Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Please Be Friendly to International Students

I was originally going to do this as an addendum to my post-election blogpost on racism.  But I decided it worked better as a separate post because the issue is really a lot larger than this current election.

But this blog post takes the current election as a starting point.

I'm currently teaching English in Vietnam, and many of my Vietnamese students have  been concerned about what they've been seeing on the news.  This is particularly true of those students who had been hoping to attend university in the USA.

Recently, a student told me he had heard on the news that since the election, the white people were now telling colored people to get out of the country.  He wanted to know if that was true.

"Some people are saying that, yes," I answered.

"Will I still be able to study in the USA?" the student asked me.

"Are you asking me about the law, or the social attitudes?" I responded.

"Um, both," the student said.

"The law hasn't changed yet," I said.  "It may change in the future, but these things take time.  Most likely your visa won't be affected.  As an international student, you'd be bringing a lot of money into the university system, and so you're not the kind of immigrant that Donald Trump is worried about.  As for the social attitudes... I really don't know.  You've been watching the news?  You've been seeing the fighting between the Trump supporters and the anti-Trump protesters?"

The student answered that he had.

"Well," I continued.  "Then you know there is a fight going on in America right now.  And I don't know who is going to win it.  But it could well be that things are going to get harder for non-white people."

The student got depressed, and I wondered if I had been a little bit over-dramatic in presenting the issue.

And who knows.  Maybe I was.  If you disagree with my assessment of what is going on in America right now, then fair enough.  I can't claim that I have any special knowledge or intuition that you don't.

But I have learned over the years not to try to sugar-coat American racism to prospective international students.

And unfortunately, I've learned this the hard way.

10 years ago, when I was teaching English in Japan, I had a student who was temporarily moving her family to America because of her husband's job.  She had two high-school age children, and she was very worried about potential discrimination or racially-motivated bullying that her children might face in America.

At the small English school I was  at, there were two of us English teachers, and she asked both of us for advice.  My colleague presented a somewhat pessimistic view, saying that, yes, bullying was a problem, and her children might be targeted. This started to worry the poor woman.

I, on the other hand, presented a very optimistic view.  "Don't listen to Stuart," I said.  "He's full of it.  You have nothing to worry about.  While there is a race problem in America, it's mostly a Black-White issue.  But everyone loves the Japanese.  Japanese culture is popular all around the world nowadays.  Your children should be very popular in their high school.  All the American kids will want to make friends with them."

That conversation was 10 years ago now.  Since that time, the move to America has been over and done with.  The family went to America, spent their time there, and returned to Japan.

And my prediction turned out to be completely wrong.
The son was bullied constantly in American schools.  The Japanese mother wrote to me that her son's classmates constantly made fun of him, or laughed at his poor English.  She wrote in one email to me that they "used him like a toy".  (I'm not entirely sure what that means--probably that they just constantly played jokes on him and used him for their amusement.)

The last I heard from this woman, her son had not completely recovered from the experience.  He's back in Japan now, but has developed a deep hatred of all white people.

The kids on college campuses these days talk a lot about "White Privilege".  And this is probably a classic example of how my white privilege blinded me to the potential bullying that international students could face.  Because I never personally experienced discrimination, or bullying, I just blithely assumed it didn't exist.

In reality, it had been happening all along.  It just had never happened TO ME.

And as you can imagine, I feel really guilty for the bad advice I gave this family.
I don't think my advice was the final factor in the move, but it was probably one factor out of many.
It's something I'll probably feel guilty about for the rest of my life.

That's my most extreme example.  But over the years I've accumulated several stories from international students who have studied abroad.  All of them have some story.  Some of the incidents are major, and some are minor, but almost all of them have some story about being treated rudely or discriminated against at some point during their stay.  (I collected some of those stories and wrote them down in a previous blog post here).

So, I don't try to sugar-coat American racism anymore.  When the students ask me, I try to break the news as gently as I can, but I tell them that they may indeed experience some racism when they are in America.

And then I see their faces just fall.

And I hate it.
I don't enjoy being the bearer of bad news.  I don't like presenting a bad view of my own country.  I really wish I could just tell them that they will have a great time in America and that everyone will be friendly to them.   But I can't in good conscious say that.

So, here is my plea to everyone living in the United States:

Please be nice to international students.

And in fact, if at all possible, try to be their friend.  A lot of them could use friends.  Go to coffee with them.  Study with them.  Invite them out.

Now, I'll be honest, being friends with an international student is not always the easiest thing in the world.  Especially if they're struggling with English.
Their limited English will usually mean that their conversation will be limited.  And so it could mean that it won't be a very stimulating conversation for you.  5 minutes in, and you might find yourself wishing that you were having a normal conversation with your native-English speaking friends instead.

Also, international students can often appear to be anti-social.  Processing everything a foreign language is very difficult for them, and their brain gets tired.  They may become quiet or lose interest in keeping up their half of the conversation.  (This was certainly true for me when I lived in the Japanese countryside.)  They want friends, and they need human contact, but they might not always show it.

So it's a struggle.

But making international students feel welcome is one small one part of combating the growing racism.  And as sacrifices go, it's a relatively small one.
After all, 50 years ago, white liberals were getting physically beaten up and murdered in the South.  Now that  was sacrifice.  Compared with that, spending an awkward 30 minutes talking to an International student isn't so bad.


Darrell Reimer said...

I would not have expected your Japanese associate to experience what she did, either. A number of questions spring to mind (where were they stationed, what sort of school did she enrol the kids in, etc) but it's all rather moot, especially juxtaposed with your larger point.

Too, I wonder how prevalent this behaviour is in post-secondary schools. The parties I attended during my university years (not that I was much of a partier, but still) always had a large contingent of "visiting" students.

It's a good point to make, and I'm glad you do. Also, you don't sugar-coat the difficulties, either.

Joel Swagman said...

Thanks for that.

I may have slipped into making broad generalizations, which is always dangerous. The experience of each individual student is probably different for each person.

In general, I suspect people who are good looking, extroverted, and confident will fit right-in no matter where they go.

But for international students who are shy and introverted, I think it can be really rough.