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Are stereotypes about international students actually harmless?

The phrase ‘international student’ often evokes an image of Gucci-clad young adults rocking up to 9 am lectures, or introverts isolating themselves in their dorm rooms. These common, reductive stereotypes are perpetrated in universities across the UK, but little acknowledgement is given to those of us who are struggling to reconcile our backgrounds with distinct and different local student cultures.

While it appears to be true that there are ‘shy types’, Aniqah Chen, a second-year Sociology student from Malaysia, suggested: “the effect of colonisation is that we view British people as being superior, and many of us are far too aware of the generalisations made about pan-Asians, so knowing we’re too different, even just subconsciously, makes us feel less inclined to even begin integrating.” It appears that being antisocial is not the intention of many international students; instead, it often stems from anxiety about how we are being perceived. As a result, many feel that such stereotypes are inescapable, and not worth trying to subvert.

Because of this, distinct communities are created, as some students feel more comfortable amongst members of their own culture. Kenton Lai, a second-year Biomedical Sciences student from Hong Kong, observes this tendency to “clump in diasporas”, and suggests, “one way to break this social and cultural dichotomy is to introduce to each other the basic elements of our life. I bring a lot of my European and English friends to dim sum every week and we all love it.”

It seems that the University of Manchester is trying to encourage this sort of cultural exchange by running societies that attempt to bring more awareness to different world cultures. Whether these institutional efforts will be a success is yet to be determined, but they might offer a blueprint for progress in personal relationships between international and home students alike.

Tweets, such as those above, perfectly exemplify the ‘baller’ stereotype ascribed to international students. Indeed, extortionate fees are placed on the privilege of accessing one of the most powerful education centres in the world. This leads to the assumption that if we can afford the almost 20K-per-year tuition fees out of pocket, we must have plenty more to dispose of. Rarely is the financial sacrifice of parents who do not come from massive stores of inherited wealth acknowledged or considered.

Kenton Lai also pointed out that, “many need to work to survive. I work, I have late-night shifts, I’m tired, and I pay taxes just like every responsible young adult should. So the idea that we are lazy is frustrating because it completely overshadows those who do try to manage control over their own lives.” These stereotypes might also make some feel absolved for their discrimination, as assuming someone is wealthy is not generally viewed as an insult. While most of us can appreciate the comic intention of these generalisations, some might criticise such jokes for reinforcing stereotypes and placing distinct social markers on people.

There are also extra pressures which home students rarely consider. For international students to consider dropping out, they need to remember how fragile foreign visa statuses are. One student I interviewed, who wished to remain anonymous, offered me her experience: “I was going through the worst mental health crisis of my entire life, but dropping out to take a break and work for a year at home was simply not an option. I would have lost my eligibility to stay in the UK, which I love, with no guarantee of being accepted back in should I have chosen to study here later. I just had to power through.” Such a dilemma is simply not faced by home students, especially with the privilege of having government loans that will cover a failed first year.

While most of us can accept these light-hearted jokes, it might be useful to consider the multi-faceted challenges international students face during our time at university. Importantly, I think, integration between multiple cultures, through mutual understanding and interpersonal communication, would be more useful than an expectation for foreign students to assimilate into existing social norms.

Tags: integration, International students, student life, student stereotypes

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