“The Statue of Liberty, The White House, Niagara Falls…Yale.”
Non Shao, a guide for the Mayi Tour Group, read aloud highlights of the group’s seven-day tour itinerary. He waved an orange flag to catch the eye of a boy in a Harvard sweatshirt who had wandered off. Behind the guide, the crowd of cap-clad, selfie-snapping tourists from China rubbed Theodore Dwight Woolsey’s golden foot. Some were years past viable admission-process age, but that didn’t stop them.
China’s educational tourism industry is booming, and universities around the world are experiencing the impact. The industry was worth an estimated 4.5 billion U.S. dollars in 2016 alone. Chinese citizens of all ages are willing to spend from 200 to more than 8,000 dollars to visit elite college campuses.
Though now wildly popular, Chinese educational tourism is a relatively new phenomenon.
The Chinese tourism industry hardly existed at all 15 years ago, due to strict travel controls and a weak domestic economy. According to the China National Tourism Administration, in 2007, 31 million Chinese tourists traveled out of the country; in 2016, that number hit 127 million. China’s economic boom has made international travel accessible for millions, inspiring a newfound desire to explore the world.
David Youtz, executive director of the Yale-China Association, has observed the expansion of the Chinese tourism industry firsthand.
“Traveling is seen as exciting; it is seen as being cosmopolitan,” Youtz told The Politic. “It is seen as being modern to say that you’ve been to Paris, or Tokyo, New York or Australia.”
Now, New Haven makes the list, too.
From his office on the second floor of the Yale-China Association, Youtz has a bird’s eye view of Temple Street, where many tour groups park their buses. The influx of Chinese tourists to Yale has caused the organization to restructure and move offices upstairs to create space for a museum that will showcase Yale’s long history with China. Youtz looks forward to opening the museum’s doors to visitors within the next two years.
“I think it will be a benefit to Yale,” he said. “People can come in, spend their time, and view the Yale-China story.”
Rooted in centuries of history, this story spans many generations. Yung Wing, the first Chinese student to enroll in an American university, graduated from Yale in 1854. In addition to playing football and singing in the choir, Wing founded the Chinese Educational Mission, which brought 120 Chinese students to North American schools, including Yale. Wing’s efforts to connect the university with China led to the creation of the Yale-China Association in 1901. Today, Yung Wing’s legacy is reflected in the 300,000 Chinese students who attend American universities. According to the Wall Street Journal, they comprise one third of the international undergraduate population in the United States.
Huahao Zhou ‘21, a Yale student from Chongqing, China, spoke to The Politic about the impact of Wing’s story on his educational aspirations.
“When I was 12, I watched a documentary called ‘Yung Wing’ that played on CCTV, the nation’s state-run television station,” Zhou said.
Yale’s international prestige makes it a must-see landmark for many Chinese tourists.
“It is like a palace—a holy palace,” Zhou added. “Even for me, I hadn’t been to the United States before this, and even I wanted to see what Yale looked like.”
Bohan Lou ’20, the only student Yale has accepted from his Shanghai school, highlighted the prestige associated with a Yale degree in China.
“If you tell anyone in my city that you go to Yale, it will be automatically assumed that you are very intelligent, that you are one of the most elite,” Lou noted in an interview with The Politic.
“In a minor way, yes, I am a celebrity,” Lou continued. “When my friends got in, news stations interviewed them, there were articles written about them, they were invited to give talks—just because they got into Yale.”
Chinese ranking culture largely contributes to the recent increase in tourism.
“They love to rank things, more than American society does,” Youtz explained. “They are constantly ranking their own cities: the greenest city, the best food, the most polluted city. They’ll literally have a list from one to 50, and you can see that your city is ranked, let’s say, 37th.”
“Americans don’t look at it quite that way,” Youtz continued. “But there is a readiness in Chinese to say: Yale is the number one, or Harvard is the number one school. That, rightly or wrongly, makes Yale seems like one of the most important universities in the world in the public imagination.”
“People here at Yale have good grades,” remarked a tourist from Chongqing, China, in an interview with The Politic. “People at Yale will become famous in the world. If I study in Yale, I will be different than the others.”
But the very impulse to rank that draws students to Yale also drives them away from the Chinese educational system.
“China has an extremely intense educational system,” explained Youtz. “[Students] are not only ferociously competitive. Everyone knows their rank in their class. Whether you’re 13th or second or 38th. There is terrible pressure on kids to pass tests.”
Tourist Yuhan Chen described his fascination with the culture of freedom fostered at Yale and other American universities.
“You can sit on the grass. You can talk freely,” Chen said in an interview with The Politic. She motioned toward a fierce spikeball game nearby, saying, “You can play all kinds of sports that you want.”
Chinese and American universities differ in academics, too.
“In most Chinese universities, you cannot change your major,” explained Carol Li Rafferty, Managing Director of Yale Center Beijing, in an interview with The Politic.
“It’s kind of like once you are streamed into a philosophy major at whatever school, that’s what you need to stick with,” said Rafferty. “People are in that mindset of ‘my future is decided at this point where I get streamed into a certain university and into a certain major and that defines the rest of my life.’ That’s where the pressure comes from.”
In a way, this decisive moment occurs even before starting university. Referencing China’s Gaokao exam, Rafferty explained, “The way it works in China is that you take the university entrance exam and depending on the score you get, it kind of changes your whole future.”
The Gaokao, which translates literally from Chinese to “Big Test,” lasts about nine hours, over a two-day period. This year, 9.8 million students took the exam. The New York Times reports that many children start studying for the high-stakes exam in elementary school.
“You take the Gaokao exam, and your score determines which university you can go to,” Shuangyi Zhang ‘21 told The Politic. “Your life is dependent on that score. If you get the highest mark, you can go to the best university.”
“As China, as a country, becomes more open,” Zhou added, “children in China are beginning to realize that they are better suited for a more free American curriculum. Some parents also realize the problems with Chinese education system, and they want their children to be happy.”
He added that, on the other hand, “Some parents also see life as a competition, and they always want their children to win.”
“To [Chinese parents], education is viewed as the pathway to success,” explained David Lau, Rafferty’s New Haven counterpart at the Yale Center Beijing, in an interview with The Politic. “Education is the key that will unlock the future.”
Speaking of the tourists at Yale, he added, “I think some parents want to visit to elite colleges hoping that their children will one day come here. Even if they don’t bring their children to visit, it gives them the vision of what they want for their children in the future.”
“There’s a Chinese proverb that means ‘you want your child to become a dragon,’” said Rafferty. ”It’s every parent’s dream.”