Special Report: East Meets East Lansing

By: Lorne Fultonberg
By: Lorne Fultonberg

 By the Numbers

  • 3,712 -- Number of Chinese students enrolled at MSU in fall 2012
  • 675 -- Number of Korean students enrolled at MSU in fall 2012, the second largest international population
  • $250 million -- Estimated amount of money international students pump into the local economy
  • 130 -- Countries represented at MSU
  • 97.6 -- Percent increase in Asian enrollment over the last five years

You could call it culture shock.

When Haoyi Li, a junior finance major at MSU, traveled to East Lansing from his home in China, he couldn't believe what was waiting for him.

"It's really lovely," said Li. "Sometimes I feel it's not really American. Everything I have in Beijing is already here. I don't need to go back."

Chinese restaurants, karaoke bars, billiard halls, massage parlors. All his comforts from home could be found on and about Grand River Ave.

"It's getting better and better," he said.

Li is one of more than 3,000 Chinese students studying in East Lansing. That's only about six percent of MSU's student population. But in a foreign population that ranks as the ninth largest in the country, one of every two students is from China, according to a 2012 report.

"You've got an anxious Chinese middle class with one child, two sets of grandparents, and a rising income, and they're looking for higher education for their one kid," said Peter Briggs, director of MSU's Office for International Students and Scholars, adding looser visa policies help too. "There's a worldwide phenomenon right now."

Often, agents help Chinese students choose MSU. Students say the University's high-achieving academic programs and high-numbering international population are attractive factors, as are achievable benchmarks on the TOEFL exam, which serves as a foreigner's SAT.

MSU is welcoming the phenomenon with open arms. The number of students from Asia has skyrocketed of late, up 13 percent from 2011 and nearly doubling in the last five years according to a 2012 report, something Briggs calls a "dramatic uptick."

"There's a lot of changes going on in the world right now and I think you see the campus and the university embracing those changes in the world," Briggs said. "I think that MSU does a really good job of serving [the Chinese] and involving them and making them feel like we care about them. I think that's a big deal. I'm really proud of that."

Involving the international students and ensuring their comfort begins from the moment they step off the plane at the airport, where a coalition of Spartans greet their newest members.

It continues in their on-campus accommodations where signs in some campus buildings are translated to Mandarin and campus convenience stores offer loose-leaf tea and imported snacks.

"I think what we try to do is offer something for everybody and part of the challenge is that everybody has their own tastes and preferences," said Mike Harding, service manager at Sparty's, a convenience store located in McDonel Hall. "We try to offer an international line specifically gauged toward people that are not able to normally get that product. So it's convenient and it's located where they can obtain it easily."

In Shaw Dining Hall, students line up before the food venues actually open, waiting to get their hands on a noodle bowl from Garden Wok, which can serve up to 400 portions every meal, mostly to Chinese internationals.

"Being able to make some of their home cuisine here on campus makes them feel like they're more at home and more comfortable eating with us, spending time with us, and actually being a part of campus," said Executive Chef Kevin Cruz.

Cruz even traveled to China last year to attempt to bring an authentic menu back to campus and calls the response "absolutely phenomenal."

Even when students travel off-campus, they say they find a city that has sprung up to offer them a home away from home.

Authentic restaurants stand steps away from karaoke bars and billiard halls. Many Chinese students do their grocery shopping at stores like the Oriental Mart on Grand River Ave.

"Nowadays as everyone's seen around town we have a lot more of Chinese students around," said Rachel Nimsombun, a store manager at Oriental Mart, "so everything in the East Lansing area caters more to Chinese students."

Nimsombun, who moved to East Lansing from Thailand more than a decade ago recalls how her family used to have to send her her favorite foods from home through the mail. Now, she says, her mother is shocked to hear that many of those foods and ingredients can be found in Oriental Mart's eight aisles, which are replenished weekly by at least 30 delivery trucks. It's that kind of availability that helps international students contribute about $250 million dollars to the local economy.

"Everyone just wants to feel like home," said Rachel Nimsombun, a store manager at Oriental Mart. "Having comfort food is like being at home."

Chinese students looking for a new home can negotiate their leases with Mandarin-fluent interpreters at many locations. At Chandler Crossings in Bath Township, a video on the complex's website boasts a supportive community no matter how far you are from your home.

"We market to them the same as we market to everybody else; we just take a little more time to make sure they understand what they're getting," said Gerry Sawyer, who represents Chandler Crossings. "[Asian students are] a very large part of any market for student housing. And they want a good quality of life like anybody else. And they expect to be taken care of."

Across town on Michigan Ave., the Gillespie Group is also pushing to take special care of Chinese internationals. The Midtown apartment complex, slated to open in August, has the Chinese character for "home" in its logo. Representatives for the Gillespie Group say there's a comfort students can gain from a place that makes itself friendly to internationals.

On campus, International Center Director Peter Briggs says MSU can gain from an international population too.

"Not everybody can study abroad, not everybody can go abroad, so to have the world here gives us a chance to know the rest of the world," he said.

Briggs says the global increase in internationals isn't going away anytime soon, but he does think it may be slowing at MSU.

"I think at this point we've reached a level of international undergraduate enrollment that we're going to stay at," he said. "So what we want to do is continue what we've got and probably improve the quality if we get better numbers of applications."

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