After months of anxious waiting, the Chinese student embarks on a life of study in the United States, armed with a letter of acceptance from an American college, a U.S. visa, a stipend from his government, and his dreams.
It sounds like the making of a success story, except for one hitch: The student's English is so poor that he cannot understand his lectures, participate in class discussions or exchange views with his American counterparts.
Three years after Peking and Washington agreed to educational exchanges to enhance mutual understanding, the Chinese student's language problem is a familiar story that not only sours his personal experience, but clouds the exchange program itself.
Recent studies of Chinese enrolled in American schools reveal the alarming statistic that as many as half of the visiting scholars and 60 percent of the students need remedial language training before they can begin to achieve their purpose for coming.
Although many American schools enthusiastically welcomed Chinese students in the first blush of normalized relations, and provided free remedial English courses for the slow starters, they are starting to tire of shouldering the high costs of such programs and now demand greater proficiency in English.
Schools that originally accepted Chinese scholars and students on faith that they spoke adequate English have started to require all candidates to take the standard "Test of English as a Foreign Language" that is compulsory for applicants from other non-English speaking countries.
Recently, the two-hour test in English was given for the first time in China. It was taken by 630 students in three cities. The examinees wielded No. 2 pencils, received instructions in English and submitted to the same procedures of standardized testing in the United States.
The increasingly stringent language requirements of American colleges are not entirely self-centered. Lack of English proficiency places a heavy burden on Chinese visitors, many of whom already feel tremendous pressure to succeed after surviving the rigorous Chinese selection process and the difficulty of getting a U.S. visa.
At least two Chinese scholars at American universities have committed suicide for reasons attributed to the adjustment pressures, including one who failed to meet a deadline for presenting a paper to an academic conference, according to sources here.
Although most of the visitors eventually pick up enough English to function in an academic setting, others escape to the security of Chinese restaurant kitchens and never see the inside of a classroom, a U.S. diplomat said.
The Chinese government, which has placed about half of the estimated 6,000 Chinese now studying in the United States, provides its officially sponsored nominees with between a month and a year of intensive English training before they depart.
As it has become clear that this preparation is insufficient, Chinese education officials who had increasingly turned to American schools to train the new generation of Chinese experts have started taking steps to beef up English training programs in China.
Scores of "foreign experts" have been hired from English-speaking nations to fill Chinese classrooms with native speakers. Instruction in the ABCs is offered daily on the radio. English has been made a compulsory course in primary schools, alongside mathematics and Chinese literature.
Russian-language teachers who were at a premium in the 1950s, when Chinese were exhorted to "learn from Big Brother," now are being retrained as English-language instructors.
Plans have been made to set up two dozen training sites in China, with the hope of unleashing 4,800 new English instructors in Chinese colleges within the next three years.
The U.S. government has organized a group of American scholars to assist at three of the sites, and American colleges have contributed to the effort by developing English programs in several Chinese cities. But one U.S. diplomat said the need for materials and teachers is so great that "it is like trying to fill a bottomless pit."
Chinese who silently resist many government campaigns are enthusiastic supporters of the drive to learn English.
Teen-agers can be seen early each morning, strolling along the sidewalks near their homes, reciting aloud from English texts. Cabdrivers, waitresses and elevator operators carry English phrase books to try out on English-speaking tourists.
It is common to find enterprising young people hovering around the foreign compound in Peking or outside the Peace Hotel in Shanghai, waiting to befriend Americans. Before the first meeting with an American ends, they often ask for the names of American schools or for help in filling out application forms.
A Chinese student who gains admission to an American college and travel permission from his own government must then apply for a visa at the U.S. Embassy or consular offices, which become the last places to weed out applicants who are incompetent in the language.
Almost all government-sponsored Chinese students get shepherded through the process with little scrutiny of their language skills. For the privately sponsored student the screening process is more intense, although consular officials concede that they are too understaffed to evaluate English proficiency.
At the first administration of the Test of English as a Foreign Language here recently, 280 examinees crammed into classrooms at the Peking Language Institute, where they had been brought for two months to polish their English skills.
A few minutes after the two-hour examination began, a young man dejectedly left his desk and handed his test paper to the proctor, apparently giving up in frustration.
"He could at least have sat through the test to see what it was like," observed the proctor. "It costs the government $27 for everyone taking this. For that money you can buy a pretty good tape recorder."