EAST LANSING, Mich. — Just a few years ago, students from China made up almost 10 percent of Michigan State University’s student body.
Businesses like restaurants, specialty markets and karaoke bars opened up to serve them. But, with their numbers in steep decline at MSU, those businesses are feeling the pinch.
“The pandemic made a lot of the restaurants close,” said Na Zhang, the owner of Hong Kong Restaurant.
She said the pandemic was hard on restaurants, but harder on those that relied on an international clientele.
“Yes, those are the major customers for those restaurants,” Zhang said. “So, for my restaurant, I don’t want to do that. We focus on Chinese students but also on local residents.”
In the fall of 2014, MSU enrolled nearly 4,800 students from China. Their numbers have been falling since and dropped sharply to about 2,400 in the fall of 2020. They dropped even further, to approximately 2,100, in the fall of 2021.
COVID-19 made it more difficult for students from other countries to study in the U.S. and, when MSU moved classes online, many simply went home.
“Even before the pandemic started, we saw lots of changes in the way the US government was approaching international education,” said Dustin De Felice, the director of the English Language Center at MSU. “Many of the initiatives that came out during a number of years are specifically targeted countries like China. So many students who would normally have taken the opportunity to study with us chose to go to other places that were friendlier and more open.”
On the other hand, Felice said, that China’s education system has been improving. He said universities in China have been partnering with U.S. universities, which could be another reason for students to stay and pursue a degree in China.
Businesses in East Lansing and neighboring cities who counted on Chinese customers could feel the impact.
“We've seen those impacts in East Lansing, especially downtown,” Felice said. “The way some of the businesses that have made it through the pandemic and others haven't. Oftentimes, the ones that did cater to international clientele did not make it through.”
Businesses such as 如梦里 Stix Restaurant and Crab Hero closed their doors.
“The university was able to shift a lot of education into virtual courses. So, we were able to keep the university side going," Felice said. "But then you lose the presence of those students on campus, which then impacts the general community because we don't have those students out and about shopping, going to restaurants or buying cars as they come here."
Fresh International Market is one business that's been doing well, in part because owner Bowen Kou is trying to serve a broader clientele.
“A lot of new immigrants like you or me, we still missing what we have in the when we when we back in our home country,” Kou said. “And lot of Americans especially young American, they are open minded and open for new try new cuisine.”
Kou came to MSU as an international student in 2009 and took the chance to take over an existing business known back then as Oriental Mart. He said there were people who underestimated him.
“Now that we have six locations under operation, and three locations under contract,” Kou said.
Limit Kitchen and Bar, formerly known as Limit Pool and Karaoke Club, is still hoping for more customers.
“After the pandemic, year, our business is pretty much going down because the population of international students is much less than before,” said owner Li Hi. “Now, most people still order to go."
Limit offers private Karaoke rooms was well as food and drinks.
Hi said people are not coming to karaoke night as often as they used to, even though he expanded the offerings and has a wide variety of English and Chinese songs.
Zhang said more customers are American than Chinese nowadays and that she found a way to make Hong Kong Restaurant more attractive to both nationalities.
“If somebody likes American style Chinese food, we have that and also. If someone from China is homesick or local customers want to try real Chinese food, we also have that,” Zhang said.
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