Applied Psychology OPUS

How Stereotypes of a U.S. Degree Impacts One's Reentry Experience in China

Scarlett Wang


   Two Chinese international students at the University of Southern California (USC) were shot dead in a tragic, attempted armed robbery in April 2012 (Fong, 2012). The reactions from their Chinese homeland were shocking. The most common reaction in Chinese media was negative because they were “studying in America,” “driving a BMW,” “a male and a female alone in the car” (as cited by Fong, 2012) – all typically looked down upon within traditional Chinese value systems. The American reality was that the victims, Ming Qu and Ying Wu, were just like many other graduate students at USC; friends who were driving a reasonable second-hand BMW. The negative reactions, therefore, were rooted judgments that American educations and luxury vehicles automatically imply wealth and spoiling. Additionally, they were presumed to be promiscuous because the opposite sex friends were alone together in the car and not married. The negative reactions demonstrate the negative stereotypes within the Chinese society towards students who go to the U.S. for a higher education.

            Studying negative stereotypes are important to society on three levels. The primary and most broad aspect of negative stereotypes is that they lead to prejudice and discrimination. The second phase is that a person who encounters said negative stereotypes from the social environment around him/her will likely to encounter stress and anxiety, which can trigger larger clinical problems (Sirin & Fine, 2007). The third implication of these negative stereotypes on society impacts higher education as students who go to the U.S. for the higher education within Chinese society carry part of the negative stereotypes of American culture within Chinese society. Study results of the negative stereotypes that hash out and further explore the stigmas, judgments and associations can potentially benefit the mutual understandings between the two cultures yet literature discussing the negative stereotypes in Chinese society against Chinese international students is scant. Rather, related themes in the literature are 1) first entry and culture shock related with the first entry, 2) cultural assimilation and third culture phenomenon, and 3) re-entry and reverse culture shock (Gaw, 1995, 2000, 2007; Huff, 2001; Leung, 2007; Tamura & Furnham, 1993; Wang, 1997).  these three themes, the most related to negative stereotype are the concepts of re-entry and reverse culture shock because the re-entry and reverse culture shock experiences of international students include their perceptions of how they are perceived or judged. Therefore, this paper will cover studies of international students’ reentry and reverse culture shock (i.e., studies on Missionary Kids and Third Culture Kids), with hopes to inspire a dialogue within psychological research about how negative stereotypes in Chinese society affect Chinese students, and students from other socially conservative countries, in the United States.

Reentry and Reverse Culture Shock

     Reverse culture shock is the widely accepted as the psychological and psychosomatic symptoms of the readjustment process back into one’s primary culture after a significant period of separation (Huff, 2001). Reverse culture shock impacts a person’s psychological well being and academic performance because of the re-acculturative stress (Gaw, 1995, 2000; Huff, 2001; Tamura & Furnham, 1993). The more reverse culture shock a person encounters, the more severe psychological problems are reported.

            It is accepted that culture shock will impact one’s mental health (Gaw, 1995, 2000; Huff, 2001; Tamura & Furnham, 1993) however, there seems to be disagreement within the literature about whether or not reverse culture shock can be beneficial. Some studies show that the more reverse culture shock a person encounters, the less student support service and medical help the person will seek (Gaw, 1995, 2000; Huff, 2001; Tamura & Furnham, 1993) whereas other studies pose that, in some Asian cultures, reverse culture shock can improve confidence in one’s academic performance and interpersonal relationships (Tamura & Furnham, 1993). Research on culture shock has a bright side; students who have experienced a second culture for a significant amount of time will have more confidence in academic performance and maintain better interpersonal relationships, when compared with those who have not experienced another culture for a significant amount of time (Tamura & Furnham, 1993).  The positive effects of cross cultural experience can only be maintained if the experience is valued by the reentered society or community. The aim is then to remove the impeding effects of negative stereotype (e.g., of studying abroad) in the culturally liberal society (e.g., that of the United States) so that the shock of reentrance is lessoned.

            Missionary Kids and Third Culture Kids

            Currently, no research explores stigma of students choosing long-term international study. Missionary Kids (MKs) and Third Culture Kids (TCKs) are specific terms used to describe children who were raised in a different culture than that of their parents (Huff, 2001; Taylor, 1976).  For this review, highlighting the experiences of Missionary Kids and Third Culture Kids as they re-enter their primary cultures is used to shed light on potential experiences of international students and reintegration stigma faced by young scholars. Missionary Kids are children raised in a different culture than their parents’ home culture, and they are neither North American nor foreign, whereas the term Third Culture Kid refers to a child who has spent a significant amount of time in a culture that is not their parents’ home culture. Both Missionary Kids and Third Culture Kids have developed a culture that is neither their parents’ home culture nor the second culture, but a unique third culture that is different from the sum of both parts (Gaw, 2007; Huff, 2001; Taylor, 1976; White, 1983).  A major finding with these populations is that the reverse culture shock of Missionary Kids and Third Culture Kids can be more severe than the initial culture shock they encounter when entering the second culture (Huff, 2001; Leung, 2007; Tamura & Furnham; Wang, 1997).  Research suggests that Missionary Kids and Third Culture Kids do not identify fully with the primary culture due to “the sense of loss” and “out of place-ness.” Socialization with peers from the primary culture can be difficult due to communication and value discrepancies therefore it becomes hard to establish a mutual understanding with the peers (Huff, 2001; Leung, 2007; Tamura & Furnham; Wang, 1997).  The cultural reentrance experience can create difficulties socializing, communicating, and reaching out for help. Difficulties during adolescence and young adulthood can impede resilience. Additionally, negative views on socially liberal societies, such as the United States, stigmatize those who choose to go outside their culture for an education and discourage international scholarship. Negative judgments on the inherent values of culture should not be attached to students who choose to study within it; instead, cross-cultural experience should be valued and encouraged. The experiences of Missionary Kids and Third Culture Kids, and extant research on resilience teach us that interpersonal relationships are key to fostering stability and social support throughout a reentrance process.

Interpersonal Relationships and Academics

     Interpersonal relationships are crucial to fostering resilience throughout reentry and reverse culture shock. In addition to interpersonal relationships with peers, parental attachment of the Missionary Kids and Third Culture Kids, their perceived social support, and the adjustment process to college. Results show that there are no differences in parental attachment between Missionary Kids and Non-Missionary Kids (Huff, 2001) but most importantly, the more attachment the Missionary Kids and the Third Culture Kids have to their parents, the more they will perceive social supports from the environment within the primary culture. The more attachment the Missionary and Third Culture Kids have to their parents, the better they will adjust to college in all subjects (Huff, 2001).  It is through this example that we see how negative stereotypes are related to stress cause by reentry and how social systems (e.g., families) can foster resilience and make this process positive. Parental attachment is positively related with positive coping outcomes dealing with reentry and reverse culture shock. Additional to parent-child relationships, studies have also looked at the relationship between clinical counseling and the psychological well-being of Missionary and Third Culture Kids (Leung, 2007; Wang, 1997). In general, comprehensive counseling services have shown significant results in improving the resilience of Missionary and Third Culture Kids when encountering reverse culture shock (Leung, 2007). As the study results imply, it might be helpful for schools and employers to provide effective counseling programs and interventions to prevent reverse culture shock (Leung, 2007).  Schools and employers are more aware of initial culture shock than reverse culture shock, which contributes to a large number of effective programs and interventions to help reduce the negative impact of culture shock. Unfortunately, educational institutions and international corporations barely have support programs to prepare students for reentry into their primary culture (Wang, 1997).  If proper social support is provided throughout the reentry process by destigmatizing what it means to leave one’s culture (e.g., pursue a US education), research supports the potential upside of cross-cultural exposure (Tamura & Furnham, 1993).

            Using the Chinese culture as an example to explore the effects of negative stereotyping, when a Chinese student finishes the degree in the U.S. and chooses to go back to China to work, they experience stereotyping as “promiscuous” and “spoiled,” because people in the culture tend to associate those who have made it to the U.S. as rich and sexually active. In Chinese culture, “sexually active” contains a negative connotation. Facing the stereotypes that may or may not be true, the students are likely to develop difficulty to transition back into the culture. The Chinese culture in this review serves as an example of a conservative culture with “traditional” values. Although the aforementioned tragedy regarding international students at the University of Southern California happened to be two Chinese students, the phenomenon of negative stereotyping those who leave traditional cultures to pursue an education in the United States can be harmful to the mental health of individuals who reenter their more conservative societies.  

Conclusion & Gaps in Literature      

     The literature field of re-entry and reverse culture shock covers two major topics: reverse culture shock and the reverse culture shock of Missionary Kids and Third Culture Kids. Reverse culture shock has a negative impact on a person’s psychological well-being. However, there is little recourse available for people who encounter reverse culture shock. When the Missionary and Third Culture Kids encounter reverse culture shock, increased parental attachment is associated with greater feelings of acceptance in the primary culture (Gaw, 1995, 2000, 2007; Huff, 2001; Leung, 2007; Tamura & Furnham, 1993; Wang, 1997). All of the studies in the literature look at the phenomenon of reverse culture shock from the perspective of the population encountering the reverse culture shock. No studies have looked at the reverse culture shock from the societal perspective. However negative stereotypes in society can produce negative reactions similar to those encountered during the incident with two USC Chinese international students. If negative stereotypes and prejudice within a larger social group are held against a smaller portion of the population, there will consequently be negative impacts on the smaller group (Aronson & Dee, 2012; Sirin & Fine, 2007). Therefore the literature calls for well-conducted research to study the impact of reverse culture shock on international students by examining the negative stereotypes existing in the society.


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