Friday, February 09, 2007

Day 11

11 -- Today, I will look beyond stereotypes and prejudices.

Again, this one is timely for me. Our department's annual prospective student weekend starts today, so we have 8 or 9 people visiting, some of whom will receive offers to being graduate work next fall. I saw the list of visitors, with a bit of background on each, and was disappointed that over half are international students. What a perfect time for me to be more aware of my prejudices in this context. (Insert earnest "I'm not a racist!" protestations here.)

I think our department is fairly typical of US graduate programs that attract a high number of international applicants. Often, the domestic students are not as well prepared (certainly true for me), and the international students come in more advanced, more focused and more intent on their academic goals. From a research perspective, on average, the international students are more productive. From other perspectives, though, there are issues. Domestic students end up taking more than their fair share of teaching responsibilities (we don't get paid extra for teaching, it's simply required) because they're native English speakers. In our department, the international students are almost exclusively Chinese, and they eat together, study together and, when they are around the department, speak entirely in Chinese. I don't blame them, and I know that if the situation were reversed and I was studying in China, I would definitely grab any opportunity to relax and speak in a comfortable language. However, ironically, it is intensely isolating to be an English-speaking student here. I actually switched offices this year largely to be in an office with at least one other English speaker. Not only did I have a hard time working because of the constant conversations in my old office, I couldn't even eavesdrop because my Mandarin is limited to "Hello" and recognizing the sound of DT saying "I don't speak Chinese."

Given this, I think it's understandable that I would hope for more domestic students, to even out the experience. However, I shouldn't assume that these prospective students have no interest in interacting with non-Chinese students; that's the kind of assumption that, when made, is nearly always self-fulfilling. Today, when I meet the students, I will be mindful of approaching them all equally. I'll do my best to assume the domestic students are insular and unwilling to reach outside of their community. Since I probably won't get to know any of the new students very well, it's best to operate on the assumption that they're all jerks.

3 comments:

sally said...

"Given this, I think it's understandable that I would hope for more domestic students, to even out the experience. However, I shouldn't assume that these prospective students have no interest in interacting with non-Chinese students; that's the kind of assumption that, when made, is nearly always self-fulfilling. "

I grew up in what is considered one of the most multicultural cities in the world. (Toronto)It is commonly expected as etiquette that when among people where the prevalent language is English(or French) then that is the language which should be spoken. To converse in one's mother tongue amongst others is considered not only exclusionary, but rude and chances are good that these international students know that.

What do you think?

Ruth said...

Sally, I generally agree with that sentiment. I think the situation in my department is a bit of a gray area, though. In my office, the prevailing language was Chinese, as there were 5 Chinese students, a Trini student, a Croatian student, and me (US). Perhaps I was the one being exclusionary, then, by not speaking Mandarin? Certainly, the most polite thing for them to do would be to speak in our only shared language, but I don't know that they know it's rude not to. Their introduction to American culture seemed to focus heavily on the idea that you shouldn't ask women their ages, and not much else.:)

sally said...

Wow Ruth, that's a large cultural abyss to be bridged(for all parties) albeit an interesting one. I think that the communication issues would be frustrating for me as well. I'm somewhat surprised that an advisor does not encourage communication in a common language, but maybe they have. Good Luck.