The article focuses on Chinese students' hopes and expectations before leaving to study abroad. The national political environment for their decision to go abroad is shaped by an official narrative of China's transition to a more creative and innovative economy. Students draw on this narrative to interpret their own educational histories and prior experiences, while at the same time making use of imaginaries of 'Western' education to redefine themselves as independent individuals in an increasingly globalised and individualised world. Through a case study of prospective pre-school teachers preparing to study abroad, the article shows how personal, professional and even national goals are closely interwoven. Students expect education abroad to be a personally transformative experience, but rather than defining their goals of individual freedom and creativity in opposition to the authoritarian political system, they think of themselves as having a role in the transformation of Chinese attitudes to education and parent-child relations.