Chinese visiting scholars confront culture shock in middle-class America

Saturday, May 10, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:42 p.m. CDT, Saturday, May 10, 2014
Kai Qiao and Yang Wang, a couple from China, find the transition to Missouri to be a culture shock of cooking styles and economic burdens. At least 68 percent of urban households in China are middle class, though the middle class of central Missouri looks and feels much different.

COLUMBIA — If Kai Qiao were back in China, he would take the routines of his middle-class life for granted.

He would wake up in a four-bedroom condo in a nice neighborhood. He would drive his wife to a shopping plaza in their Ford sedan. He would share their pictures on his iPhone.

Back in Chongqing, Qiao would likely be planning a lunar New Year dinner at his grandparents’ home. As a physical education teacher in a four-year college in China, he could be umpiring an international tennis tournament. He could be drinking with friends in open-air restaurants.

But this spring, landing in the United States as a visiting scholar at MU, Qiao’s life became a tangle of culture shock, homesickness and strained finances.

For the first 10 days, he and his wife, Yang Wang, lived with another Chinese couple, shared kitchen utensils and frantically hunted for an affordable apartment. With no car, they weren't sure whether to live close to the MU campus or to a supermarket.

Qiao used buses as much as he could for errands — opening a checking account, registering for classes and managing the red tape of forms and applications. At night, he relied on acquaintances to drive him home. The little luxuries he now takes for granted at home are more elusive in Columbia.

Lifestyle contrasts

In the new China, Qiao and Wang belong to an emerging middle class that is tied to the machine of economic and social change. Like many Chinese, they came to the United States not to escape poverty, but to capitalize on opportunities.

They can afford to spend a year in the United States to study or simply explore, knowing they can return to comfortable, affordable lives in China.

As a middle-class Chinese couple, Qiao and Wang have a kind of passport to success, according to Ted Fishman, bestselling author of “China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World.”

They belong to a fast-growing segment — the middle class — that represented 68 percent of China's urban households in 2012. That figure has skyrocketed from just 4 percent in 2000, management consulting firm McKinsey & Company reported last year.

Chinese middle-class households like Qiao and Wang's earn $9,000 to $34,000 annually in disposable income. They can afford air conditioning, washing machines, cars, apartments, college education and travel.

Overall, a lifestyle that costs the equivalent of $30,000 in China would cost about $51,000 in the U.S., according to the Big Mac currency-comparison index created by The Economist magazine.

Beyond the material well-being of the rising Chinese middle class, Fishman said, they also have the ability to spend their money and time on experiences and learning.

“Coming to a university town in a way is one of the dreams of a lot of Chinese middle-class consumers,” Fishman said in a phone interview.

“When Chinese come to the United States, you know, they go to the usual places. They go to New York City. And they go to Las Vegas, probably more than other people,” he continued.

“But they very often want to see the campuses of MIT, of Harvard, of Princeton. They want to see it. They want to soak it up."

Wave of Chinese scholars

Chinese now make up almost half of all international students and scholars at MU. In 2012, more than 1,000 Chinese students and 300 Chinese scholars were enrolled at the Columbia campus, according to the MU International Center.

A decade ago, the campus had only 270 students and 97 scholars coming from China.

America was one of Qiao’s dream destinations.

He decided on MU through established connections between the college where he works in Chongqing and the MU Asian Affairs Center, which offers training programs, professional visits and cultural events to visiting scholars, government officials and business people from Asia.

It took a year to complete the paperwork and get their visas. His wife quit her job as a magazine editor in order to join him.

Qiao came on an exchange program to study sports management while Wang accompanied him on a spouse visa. They arrived in Missouri too late to register for spring classes. 

This semester, they are attending workshops arranged by the center, and they visited the MU athletics department, learning how college football players train and how they are treated for injuries. 

Qiao does not know whether his American experience will benefit his career when he goes back to China, but he feels every day is precious in a country he once saw only in movies and news.

From heartland to heartland

In mid-February, the day before the Lantern Festival, the last day of the Chinese lunar New Year celebration, Qiao and Wang boarded a plane for America. 

Qiao says he doesn’t believe in fortune telling. But he picked Feb. 13 to start their yearlong journey because Baidu, the biggest Chinese search engine, says it's a lucky day for traveling.

Wearing his grandmother's red carnelian bead bracelet, he and Wang bid goodbye to Chongqing — formerly known as Chungking — a booming mega-city upstream on the Yangtze River in southwest China.

They stopped in Shanghai, San Francisco, Los Angeles and then Dallas, where they were stuck overnight during a Valentine's Day snowstorm.

“The hotel sent a rose,” Qiao said in Chinese. “And I gave it to her.”

He turns to his wife with an apologetic look, sorry he couldn’t give her a nicer gift, as he usually would.

The next day, the couple reboarded and flew north from the bare winter landscape of Texas to the snow-covered fields of the Midwest.

"Missouri looked like a white sea from the air,” Qiao says. “It made me feel pure inside.”

Qiao had done his homework about Columbia before choosing MU for a year of professional development.

"We checked out the city from Google Earth views," Qiao says. “It looked better than I imagined before coming. The snow scene was poetic, just like what we watched on movies such as 'Lord of the Rings.'"

Before leaving China, he joined an email group for Chinese living in Columbia. That’s where he and Wang found a temporary way-station; another Chinese couple agreed to share their two-bedroom apartment for the first few days.

When the couple landed and pulled three heavy suitcases into the cozy waiting area of Columbia Regional Airport, they were warmed by the sight of locals hugging each other upon arrival.

They were met by Gary Dou, senior coordinator of the Chinese programs at the Asian Affairs Center. It was a Saturday when Mizzou Arena hosted a college basketball game, and the streets of Columbia were filled with groups of Missouri Tigers fans.

It seemed like a smooth entry, with little hint of the bumpy road ahead.

Settling into life in Columbia proved a startling shift for Qiao and Wang, both 32, born and raised in an intensely urban megalopolis. Chongqing was dubbed “Chicago on the Yangtze” by the American magazine Foreign Policy in 2010, and described as the “fastest-growing urban center on the planet” by Britain’s Channel 4 in 2006.

They were prepared, at least in theory, to land in a small American town. What they weren’t prepared for were the challenges of going days without Internet access, hunting for apartments, running errands without a car and the shock of learning utilities were charged on top of the rent.

New faces in town

It was Qiao and Wang’s first Friday night in Columbia, and they had been invited by their temporary roommates to experience a bit of the local Christian culture.

On Fridays, the Columbia Chinese Christian Church offers dinner and Bible study groups. The church on Rock Quarry Road has become an important social center for the growing local population of students, visiting scholars and permanent residents.

In the front row of the English Bible study group, Qiao and Wang were singing along with the others while a volunteer leader, Randy Dolan, kept rhythm with his guitar.

Dolan told the congregation about visiting some friends in China in 1994. He took a boat trip on the Yangtze River and chugged past Chongqing.

Qiao, distracted by stress and sleepy from jet lag, suddenly brightened when he heard the name of his hometown. He raised his hand when Dolan asked if anyone is from the city.

“I was so happy to hear him talking about Chongqing. I thought it must have been destiny,” Qiao said, recalling that night.

He forgot for a few moments about the difficulty of finding housing and transportation and trying to reach his family back home.

A week later, Dolan visited the couple at their temporary apartment on West Broadway. He brought his wife's home-baked pumpkin bread to welcome them.

His slow, clear English is a relief to Qiao and Wang, who struggle to understand rapid-fire American slang.

Qiao asked Dolan the best way to answer the constant American greeting, “How are you doing?” Back home, people greet each other with a simple “Hello.”

Dolan told them that the phrase was just a courtesy, like saying "hi," and there was no need to respond.

A regular traveler to China and an intermediate Mandarin speaker, Dolan can pick up what the couple says from time to time. But he is bewildered when they switch to the Chongqing dialect they speak with each other.

Their provincial dialect is one more isolating factor for Qiao and Wang. Although Mandarin is the national language, most Chinese have difficulty understanding someone from a different province.

Dou, MU Asian Affairs Center senior coordinator, tries to speak the couple’s dialect to make them feel more like home. He has picked up the various dialects after a decade of working with Chinese scholars. 

One of Dou’s jobs is to introduce the center’s Chinese scholars to the area, taking them on trips to the Hong Kong Market, Osage Beach Premium Outlets and the Amish Community near Columbia. He shows them around and often sparks laughter among the small group of scholars.

A challenging move

Most visiting scholars rely on the center to find housing, buy a car and sometimes enroll their kids in school. Although Dou introduced Qiao and Wang to a local friend who eventually does help them find a new apartment, the couple managed to deal with many matters on their own. 

Among the Chinese scholars who have come to MU through the center, Dou said Qiao was the first to sign a private apartment lease on his own. Not that it was easy.

He ended up finding a one-bedroom apartment close to their temporary lodging, as well as to a grocery store. With Dou’s help, he opened an account at a local bank the same day he and his wife moved into their new place.

They had purchased a queen-size bed, a desk, a dining table and smaller pieces of furniture through the Chinese email group or from acquaintances. The furniture had to be moved from their temporary quarters up a set of stairs into the apartment.

Qiao thought about lugging everything on foot, but he didn't have enough help and the night was cold. A friend of this reporter finally loaned him a van and offered to drive it, since the Qiao didn't yet have a driver's license.

The two men carried all the furniture and heavy bags into the apartment as Wang told them where to put it. After everything was unloaded, she pulled out her Chinese iPhone and took pictures of her husband trying to assemble the wooden headboard for their bed.

“This is funny,” she laughed. Her husband rarely did this kind of work back home.

Spicy dishes, sweet wine

On a breezy March day, the afternoon sunlight crept into Qiao and Wang’s apartment. A bunch of pink tulips sat in a pot on the nightstand-sized table, brightening up the pale living room. The couple had covered a mattress with a floral-patterned quilt from a garage sale to use as a couch.

The kitchen was the center of sounds and smells. Next to the stove, a dozen bottles and jars sat on the counter — cooking wine, vinegar, spicy bean sauce, pickled peppers, sesame oil and white pepper.

In the cabinet were dry peppers, garlic and ginger that Qiao and Wang had brought from home, where spices are worshipped as health cures to those who live in the mountainous area around Chongqing.

The taste of four different kinds of hot peppers in one dish speaks to the essence of Chongqing cuisine. It's a branch of the Szechuan style that American spicy-food lovers might recognize.

As Chongqingers who are most proud of their own food, Qiao and Wang have found cooking Chinese in America is the way to bridge the distance from home.

“Americans eat simple stuff like hamburgers, sandwiches and drink Coke," Qiao said. "I'm trying hard to get used to them to explore their culinary culture.”

Qiao is a creative cook and often volunteers to take over the kitchen, especially in his better moods. That day, Qiao had successfully persuaded the technicians from CenturyLink to repair their Internet service.

The couple cheered when they were finally able to Skype with their parents, and Qiao was proud of the victory over another confusing problem.

Devising a plan for dinner, he walked to the nearby Hy-Vee grocery store to buy vegetables. Once back home, he busied himself in the kitchen. Wang, dressed in a long gray skirt with suspenders and a matching beret, was allowed only to peel and chop the potatoes.

Qiao mixed slices of beef with spicy bean sauce and added three kinds of chili peppers. The oil popped, and the peppers sizzled like lit firecrackers in the wok.

A dinner of soup and four main dishes was soon ready. Wang set the table, and Qiao poured himself a glass from the jug of Paisano red wine. It helps him sleep better these days, he said.

As Qiao began to eat, Wang stood up to take pictures of their colorful dinner table. She might show the photos via Skype to their parents, who would soon be awake on the other side of the planet.

Steam from Qiao’s celery beef stir-fry and the hot-and-sour shredded potato sent a spicy fragrance around the small apartment.

It smelled like home.


The days of struggle to settle down in Columbia are over for Kai Qiao and Yang Wang. Commuting is not a hassle anymore. Qiao drives around in a Jeep SUV that he bought from a Chinese owner. He also acquired a Blackberry cellphone to make contacts in the U.S. 

The couple goes to the Hong Kong Market and can get most ingredients they need to cook authentic Chinese meals. They were happy to find a stove and pot set for making hotpot, one of the most typical local cuisines in Chongqing. 

They are learning about the government, economy and culture of Missouri in the workshops arranged by the Asian Affairs Center. Their English has improved a little, but has a long way to go to understand everything. In his spare time, Qiao plays tennis with friends in the open-air public court.

Columbia is the couple's home, for now.

Supervising editor is Jacqui Banaszynski.

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Hong Zhao May 10, 2014 | 5:42 p.m.

It's a very interesting story!

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 10, 2014 | 7:14 p.m.

I really enjoyed this story. Very nice job, Miranda. This couple shows all the attributes of folks headed for happiness with satisfying things in life. Lol, try to explain "Movin' on up!" to them because that's where they are headed, whether here or back home.

Welcome to Columbia! I hope we do a good job.

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