Vincent Tinto's theory of academic and social integration provides a framework for investigating perceived problems associated with Chinese international students' engagement at a public research-intensive university in the U.S. Midwest ('Midwest' University). These 'problems' – classroom silence, segregation and instrumentalism – are often understood in cultural terms, and we describe sociocultural values that might influence such behaviour. We also contend that culture, on its own, cannot wholly explain the complexity of student behaviours on college campuses. In a case study of Midwest University's Business School, we show how institutional policies do much to shape Chinese students' engagement. We conclude that popular perceptions of Chinese student engagement are simplistic. Chinese students are not indifferent engagers; rather, their interaction with campus life needs to be understood as embedded within complex cultural and institutional contexts.