November 2, 2014, by Tony Hong

Isolation, Hybridity or Biculturalism? Chinese Students’ Integration Dilemma in the West

By Flair Shi,

Currently Studying Comparative Literature (MA) at University College London,

Graduate of the School of English University of Nottingham Ningbo,

BA in English Language and Literature.

Recently, an article titled “Foreign Language Dilemma” (外語困境) is circulating quite widely on the Chinese Internet, especially among UNNC students and Chinese students who plan to/are study(ing) in the West. The popularity of this article is revealing about how much resonance these students feel towards the “problem” it discusses. It presents a thought-provoking anecdote right at the beginning: a waitress at a university cafe in the US relays her experiences in dealing with an Asian student’s shy English conversation to the writer. The writer then acutely points out that this is one of the symptoms of the “vicious cycle” of intercultural miscommunication that has pushed many Chinese students studying in the West into total isolation or/and their own Chinese pariah enclave/comfort zone. Combining linguistic theories and socio-cultural analyses, the article attributes the causes of this “problem”, namely the failure to integrate, to the Chinese student’s lack of linguistic competence, and more importantly the lack of the cultural awareness embedded therein.

Considering Western societies’, especially the US and the UK’s, long history of immigration and multicultural formation, the situation it poses is certainly not a new one. So actually, even though the writer seems to be preoccupied with how to solve this problem, it is worthwhile for those Western countries and their models of multiculturalism to reflect upon the question — “why is the so-called integration, or the lack of it, still such a big frustrating problem in the first place?”. In addition, the monolithic categories that come with labels such as “Asian” and “Chinese” also call for further examinations, because there certainly are many ways different Chinese students think about and react to this “problem”.

First, there is always the fancy group of Fu-Er-Dais from super-rich families who just don’t give a damn to whatever integration there might be. To put it in a Bourdieusian sense, these over-privileged kids are already over-flown with so much monetary/class capital that there is hardly any need for them to boost their social standing/enjoyment of life (as they themselves perceive) with the symbolic capital that came from the association with Westernization, especially the cultural engagement part of it (as opposed to the superficial and conspicuous consumption of Western products, including Western education). They (or more precisely their parents) rent a big private house, possess a fancy car, donate money to Chinese restaurants, and go around in Chinese Associations when they need a boost of social confidence or when they feel lonely. Their material power is too much for the West to assimilate.

Then another disinterested group would be those students who have come to the West for education because they failed their Gaokao and could not get into the prestigious universities in China. So coming to the West becomes their last resort for a better life back in China. Their relatively humble families have paid a fortune to give them a Western education, so that as long as they can get that piece of graduation certificate, they can become the “sea turtle” class and viewed favorably than their domestically produced peers. With such a utilitarian eventuality attached to them at the beginning, some of students simply do not see beyond the teleological temporariness of an education abroad and remain happily confined by their parent’s desire to grab that piece of certificate.

However, neither groups constitute the majority of the Chinese students in the West; perfectly happy and content in their isolated comfort zone, these are not like the many students who strike a resonance with what the article is stressing on.

Most Chinese students already carry a very romanticized Occidentalism with them when they first come to the West. As opposed to cheap, dirty, and conservative China, life in the West has always been associated with luxury, clean environment and liberal freedoms. Integration, which may refer to anything from an “authentic” accent to showing off in their crazy parties with “foreigners” on social media, is definitely something desirable for them, because they need such symbolic capital generated by the perceived superiority a perceived quasi-utopian heterotopia brings them. In most cases, when these students, with their romantic exoticization and exploitative objectification of the imagined Occident, find it hard to participate in it, they tend to self-orientalize and in the process internalize the self-imposed neo-colonial inferiority embedded in their assumptions. Therefore, whenever they cannot understand the conversation between two random English people on the train, they think it is because their own English listening skill is not good enough.

So the article is quite right in pointing out that the lack of active cultural training within the Chinese education system concerning English language teaching has dehumanized the way the students think about languages, so when they hear English they think they are doing some kind of listening exam. But again by criticizing Chinese education, the writer legitimizes and therefore perpetuates the emphasis on the “lack” on the Chinese students’ side.

Noticeably, many of these Chinese students, despite their constant emotional struggle regarding their failure to integrate more fully into the host country as they have wished, have no problem in achieving academic successes. They often find themselves caught in between fixed categories as their hybridity formed through transnational experiences has distinguished them from both the “pure” Chinese identity and the “pure” Western identity. They have become “neither nor” and can only connect to each side to a limited degree — hence the so called “50% Chinese and 50% Western” dilemma. Then it seems quite natural again that the writer of the article proposes this notion of biculturalism as the solution: basically, work hard and you can be 100% Chinese and 100% Western once you accumulate enough cultural knowledge.

It is just terrifying how many of the students reading this article buy into such a naive panacea narrative. What is more likely is that such ridiculous idealism only adds the stress upon the students’ already internalized sense of identity-inadequacy by perpetuating the unfair structural hegemony ideologically/dogmatically constructed monolithic identity puritanism such as “100% Chinese” forces upon them. What people should know is, 50% Chinese and 50% Western is still a 100% full human being, and maybe instead of asking these students to fully assimilate while being as “authentic” as ever, societies, the so-called “multicultural” ones in the West in particular, should find ways to cherish the unique trans-cultural perspectives of their hybridity, not to “save” them from isolation by lecturing them on how to become bicultural.

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