THE FIRST Chinese graduate from an American university, Yung Wing, deemed his college years the great adventure of his life. Alas, his graduation from Yale in 1854, sponsored by missionaries who spotted his talents as a boy in rural Guangdong, was a high point. Soon political mistrust and prejudice, both in America and China, filled his life with setbacks. These included the ending of his scheme that involved bringing 30 Chinese youths to America each year. Back in Beijing, imperial mandarins saw value in the science that the youngsters studied in New England. These officials were especially eager to take up a promise that the military academies of West Point and Annapolis would admit Chinese cadets. Then, in a mark of disdain for the ailing Qing empire, America broke that promise. Mandarins were further appalled by the irreverent, sports-loving, churchgoing Yankee ways picked up by Yung’s charges. In 1881 they summoned the boys home in disgrace. Yung lost his American citizenship to a xenophobic law passed a year later, the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Yung would recognise the pressures his Chinese heirs face today. In the coming weeks many will have to decide how and whether to pursue studies in America. They are living through a moment when campuses, borders and minds on both sides of the Pacific are being closed by mutual suspicion (including overly sweeping American fears about on-campus espionage) and a pandemic.