Hey, I just met you. Are you just like me? – a lack of integration between UK & International students

29 April 2013

UKCISA lists Cambridge as one of the top recruiters of international students in the UK. The proportion of international students is about 30% of the student body. At undergraduate level, it is about 10%. This diversity is a significant part of our identity as a university. But a recent Guardian article suggests there is a lack of cross-cultural mixing at UK universities, and asks if students have ever come across a ‘Chinese phantom’ – someone who lives in their rooms and has very limited social interaction with British students.

This is a phenomenon that I have not been alone in observing, even just at Cambridge. Claiming that “Chinese students are only friends with Chinese students” is a huge stereotype – but it is based in truth. 158 of Cambridge’s 769 student societies are international cultural societies. They add diversity and promote an international culture to student life. But in reality they often end up being safety nets for homesick international students. As the former International Representative of Emmanuel College, I’ve been engaged in frequent discussions about why international students don’t seem to mix much with home students. I think the reasons are complex. The UK drinking culture is an example of a barrier to mingling. We can even argue that multiculturalism and integration are inherently problematic, in both student and non-student social groups.

But one barrier that I think many people don’t see is the expectations we bring into universities as Freshers, ready to pounce on new friends-in-the-making. Many, like me, probably thought they were coming to university to meet exciting and different new people. But actually, the moments when friendships are forged are when two people find common ground. This presents a fundamental and often unsurpassable obstacle to the majority of international students.

Many of my British friends seem surprised when I tell them that a huge proportion of their conversation revolves around shared experiences that a non-UK student can never be expected to know about. Popular culture, food, British cities… Three years after living in the country, I still encounter at least one conversation a day that I struggle to participate in without a cheeky Wikipedia to know what we’re talking about. Many international students perhaps also face language barriers, feel intimidated, or perhaps fundamentally do not agree with many of the cultural assumptions in Cambridge society. With all this in mind, sometimes I think it’s a wonder there is any cross-cultural bonding at all.

Two people from very different backgrounds may very well have much more in common on a deeper level than this. They might have the same morals, work ethic, and worldview. But these kinds of bonds are generally only made after the more comfortable common grounds have been established. This is not really a fault – like-seeking-like is how humans operate. But the question of why international students do not mingle more is the same one as why home students don’t branch out more. An overseas applicant would have applied to Cambridge with an explicit purpose of meeting different people and learning about a new culture. This is not something that drives home student applications. The expectations are different from the very start. Moreover, a student who has grown up in a foreign country, or perhaps attended an international school, would not have the experience of a home culture sub-community from which to find friends. Yet they would be very comfortable in stepping into the unknown culture – in other words, to assimilate. On the other hand, if a student comes from a relatively homogeneous cultural background, it is less likely they will have the experience of confidently branching out into new environments.

Cambridge student institutions keep the international student body involved. At Emma, we’ve introduced a college based international fresher’s week. iCUSU is an active element for many international students. But ultimately the barrier will need to be overcome on an individual level, away from institutions and representatives, when one person genuinely becomes friends with another. In many ways, the situation at university is a taster of multicultural tensions in wider society. But if anything, being a student gives us the advantage of being much more malleable than older members of society. The formative educational experience should extend beyond the degree. This should apply both ways in the relationship between international and home students. We should allow ourselves to come under the influence of the different cultures that our peers represent, as it’s a process that helps us distinguish who we are, and who we want to be.

June Sun is a third-year PPS student from Emma.