China / Across America

Suicide stalking too many Chinese studying overseas

By Chang Jun (China Daily USA) Updated: 2017-12-19 12:04

This time, it was at Cornell. On Dec 14, Cornell University officials announced that Chengdu native Tian Miaoxiu, 21, was found dead in her apartment during finals week. The senior was a materials science and engineering major and excelled in science and physics.

No foul play is suspected so far. Tian's death is believed to be a suicide, Ithaca police said after a thorough investigation.

In October, a PhD candidate in space physics at the University of Utah, Tang Xiaolin, was reported missing shortly after she left for San Francisco. A graduate of China's Peking University in 2004, Tang came to the US the same year to continue her studies. Now 30 years old and in her seventh year of doctoral studies, she was said to be under tremendous pressure to complete her academic research and find a job.

On Oct 5, a Michigan judge issued an order establishing the death of Rong Xin, a 27-year-old doctoral candidate in the school of information at the University of Michigan, after he disappeared in March flying a rented private plane between Ann Arbor and the north shore of Lake Superior in Ontario. The plane was found crashed in the woods of Canada.

An Ontario Provincial Police spokesman said that investigators believe Rong committed suicide by jumping from the plane during flight.

A promising scientist and researcher in the field of human-computer interaction, artificial intelligence and natural language processing, Rong came to the US in 2011 to seek a PhD at Michigan after graduating from Tsinghua University. He interned for Microsoft in 2016 and for Google in 2013 and 2014, and expected to start an academic career as an assistant professor.

The string of suicides among Chinese students studying in the United States is as astonishing as it is tragic. The victims are among the approximately 330,000 Chinese colleagues who have come to America to achieve their dreams.

Why did they commit suicide? Is it because of the fear of failing, failing exams and disappointing their parents? Or was it the anxiety and loneliness that comes with leaving their families behind and having to struggle all on their own?

Nobody has explicitly answered these questions, not their schools, not their families. The causes of their deaths might be complex, complicated and multi-leveled; still, efforts should be made to listen to and care for this particular group.

Like many of her fellow overseas Chinese students, Tian was exemplary at academics, a talented and dedicated student who was always eager to take on new projects. She would have graduated next year, said Ryan Lombardi, vice-president for student and campus life, in a statement.

"Please join me in taking a moment to remember her and acknowledge this profound loss within our community," Lance R. Collins, dean of the college of engineering, said in an email to students last week.

"We are extremely saddened and mourning this terrible loss in our community," said R. Bruce van Dover, chair of the materials science and engineering department.

Privately, Tian was melancholy and sentimental and used to see a psychologist for counseling, said one of her classmates. "She is a big fan of Japanese Ringo Sheena, who in one of her songs says 'death is not a big deal'."

Unfortunately, the shadow of suicide seemed to follow Tian closely. In her final email to her teammates, she wrote, "I apologize that I can't complete the assignment with you."

In late 2016, Rong recorded, "I have just recently realized that the ratio of depression among doctoral students might have been significantly underestimated. Academia does not have to be this way. Every single doctoral student should be happy."

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