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Ruby Cardona looks into whether there’s a divide between UK and Asian students.

In light of recent instances of racism toward black students at the university, Epigram spoke to Chinese and other Asian communities at Bristol – and found that discrimination is also part of their every day university experience.

The university prides itself on a large international population – over 15% of its student body. Total non-EU students number over 4,000 and the single largest ethnic group is Chinese students, the second is Malaysian and the third is Singaporean. In 2015, UK universities saw a record high in Chinese students enrolling – attracted by the prestige of British higher education and better job prospects.

One Chinese student, who wished to remain anonymous, told Epigram that ‘most of Chinese students’ have experienced racism of some kind in or around Bristol university.

‘One Chinese student told Epigram that ‘most of Chinese students’ have experienced racism of some kind in or around Bristol university.’

‘At night in Year 1, I was walking back to my accommodation Woodland Court and a couple of other students shouted at me “Japanese is the best not Chinese”’. He says that other Chinese students he knows have been treated ‘impatiently or carelessly in restaurants or stores’ in Bristol.

On another occasion, ‘some students used [a] water gun to shoot [at me] from a car and shouted “Asians steal our chance to go to university”’. He believes that this could be because some British students feel that the high numbers of Asian students attending British universities pushes up competition and reduces the chances of British pupils attending the better universities. This negative perception is not unlike the notion that immigrants to the UK reduce job prospects for British workers.

But with the majority of the student population being ‘home students’ i.e. from the UK, perhaps many do not appreciate how challenging it must be to move here with no friends or family – for most internationals this is their first time away from home.

Alexander Pang, head of the Chinese Society at the university, spoke to Epigram about adjusting to life in Bristol. Alexander said ‘culture shock is inevitable but [international students] want to see the diversity of the world and begin to understand new ideas and values’. He says education here is very different from in China, but any student deciding to study abroad they will have undergone ‘preparation to meet the new challenges’ and can ‘acclimatise themselves to their new local surroundings’.

But unfortunately there seem to be a number of negative stereotypes that surround Chinese internationals in particular. One anonymous student told Epigram: ‘I wouldn’t want to generalise, but it seems that the majority of Chinese student population are isolated from other students. I don’t know if this is our fault or it’s self-imposed – maybe it’s the language barrier or the cultural differences’.

‘It seems that the majority of Chinese student population are isolated from other students.’

Another student – now in their second year – said they found it a challenge to get along with the two Chinese students in first-year halls. ‘It’s not that they were unfriendly, but we all found them hard to talk to – they never wanted to come out with us or anything’. But another student commented ‘I think it’s just as hard for us to enter their social circle as it is for them to enter ours’.

Other Asian minorities do not seem to share the same negative experience. Talking to Kalil Gibran, a second–year Law student and head of the Malaysian Society, he says that he has been ‘really lucky’ with his university experience: ‘we have a strong Singaporean/Malaysian community [the yearly renewed Facebook group has 400 members]. This helped because we managed to form ties from the start and the committee issued guides on accommodation and various other tips like where the best food is.’

‘Throughout the year there’s also a host of activities. We tie up frequently with other international societies’. However, he admits its only been recently that they have been put in contact with a non-Asian society ‘Recently, the Canadian society finally got their act together and invited us to their bar crawl!’. This is in response to a university scheme for ‘strength in diversity’ which involves supporting and promoting inclusion at Bristol. Previously, the university had only facilitated joint socials between the Asian societies (Thai, Malaysian and Chinese are the biggest).

He notes that first-year accommodation can be incredibly social and conducive to making friends: ‘The JCR planned events and it was generally a very lively atmosphere. I can’t imagine living in other university accommodations where it’s corridors upon corridors of people.’

Kalil says ‘I’m happy to have a balanced group of friends – both international and local – but I do have to acknowledge though that not every international student has been as blessed as I am in terms of opportunities to mingle and settle in.’

‘Maybe they are more reserved and don’t want to engage with us’

But for those who might not be so successfully socially, university might become an isolated and lonely place. And for those facing discrimination as well, it might become an unpleasant experience.

One student explained to Epigram that ‘I don’t think that we, as ‘white students’ are hostile – personally I think that the problem is with our perception of these students – that maybe they are more reserved and don’t want to engage with us’. This seems to be a common sentiment among home students, but not necessarily a reality.

It is not surprising that these students find comfort socialising with other people from their home country and engaging with the native culture – most of us would do the same if we were placed in a foreign country and an unfamiliar academic institution. Alexander says he was pleased to discover the Chinese Society in his second year at Bristol: ‘I was attracted to the Chinese society – they are the biggest Chinese society in Bristol, even in Southwest England.’ The society has branched out to form sub-groups such as the Lion dance troupe [traditional Chinese form of dance], Mahjong group [a Chinese board game], and a table tennis group. Perhaps some other students at Bristol do not see this thriving social life because it exists separately to their own.

‘Thai students have been greeted by locals with ‘ni hao’ (the Chinese term for hello) which they find ‘very disappointing’ and offensive.’

Guy Intararoong, the head of the Thai Society at Bristol, said ‘the students here are friendly… I personally have never experienced any prejudice in Bristol’. However, he notes that there have been several instances where Thai students have been greeted by locals with ‘ni hao’ (the Chinese term for hello) which they find ‘very disappointing’ and offensive. Assuming that all Asians are Chinese is problematic – but comes from a place of ignorance – white students need to be more sensitive to the fact that Asian students are not just from China.

There is evidently a disparity between experiences of different Asian minority groups. Although the university works hard to accommodate such cultural diversity, there is still work to do amongst the students ensuring that negative perceptions or stereotypes do not affect the way we engage with our fellow students.


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