

Pub or Not?

The answer is simply “not.” Although some Chinese students go to pubs or bars for fun with local students, the majority shows less interest and even refuses to go at all.

Drinking during a meal

Drinking during a meal

“My Chinese classmates seldom go to pub with us,” said Peter, a sociable college student we interviewed from Boston University. “I guess they are busy studying.”

This is the same answer that many American students gave us when we asked about why Chinese students don’t go to pubs. However, the truth is, cultural differences instead of study habits are the major reason for Chinese not joining Americans at the pub. Although modern China is becoming more and more westernized in many aspects, its culture is inherently conservative, which values implicit expression and decent behaviors. So Chinese students are usually reluctant to fit in the American party culture that centers on drinking and making a scene. This is the exact response we received when interviewing Chinese about the same question.

China has a deep and long history of drinking culture; just because they aren’t going to pubs, it doesn’t mean they do not drink alcohol. So where do they go for drinking?

Chinese students having fun at a bar

Chinese students having fun at a bar in New York City

Chinese people often drink alcohol during a meal, whether at home or in a restaurant. In China, a surprising amount of alcohol is consumed at restaurants each year. A nice meal at a top-rated restaurant is always the first choice for those who plan to hang out with friends or to treat business partners, and drinking is an essential part of it.

Many Chinese students in the U.S. that we interviewed have stated they now start going to pubs for fun as they realize that restaurants here are not the right place for getting drunk.

“I didn’t want to go at first because I thought people in pubs were crazy,” said Yuying, a Chinese student at New York University. “But I changed my mind after I had a fun night at a pub with friends who brought me. It’s just a place for drinks and having fun. People can be crazy, but it’s totally up to you whether you want to be one of those. I didn’t realize it was like that.”

Foodies’ Fun
Chinese students love lobster in Boston

Chinese students enjoying Boston lobster

Chinese students, like Chinese tourists, are curious about local foods. They show a great interest in trying different local restaurants. You can always find several Chinese students waiting at the entrance of top-rated restaurants.

For example, Boston is famous for its seafood, such as lobster and oysters – a fact Chinese are very well aware of. Chinese students in Boston often dine out on weekends specifically looking for seafood. And you can bet they don’t randomly pick restaurants.

Instead, they often search for restaurant information online or ask their friends for recommendation. In many cases, Chinese students and travelers alike already know what they will order at a restaurant before they go. One Chinese student we interviewed, Wuhao, told us that he drove for nearly two hours from Northeastern University to Cape Cod just to try a lobster restaurant that he had read all about online.

Chinese students love to share pictures on social media

Chinese students share pictures on social media

It’s often about finding the best. Some of the students we interviewed in Boston and New York had visited over 30 different seafood restaurants in their respective cities. “It’s like a food adventure,” Lingling, a Chinese Student at Columbia in New York stated. And apart from local food, Chinese travelers and students alike also include famous exotic (well, what Chinese consider “exotic”) foods in their plan. Japanese sushi, Italian spaghetti, Brazilian barbeque, etc., are all very popular among Chinese students.

It’s important to also note: Chinese students like to share their dining experiences online, especially on the most popular social media site in China, Weibo. They usually post dish pictures with comments, either to recommend the restaurant as a must try or to warn others not to waste their money. These online comments have a strong influence on the individual choices. Sharing personal experience and following others’ advices are appreciated in a collectivist culture like China.

While seeking delicious foreign food, Chinese students also look for authentic Chinese food in Chinatown. “I love to try Western food here,” said Feiling, a Chinese student at Emerson in Boston. “But I do miss Chinese food sometimes. I need to eat at Chinese restaurant at least once a month.”

Travel Experience
Chinese students - alway looking for directions

Chinese students – always looking for directions

While tourists from China generally travel during Chinese holidays, Chinese students make full use of American holidays to travel all over the US. Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break, summer holiday, are all peak seasons for Chinese students in America.

Because many Chinese students fly back to China in the summertime, winter holiday becomes a main travel season for them. In winter, when American students go back home and celebrate Christmas with their family members, Chinese students get ready to travel in groups. Some prefer to enjoy “Christmas magic” in New York, while some who are sick of the cold weather in the north go to the warm, Florida. Countries and islands in South America are also popular destinations for Chinese students who travel in winter, but it’s often difficult to research information about these places as there’s not a lot in Chinese available online

Most Chinese students prefer independent travel, and they like to plan their trips months in advance. They spend much time searching (and researching) online for flight price, hotel information, and destination recommendations.

Chinese students posing for a photo while traveling

Chinese students posing for a photo while traveling

Mili, a Chinese student at Emory in Atlanta, started to plan his trip during Thanksgiving in August. He decided to spend Thanksgiving holiday in Boston where he would visit some of his friends. He booked his flight to Boston at the end of August, and he booked a hotel in September when he found a property that suited him best.

Like many other Chinese students, Mili cared most about the accessibility to Wifi and the transportation to major destinations when he chose his hotel. Then he looked at some itinerary recommendations online, and asked his friends who had been there before for advice. By the end of October, he already had a completed travel plan. Now, he’s working on his travel plan for Christmas holiday; this time he wants to explore Hawaii with his girlfriend, and he says he is going to rent a car there.

“Planning is the best part of a trip,” said Mili. “I feel extremely excited to discuss my plan with my friends. From my previous experience, early plans always work out very well. I already enjoyed five awesome trips in the states.”

The increase in Chinese students here is noticeable just walking on the street. There are also many popular stereotypes about Chinese students. For example, they never party and they always study. Remember, stereotypes are just that- stereotypes; it’s your choice if you want to buy into the myths. It is actually interesting to keep an open mind and have a good understanding of their extra-curricular life.