When Chinese student Steve Xu came to the University of Oregon, he felt proud of his Chinese culture. “My mom sent me here to get a better education,” Xu said.
But this academic sentiment may get overshadowed by other perceptions of UO’s Chinese student demographic; namely, the idea that they may be wealthy. The buying practices and presence of luxury cars on campus, some of which are driven by Chinese international students, can lead some of UO’s domestic community to make assumptions about the population as a whole.
Xu said some domestic students might make assumptions based on what they see.“(If I were an American student), if I saw a really good car drive by, I would think about who gave you the money, and why you drive those kind of cars,” Xu said. “But I would also think it is kind of not my business.”
Yawei Zhang, the president of the UO’s Chinese Student and Scholar Association, also feels that Chinese students may be perceived as big spenders above all, whether or not it gives an accurate and complete picture.
Tiffany Han, a senior at the UO, has been working at the American Apparel store on 13th Avenue for almost a year. The clientele, she notices, is demographically heavy with Asian students.
“Whenever I’m here working, out of five people, two or three of our customers are international students, and primarily Asian,” Han said. Han bases this estimate on listening to accents — being Chinese herself, she recognizes many of the store’s customers speaking Mandarin.
From her observation, prices at American Apparel tend to be more of a deterrent for domestic students than for international students.
“We’ve noticed a trend,” Han said, “that quite often, (Asian international students) make bigger purchases.” She says that “bigger purchases,” defined as upward of $100, are not rare given American Apparel’s pricing, but are more common for Asian international students than for the domestic group.
“They’ve got money to spend, and they spend it here,” Han said.
After three years at the UO, Han says domestic students’ perspective on Chinese international students is generally negative, fixating primarily on the apparent financial differences between the two. But the disparity, she says, doesn’t interfere with or impact her life.
The base of international students is ever-changing, impacting who and what UO students see around campus. The University has seen a consistent increase in Chinese students in recent years, with China being the University’s top country of exchange for the last several years.
According to data from the Office of International Affairs, for the 2013-14 academic year, 1852 students attending UO are citizens of the People’s Republic of China — that’s 63.3 percent of the international student population.
In comparison to previous years, there were 955 Chinese students at the UO in 2011-12 — about half as many as this year. These numbers indicate that between 2011 and 2014, the percentage of international students who are Chinese has increased 15.9 percent.
Zhang says in doing his own research, about 10 percent of the Chinese student population buys luxury items. He estimates that most Chinese students who own cars make purchases in the $30,000-range, not the luxury range.
“And after graduation, they sell (the cars) again,” he said. “And I know a lot of people, they don’t have cars. They just ride the bus.”
Zhang thinks the community has been misrepresented because of a relatively small number of students’ ostentatious purchases. He estimates only a dozen or so luxury cars are actually driven by Chinese students, but because these cars are more rare in a small town like Eugene than, say, San Francisco or Los Angeles, they get more attention.
“It’s just … (a few) people who want to spend money … this is just individual people, not everyone,” Zhang said. “I mean, I love Ferrari, but I can’t afford it,” Zhang said.
Zhang drives a used 2002 Ford Fusion. He’s still paying off his car loan.
Some people, Zhang feels, may not fully understand the financial situation of many Chinese students. “There’s little chance for financial aid or jobs because of the Visa,” Zhang said. “We can’t get any full-time (work) or work study. It’s so hard.”
This lack of opportunity can contribute to hardship for many students. The majority of Chinese students, Zhang says, are studious and don’t live a lavish lifestyle. “I know a lot of people. They’re crying for the tuition (increase), … the international fees …” Zhang said. “People like me, they’re studying hard. I’m staying at home, so (most people) don’t see me.”