Do you sometimes feel like you’re in China? That’s what Suburban Express, a bus company based in Illinois, promises their customers will not feel when on their buses. The Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois (UIUC) has drawn a surging population of Chinese students to the area, apparently too many for the liking of Suburban Express. They sent out a mass marketing email in December 2017 that had “Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”
The company shut down its operations last week (7th May); it has a long history of racist behaviour, and not just against Chinese people.
All the same, it made me want to reflect objectively on the general perceptions people have about overseas Chinese students, in and out of Imperial, and whether or not these views are justified. Mainly because, although I was born and raised in Hong Kong, my parents were born in China and so my personal culture and sense of identity has elements of both.
Chinese students are often seen as self-segregating, and not making an effort to intermingle with the rest of the student body. There is an element of truth in this, but it is certainly not a conscious effort by Chinese students to avoid other races. It is understandable for people to get along better with those similar to them. China is culturally and racially homogenous; Chinese children grow up around others like them, and the mixing of different foreign cultures is not as common as in Western countries. There are other cultural disparities to consider: socialising in Western culture often involves alcohol, but teenage culture in the East is overall more conservative, and involves much less casual consumption of alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. It’s probably easier to feel socially accepted around and easier to build trust with people from your country; there is solace in finding a group that you fit in with, and because, on first impression, it felt easiest to find things in common with your co-nationals, you decide to stick with them. Especially when English is a second language; I can imagine what a relief it is to have conversations that do not require constant mental back-and-forth translating.
Of course, this behaviour of homophily (an internal preference for people like you, in terms of race or age or profession etc) doesn’t apply solely to Chinese students. I find this to be the crux of having a diverse community. The value of diversity comes from having people with unique backgrounds and perspectives, and to take advantage of such a community would require intermingling of people who do not have much in common. However, without any homophilicity, there are fewer channels through which people can embrace their heritage, and ultimately there is a loss in the value of having an international community to begin with.
Furthermore, while you want to encourage all students from all countries to socialise outside their co-national circles, students from countries with larger cultural barriers will inevitably be less willing. You cannot single out the students of one race as being more closed-off when they face a bigger challenge.
For a while, I assumed that all international students who decide to study overseas must want to experience living away from home, to meet people and visit places that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to, and to learn from everything a diverse international community has to offer. I realise this isn’t always true. You may come to Imperial with the sole intention of getting a degree, and therefore socialising is simply not as important. Imperial is, primarily, an institution built for academic purposes - its primary selling point is its academic rigour (if you wanted an easier ride you’d be at UCL).
Even so, wouldn’t it be better still if students came here with purposes beyond merely advancing career prospects, and wouldn’t it be even greater for our collective student experience if one of these other purposes were to meet new, interesting people from diverse backgrounds? Having a more cohesive student body would certainly make some decisions easier for the Union; how can they improve the experience of the typical Imperial student when… there isn’t one? In that case, how do we bridge a cultural gap that intimidates most from even attempting to cross it? Is it even possible, or necessary, to force positive interracial relationships? Doesn’t the individual have the freedom to interact and make friends with whoever they want?
What we see is a situation that the College cannot solely be relied upon to improve; effort from the student body is overwhelmingly the most effective solution.
Having different types of friendships for different functions is necessary for healthy social integration – a close group of co-national friends with whom you are culturally compatible; friends from the host country (UK) can ease the adjustment of international students to the host environment and culture; friends from abroad can increase cultural agility and awareness of global affairs of home students without them having to leave the country.
I read a study on how the social experience in a predominantly white US university is impacted by race, where non-white students described the challenge of “fitting in to a White campus and community without becoming “White”. For Imperial, where no race majority exists (home students make up less than 50% of the student body) it’s possible the challenge faced by students here is a fear of losing their sense of belonging to wherever they come from.
Naturally, over time, students will gradually adopt a sense of belonging at Imperial. It’s possible that creating a non-judgemental, welcoming environment for students to step into on their first day will help. While I understand international students face many hurdles in struggling to find their place in a new environment (which also applies to home students), I do not think international students should feel that the language and cultural barriers they face are unbreakable; they do not need to be seen as unsurmountable.
Ultimately, there is no need to become less ‘Chinese (or whatever race)’ to build meaningful, wholesome relationships with people from elsewhere. There is no shame in speaking with an accent, or in taking a few more seconds to find the vocabulary you want to express yourself. There’s no reason to feel like you can’t integrate if you don’t get dry British humour or western pop-culture; you shouldn’t feel awkward asking what that strange slang word was. What makes diversity fulfilling and enriching is our cultural differences. Embrace and contribute to the vibrancy of this diversity, share with us the humour and slang of your culture.