Understanding the life of international students have been neglected for a long time.

In Scranton, Penn., several foreign-exchange students reported living in filthy homes, some of which were later condemned. Students were placed with ex-convicts and drug dealers. The employee who placed the students with their host families was sentenced to three months in jail.

Provoked by this, in September 2009, the US State Department initiated a new regulation to protect the 30,000 teenagers who come to America annually as foreign exchanges students. This new regulation requires fingerprinting of all host family members, background checks by the FBI and disclosure of the family’s financial resources. Single people or single parents without school-age children are barred from hosting a student.

This proposal raised intense criticism for its seemingly unnecessary harshness. But for me, I’m more than happy to see it come to a reality. I am an international student at the UW and my girlfriend is now in an exchange program in Ohio. When she told me stories about previous exchange students, sometimes I felt disappointed and sad, if not enraged. The exchange student experience is more than “cultural shock” or a sample of the “American dream coming true.”

The life of international students can be exhilarating yet boring, heart-warming yet heartbreaking, and isolating yet united.

Two decades before, Chinese students in the US were regarded as elites among their peers, because of their excellent academic record in China which attracted US schools and scholarships, or because of their prestigious family backgrounds, hailing from politically powerful or wealthy families, which can ensure cash flow for their student living costs.

Now more young Chinese are entering the US like gold miners for education, careers, and citizenship — the unimaginable gold mine of the “American Dream”. From the city of Shenzheng alone, a prosperous city on the southeast coast of China, 2,000 teenage students go across the Pacific Ocean every year for education, either through proxy agencies, individual applications, or exchange programs between the US and China.

So why come to the U.S.? It’s a perfect way to escape from the pressure of taking China’s National College Entrance Exam (NCEE) to qualify for college with 10 million other Chinese students. Believe me, the SATs are heaven compared to the NCEE. People in China somehow hope that young people eligible for college education should be a walking wikipedia. Compared to the pressure of this exam, competition in the US seems less intense, with the apeal of more opportunities for students.

Graduate students account for the majority, which is the second largest group of international students to the US. Most of them are in the science and engineering majors, from the best universities in China and seeking better research environments as well as a career. Again, earning money is easier in the US with their specialty. Buying a two-floored house in Seattle is no more expensive than to have a small apartment in suburban Beijing or Shanghai. Yes, money compels us out here.

Money always matters and the exchange rate between Rmb (Chinese currency) and US dollars is always a pain for most students. My tuition every quarter is three times more than my classmates who are US citizens — which amounts to my parents’ entire annual salary. So most Chinese students rely solely on university scholarships. If not, families in China are heavily in debt. What’s worse is that I can’t work without specific authorizations because of my student visa status.

Although there are enough Chinese people around, the feeling of self-isolation prevails. In addition to the pressure in school and cultural barriers between peers—Chinese-born and non-Chinese born, it’s tough to overcome. Even finding a steady relationship is tough and getting depressed is easy.

So our life means mostly studying. And studying means being in the lab, usually 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The pressure from faculty members (who are called the “boss”) is intense, not only on academic achievement, but to maintain the financial resource for students’ schooling and lives. That’s why PHD means “Patiently Hoping for a Degree” or “Proudly half dead”.

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