East Asian influx slowly changes East Lansing

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Leo Di zipped into the strip mall, ducked into a laundromat to pick up his clothes and left his 2014 Maserati running outside.

It's a good life at Michigan State University, the 20-year-old student from China said before jumping back into his $150,000 car to return to campus.

"I like the people and their culture," said Di, a sophomore who's studying general management and lives in a campus apartment. "Maybe I'll even find a job and stay here."

Yuwen Yin, 21, of Jiangsu, China, fills out paperwork at the Delia Koo International Academic Center to invite her parents and aunt from China to visit her at MSU.

Most college towns don't have a lot of students cruising around in luxury vehicles. But around MSU's campus, it is not uncommon to see students behind the wheel of a Porsche, Mercedes-Benz or Hummer. Often, the student is a 20-something from China — home to MSU's largest group of international students, which has grown almost tenfold over the past decade.

The high-end cars signal how the students are changing East Lansing. From Chinese restaurants and specialty grocers to karaoke and pool halls, the influx of Chinese students is slowly reshaping the community neighboring the state capital. Students are buying condos and houses. Even Bank of America has a sign in Chinese welcoming students.

Last month, the university began 18 months of programming to promote a better understanding of Chinese culture and people, and marking the 10th anniversary of the MSU China Initiative that spawned the inflow of students — now about 10 percent of MSU's student body.

"All universities in the last 10 years realized the importance of internationalization of the campus, the curriculum and encouraging students to study abroad and welcoming them here," said Weijun Zhao, director of the Office of China Programs. "It's a global economy."

MSU President Lou Anna Simon launched the initiative in 2005, a few months after she became president, as part of her vision to be the nation's premier land-grant university. In her inaugural speech in January 2005, she said MSU needed to be "bold by design."

"One of the themes was to expand international engagement and outreach," Zhao said.

MSU couldn't target every nation. It selected China, the world's most populous nation and a source of developing wealth with its growing, affluent middle class.

Outreach spurs flood

In fall 2004, there were 43 undergraduate students and 492 graduate students from China attending MSU, for a total of 535. This past fall, the number of Chinese undergraduate students mushroomed to 3,899 and graduates grew to 785 for a total of 4,684 — almost 10 percent of the university's 48,000 students.

Part of the growth was due to MSU's outreach in China. University officials have attended education expos in Shanghai and Beijing, and visited numerous high school classrooms, Zhao said. That has led to 8,000-10,000 Chinese student applicants annually for the past three years. Meanwhile, China's middle class can afford to send its children abroad for an education, and feel the U.S. system is superior to China's, he added.

That was the case for Amber Liu, an MSU sophomore from Beijing. She was accepted by U.S. universities, selecting MSU because many of her high school friends were going there, too.

"The U.S. has the best education," said Liu, who is studying finance. "My parents wanted me to go to the U.S., so I go."

In 2009, the university was among the 10 U.S. colleges and universities with the most international students — with students from China driving the growth, according to the Institute of International Education.

Every year since, MSU has been on the list, along with the University of Michigan. Combined, the volume of students at the two institutions put Michigan in the 10 states hosting the most international students. Last year, MSU was ranked ninth in the nation; UM was 11th.

That growing student population has brought in additional revenue for the university, since Chinese students pay out-of-state tuition. This year, that's $35,000 for a full-time undergraduate — nearly three times the $13,000 in-state rate. This comes at a time when state funding to public universities still trails 2002 levels, when 10 years of funding cuts began, and the Legislature has capped tuition increases for the last four years.

MSU could not estimate how much revenue international students have brought to the university. But officials said the international student population contributes an estimated $273 million to the greater Lansing economy.

Meanwhile, some students have questioned whether Chinese students are pushing out Michigan students who want to attend MSU. But Zhao said they have only contributed to the growth of student population.

"The university increased in size to hold more students," Zhao said, "so there are no efforts to squeeze domestic students out."

The university has worked to make Chinese students feel welcome. It holds orientation sessions every year in Shanghai and Beijing before students leave for East Lansing. Chinese staff have been hired in many MSU departments. Chefs from China are coming to the university this spring to teach campus chefs some traditional dishes.

To help them better understand Chinese culture, MSU staff and student leaders have traveled to universities in China.

Alyson Weeda of Canton Township talks with Wei Zhang of Beijing. Weeda tutors her in English and American culture.

'Changing the community'

Like all students, the Chinese must live on campus their freshman year. But they often move off-campus their second year. Instead of renting, as most American students do, many buy condos or houses.

It's a niche market for Aaron Hoffman, who has been in the real estate business for 45 years. Initially, he worked with Koreans in buying commercial and residential property and got referrals when Chinese students started gradually investing in the community.

The first property he sold was four years ago. Each year since then, he has sold 25-30 properties to Chinese, resulting in $3 million to $5 million in sales annually. He has hired a Chinese woman, Cuc Wangsawihardja, to help him work with parents in China, organize volunteers to pick them up when they arrive and mentor students while they are here.

"Their presence is subtly and quietly changing the community," Hoffman said.

Many businesses are starting to respond to the growing Chinese community. Not far from campus, the New Oriental Mart has expanded and modernized its offerings for the local Asian population, mostly catering to Chinese palates.

Since Chinese students typically cook a dish known as a hotpot, the store stocks more than 16 varieties of fish balls. It also has frozen sliced meats, dumplings and other foods. The store stocks a variety of fresh vegetables including 10 varieties of bok choy. It also recently installed a live fish tank.

"The Chinese like to eat whole fish," said Rachel Nimsombun, store manager. "It's a sign of good luck."

Next door, Li He opened the Limit Pool & Karaoke Club, with nine private karaoke rooms and eight pool tables.

"There are many international students," said He, who opened the business three years ago. "They told me they didn't have anywhere to go on the weekend, so I opened. In China, pool and karaoke are the most popular entertainment."

The local arts community has opened its arms to the Chinese with several events to explore their culture. Last fall, a contemporary Chinese art exhibit was shown at the Broad Art Museum on campus. And numerous events are scheduled during the next 18 months to mark the 10-year anniversary of the MSU China Initiative.

'Hard to make friends'

While MSU officials and local merchants are welcoming them, acclimating to East Lansing isn't always easy. Many Chinese students say they like MSU, but could do without the long winters. They also say that creating relationships with American students is among their biggest challenges.

"I am studying here and making a lot of friends," said Jue Xu, a 19-year-old sophomore from Beijing. "But it's not very easy making friends with Americans. We are Chinese. Americans know you are a foreigner. It's just very hard to make friends with them."

Xinge Ji, a graduate student from Suzhou, a major city in eastern China, has been at MSU since 2012 studying computer science. She also has met many American students, but her relationships with them are not as deep as she would like.

"It's hard getting involved in the American lifestyle," Ji said. "It's hard to find common ground. I have some American friends here. But we don't get very attached. It would be better if I could have more bonds with the people here."

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com