While many of the stereotypes surrounding Chinese studying overseas have focused on them being quiet, nerdy and good at maths, there is a new characteristic on the list: a propensity to cheat. Back in April, a Chinese woman pleaded guilty to hiring a ringer to take the TOEFL exam (Test of English as a Foreign Language) on her behalf in order to gain admission to Pennsylvania State University. She was not alone. Two others pled guilty to cheating on the English proficiency test and now face deportation. And according to an estimate by an American education firm, some 8,000 students from China were asked to leave American universities in 2014 alone, primarily for poor grades and cheating.
However, a new TV show in China that stars actress Tang Yan is hoping to revamp the image of the country’s overseas students. The 50-episode drama The Way We Were was launched in May on Beijing Satellite TV and Dragon Satellite TV, and the series has already accumulated over eight billion views online.
Even before it aired, it had drawn a lot of interest because it is the first time Tang and her real-life boyfriend Luo Jin have collaborated on screen. Set over several decades, the drama follows the lives of the couple’s characters and a group of young Chinese who find themselves in the US (the show makes no effort to disguise the fact that affluent parents send their children abroad in the hope of getting them a green card). It also shows how their worldviews change as they transition from college to the workforce. “Watch how far the characters fall down and get back up, see how far they have come as people that are worthy of our trust. They embody the spirit and the optimism of the new generation, while inheriting the hard work and perseverance of the older generation,” one culture-focused blogger wrote. “From their transformation, we see the change of an era and the future glory of a country.”
The producers tout the show as the country’s first “reality-based” drama about the lives of Chinese students overseas. The majority of the shoot took place in the US, where the crew spent months in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the screenwriters interviewed lots of overseas students in preparation for filming. Tang and Luo also admit that they spent months practicing their English hoping to improve their accents.
Critics have praised the show for its inclusion of moral lessons too. When the father of Shu Che (played by Luo), a senior government official, becomes embroiled in a corruption scandal, Xiao Qing (Tang), the daughter of an upright prosecutor, has to choose whether to reveal incriminating evidence that would send her boyfriend’s father to jail (no prizes for guessing what she decides).
SART (the State Administration of Radio and Television, the country’s media regulator) is a fan, even calling it “a show that promotes the positive energy of young people today”. But others have complained about holes in the plot. As Guangzhou Daily puts it, “there are just one too many ‘coincidences’ and ‘misunderstandings’ in the drama.”
Others, mostly fans of Tang and Luo, say too much screen time is devoted to the supporting cast. “We are 12 episodes in and yet the relationship between the two leads still hasn’t even developed. Did the writers drag this out on purpose?”
Nevertheless, the subject matter makes sense at a time when more of China’s young people are studying abroad than ever before.
For instance, there were over 350,000 Chinese students in the US as of last year, representing more than a third of all the international students in the country. As they often pay full tuition fees – an annual cost of around $50,000 to $60,000 – they have become a crucial source of revenue for American universities. To entice more Chinese applicants, the University of New Hampshire has even announced plans to start accepting scores from the gaokao, making it the first state school in the US to evaluate applicants using the results from China’s national university entrance exam.
Still, there were grumblings that not enough work is being done to prepare the students for the cultural shock of moving to a different country to study. Although The Way We Were touched on some of the everyday coping mechanisms that students adopt when studying abroad – one scene that struck a chord showed middle-class Xiao phoning her parents while eating instant noodles – the drama fails to highlight many of the cultural barriers that Chinese students face like learning American slang and playing beer pong.
Nor does it highlight the pressure many students feel to do well in their studies. With US tuition expenses reaching 10 times average urban disposable income in China, many families need to borrow money from relatives or sell properties to cover the costs. A lot of students admit to feeling the stress and some describe how their parents use Skype to watch them study, admonishing them to work harder.
Not unexpectedly, The Way We Were spends less time in the classroom, preferring to show the characters “going to the beach, going on a picnic, or taking road trips around the US,” says Beijing Daily.
“The truth is, for a lot of Chinese students studying abroad, they struggle not only with language but also blending into the society. This is the biggest obstacle for a lot of students and something the audiences want to see the most in the show. But The Way We Were did little about that. In fact, it portrays studying in the US as almost the same as going to Beijing for school – as if it is merely a change in environment and everything somehow magically works itself out. That is very disappointing,” the newspaper said.
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