Three dozen Chinese tourists trooping down Nassau Street behind an American flag do not draw much attention, even in the dog days of August.
The stream of visitors to campus does not slow when the students are away. So many arrive, in fact, that town officials have ordered tour buses to park near the Dinky station rather than clog traffic on Nassau Street. A growing number of those visitors are Chinese: Nine out of 10 Chinese visiting the United States want to see a university, says Attract China, an organization that studies Chinese tourism.
The group on Nassau Street is finishing a two-day East Coast excursion organized by L&L Travel. The leader, a woman named Ding who carries the flag to keep the group together, says the company brings as many as seven buses a day to campus during peak season, which runs roughly from mid-April through Labor Day. Though predominantly Chinese, the tour also includes visitors from England, South Africa, and Korea.
Upon reaching FitzRandolph Gate, Ding turns them — and the flag — over to Jin, a tiny woman with large glasses who serves as the Princeton guide for several Chinese tour companies. She switches between Chinese and English during the hourlong tour, prefacing every segment in both languages with “OK, guys.”
Jin emphasizes that Princeton has “overcome” Harvard in the US News & World Report rankings as the top American university and name-drops a lot, even if she has to stretch a bit — mentioning, for example, that John F. Kennedy went to school here. (He did, but only for three months.) Nevertheless, she knows her stuff, even telling the old joke about Alexander Hall being a failed thesis project. The visitors laugh appreciatively when she informs them that the “Oval with Points” sculpture sometimes is called “Nixon’s Nose.” The tourists photograph everything. One man carefully takes a picture of the bus schedule in front of Clio Hall.
The Chinese visit for the same reasons everyone else does. “It’s an Ivy League school,” Ding explains, “and for many Chinese people, education is the most important thing. They are so interested in the tuition fees and how to get into the University.”
For Liu Shu Jie, the tour is personal. “Twenty years ago,” he says, “I wanted to study in an American university, but I was not successful.” He and his wife have taken their son, who looks to be a long way from matriculation age, to several U.S. universities, including MIT, Harvard, and now Princeton.
So, he is asked — would he prefer that his son go to Harvard or Princeton?
“MIT,” he replies.