Author ORCID Identifier

Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation




Educational Policy Studies and Eval

First Advisor

Dr. Beth L. Goldstein


Chinese Americans are historically perceived as “perpetual foreigners” in the American political, cultural and racial discourses. People of Chinese descent have long been conceived as sharing a same ancestor as those in China. Situated in the global context of China’s rise in the world, culturally, politically and economically, this research looks at how Chinese American college students negotiate their ethnic identity in the Midwest of the United States. The current Coronavirus outbreak brought new waves of anti-Chinese/Asian sentiment into American political and cultural life. This rhetoric makes the discussion of Chinese American college students’ ethnicity construction crucial.

Using qualitative research methods, this research followed thirteen Chinese American college students who enrolled in their heritage language class in college to explore their ethnicity construction. It explored how their Chinese identity was developed over time, how higher education contributed to their understanding of who they were and how their literacy in heritage language told us about their ethnicity. In-depth interviews with primary participants along with secondary participants (their friends, siblings and parents) were conducted; language class observations and informal socialization were also documented for data analysis.

Results showed that how Chineseness was understood and performed by Chinese American college students was the result of their negation of differences between and within groups. It reflected their constant and active negotiation against the hegemonic whiteness, which was the norm of the society they resided in, and the hegemonic Chineseness defined by China and its people. For all Chinese Americans, higher education provided an opportunity for their understanding of Chineseness to be renegotiated and modified; they have learned to develop a hybrid identity, which incorporated both their Chinese and American identity together. Heritage language literacy facilitated their ethnicity understanding, but lack of it did not necessarily prohibit their ethnicity development for some participants.

On top of the integration of their ethnicity and national identity, this research also observed the intersectionality of their other multiple identities with their ethnicity, such as gender identity, disability, religious identity and regional identity. The lens of intersectionality opened up new perspectives to understand the complex yet unique experiences as Chinese Americans. It also revealed how their unique experiences were structured by the system of privilege and oppression.

China, as a country, remained distant yet immediate to them. It was distant because it was the country of their parents and grandparents. It was not their country of birth; America was. It was immediate because the opportunity to visit China facilitated by the convenience of transnational movement as well China’s rise in the world allowed them to increasingly see the importance of incorporating China/Chinese language into their future development. Implications on how to address Chinese Americans in higher education, how to understand Chinese Americans both by American and Chinese public are discussed.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)