Finding a Chulu (Way Out): Rural-origin Chinese Students Studying Abroad in South Korea

Research Highlighted:

Lan, S. (2021). Finding a Chulu (Way Out): Rural-origin Chinese Students Studying Abroad in South Korea. Pacific Affairs, 94(4), 661-681.

Based on multi-sited research in China and South Korea, this paper examines the motivations for rural-origin Chinese students to study abroad in South Korea and how their overseas experiences are mediated by the intersection of internal and international educational hierarchies. Existing literature on transnational student mobility from Asia mainly focuses on students from urban middle-class background, little attention has been paid to students from less advantaged background. Scholars have noted that China’s seemingly meritocratic gaokao (national college entrance exam) policy in reality functions to perpetuate the structural marginalization of rural students in its educational system. This research moves beyond the internal migration paradigm by examining how social inequalities associated with the rural/urban divide get reproduced and re-articulated by the intersection of class, gender, place of origin, and time management at the transnational scale.

Existing literature on Chinese students in South Korea often treat them as a homogeneous group, rather than making distinctions based on class, gender, and place of origin. This research attends to the heterogeneity within the Chinese student population by focusing on a relatively invisible group of students from rural background. In 2018 when this research was conducted, there were 68,184 Chinese students enrolled in universities in South Korea, constituting almost half of the total foreign student population. Although the majority of them are from urban middle-class or lower middle-class backgrounds, there is a small group of rural-origin students who identify themselves as from wage-earning or low-income families. They remain invisible in the Chinese student community for several reasons. First, social stigmatization associated with the rural often makes them hesitant to identify their rural origin. Second, rural students usually do not share the conspicuous consumption behaviors of more affluent Chinese students and are thus marginalized in the social circle of Chinese students. Last but not least, they are usually busy working at multiple part-time jobs to cover their tuition and living expenses. Although most Chinese students in South Korea engage in some type of part-time employment, those from rural background face more pressure to work hard to support themselves due to their family’s lack of financial resources. This research investigates the following questions: What motivates rural students to study in South Korea? How do class, gender, and place of origin mediate their overseas educational experiences and future mobility trajectories?

Scholars have noted that the expansion of China’s higher educational system has become the main engine for the production of a new generation of educated middle-class. Yet they also note that this new educated middle-class is internally stratified due to university ranking in China.This research contributes a transnational dimension to the formation of the educated middle-class by examining social stratifications among overseas Chinese students. Due to the hierarchical ranking of study abroad destinations and the prevalence of a global educational hierarchy, rural-origin graduates from South Korea will most likely occupy the lower stratum of the educated middle-class compared to their urban peers. Tang and Unger further divide the educated middle-class into those who hold jobs “within the system,” i.e. the public sector, and those who work “outside the system”, i.e. the private sector. The two argue that jobs within the system are not only secure (in terms of welfare benefits)  and financially sustainable, but provide privileged access to “within-the-system” resources that may generate significant grey income outside the system. Due to their less privileged educational credentials and rural family background, and lack of localized social networks in big cities, my respondents usually turn to the transnational realm or the private sector for job opportunities. Despite their overseas degrees and transnational experiences, they are still marginalized within the Chinese social system.       

Robertson et al develop a “mobile transitions” framework to examine the intertwinement of youth’s aspirations for transnational mobility and their transition to adulthood. The popularization of overseas education in China means that an increasing number of Chinese youth are transitioning to adulthood during their time studying abroad. However, such mobile transitions are marked by stratifications along the line of class, gender, and place of origin. The marginalization of rural students in China’s educational system has pushed some of them to become new consumers of overseas education. However, the rural/urban divide continues to shape rural students’ study and work experiences in South Korea in important ways. This research finds a notable tension in my rural participants’ narratives of educational mobility. On the one hand, they are highly aware of structural inequalities in both the Chinese and the transnational educational systems; on the other hand, they also embrace the neoliberal ideology of self-responsibility and self-entrepreneurship. While appealing to the desire for transnational mobility among youth from different social backgrounds, China’s liberalization of policy in the self-funded study abroad market also functions to hide structural inequalities in its social and educational system. Although overseas education offers some rural students opportunities to negotiate their structural marginalization in Chinese society, it also reflects the expansion of internal social spatial inequalities to the international realm. The rural/urban divide and the regional scale of their transnational capital conversion have largely pre-determined rural youth’s disadvantaged position in a stratified Chinese society.

Author Bio

Shanshan Lan is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the Moving Matters research group. She received her Ph. D. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She had worked as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Northwestern University and Connecticut College in the United States. Before joining the University of Amsterdam, she was a Research Assistant Professor in the David Lam Institute for East-West Studies, Hong Kong Baptist University. Lan is the Principal Investigator of the ERC project “The reconfiguration of whiteness in China: Privileges, precariousness, and racialized performances” (CHINAWHITE, 2019-2024). Funded by the European Research Council, this project examines how the western notion of whiteness is dis-assembled and re-assembled in the new historical context of China’s rise as a global superpower.

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