By Yongchang Chin
University life is arguably a highly fragmenting and alienating experience. It’s the first time you are in a place where people from all over the country, and also the world, congregate in a prestigious academic environment.
This coming together of different peoples presents challenges in assimilation. A common joke goes: ‘There’s a Northern Society in Durham, why isn’t there a Southern Society? There is: it’s called Durham University’.
This joke highlights the differences that local students might face. But this North-South divide has nothing on the divisions that often plague international students here. While a number of international students who spoke to Palatinate have said they were adjusting well into university life,, a number have expressed their difficulties becoming accustomed to social life in Durham.
Benedict, a Malaysian from Josephine Butler College, says: “Honestly, I just don’t really feel integrated into the university community. The university’s international community (and the International Students Association) puts on parties, but I’m just not interested in parties.”
Clarissa from St. Cuthbert’s Society also says she feels alienated from her British compatriots: “With Cuth’s, they do have an international committee with international reps set up, and they host different events.
“But sometimes I feel this disconnect between myself and the local students. I’m just not into partying or drinking, so it can be quite difficult to enter into the community at times.”
She also highlights the artificiality of all foreign students being grouped under the umbrella of ‘internationals’, even though they may come from wildly different countries. Practically, she feels, what tends to happen is the support and welfare for international students becomes a patchwork of compromises as effort is made to accommodate and represent every culture and nationality worldwide.
That said, students like Clarissa appreciate the collegiate system as the JCRs and MCRs allow people to get to know each other in a more intimate setting. Mandy, a postgraduate from Grey College, agrees with this sentiment, saying: “Because students mix around in accommodation blocks, it feels like one big family in College. We have meals together, go for formals together, and attend society events together, and it really helps.”
But social integration isn’t something that can be artificially built by university policies or events alone, helpful as they can be. Socialisation happens spontaneously between people as they mingle and converse with one another. Unfortunately, foreign students tend to start off on a different wavelength from local students, and so experience an inability to find a common ground on which to talk.
There are many aspects of social life that local students often do not realise are unique to this country. This causes an inability for foreign students to integrate themselves as well as local students, who, through no fault of their own, widen cultural rifts between themselves and foreign students when they ignore such differences.
It can be as simple as the particular words that many use. For instance, to say ‘trousers’ instead of ‘pants’, to say ‘geezer’ to mean a young person instead of an old person, or to use ‘sick’ or ‘chundered’ as opposed to ‘puke’.
There are also differences in text as well, especially when you and your friends take to Whatsapp or Facebook Messager. Many internationals would have not heard or seen phrases like ‘ayy lmao’, ‘allow’ or ‘m9’ used in the British context before.
Then there are the whole arrays of drinking songs, chants, and challenges that are completely alien to anyone outside of the UK.
Finally, once you add in how strange some accents sound to British ears – such as the authentic Southeast Asian accent from countries like Singapore, Malaysia, or the Philippines – it isn’t difficult to see why communication breakdowns occur.
While it might seem miniscule, language and its use can affect the nuanced tones that conversations take, and it is this that stops foreigners from truly communicating on the same level as the locals.
It is worse if you are not from an English-speaking country, such as in the case of the many Chinese students studying here. Two of them, Tiana and Katy, both postgraduates from St. Aiden’s College, cite the “language barrier” as a cause for their inability to assimilate.
Katy says: “I’ve had a positive experience (interacting with others) so far, but sometimes I hesitate because I don’t want people to laugh at my English as it’s my second language. I have to think in Chinese, then speak in English and it affects how smoothly I speak.”
They also told Palatinate about other factors affecting them socially, such as the size of the college.
Tiana says: “St. Aiden’s is massive, and I don’t think I get much of a chance to socialise with people in college on a deeper level.
“Most of the time when I eat in the dining hall, I eat with my fellow postgraduates or other international students.”
On another level, being in a completely different physical environment takes some getting used to.
For instance, Katy says: “Tiana and I take day trips to see other places. The first time I went to Newcastle, I was absolutely amazed by the city.”
In a similar vein, a Singaporean student, who did not want to be identified, describes London as “just one big suburb”.
And understandably so – Singapore, a modern metropolis, is densely packed with buildings 20 to 30 stories high, even in the poorer residential neighbourhoods. If you have seen Singapore, you might just see where he’s coming from.
But try communicating these ideas to a typical local student, and it’s no wonder some foreign students come across as downright strange.
National cultures might not translate so well either. The Asian obsession with food is one topic many locals fail to understand. So too are the customs and traditions that are celebrated by Asian peoples but are not in the UK.
For instance, Edward, a local student in St. John’s College, admits he makes fun of his friends in college who are from other non-European countries. He pokes fun at the foods that his Indonesian and Singaporean friends enjoy, not knowing how these foods embody their cultural identities. He sometimes even adds slight racial slurs into the mix of comments.
But cultural and social differences do not inevitably lead to difficulties integrating. His friends respond to Edward’s comments by saying that these slurs are made all in good fun, and that such remarks only feature because of their pre-existing friendship.
The friends also say they are careful when making comments of this nature around others outside their circle.
Furthermore, being able to talk about these admittedly serious topics in a light-hearted manner is a positive sign of integration in spite of difference.
Thus, to say that social and cultural differences cause social divisions within Durham University is too simplistic.
It is ultimately on the onus of the individual as to how he or she deals with these differences. That is what determines whether or not students are successful at integrating themselves with the university community.
However, it is hard to expect an international student, who has just been put in an unfamiliar social context, to make the extroverted leap across these boundaries. Native students must feel some responsibility to reach out to those who might not always feel welcome. Only too often does the fact someone is ‘different’, through no fault of their own, cut them off from community.
Friendships, whether across different cultures or similar ones, boil down to similar qualities – such as the building of trust, the revealing of vulnerabilities, and the sharing of joy.
These qualities are nationality-blind. Therefore it is these common qualities that all peoples, no matter what background, can strive to develop.
Photograph by Venus Loi