Having a constructive discourse on minority representation is hard. That’s why I find Kai Clark’s article “There is No Such Thing as an ‘International’ Student” particularly refreshing. The article offers a number of valuable insights and sincere suggestions. It calls for the increased representation of international students. It speaks against pigeonholing different groups and calls out xenophobia. As will become clear, I disagree with many things in this piece; but there are also many, many more that I wholeheartedly embrace.
At the risk of stating the obvious, I should preface my discussion with one more point. Proposals for change are often subject to remarkably harsh scrutiny. Legitimate concern aside, what underlines such (at times enthusiastic) scrutiny is often a desire to preserve the status quo. Think, for example, about the fact that those who oppose affirmative action on the grounds that it’s not the most effective way to address injustice are unlikely to be proponents of other progressive policies either. Think, also, about the fact that those who lament unionisation on the grounds that it hurts workers are probably not going to vote for mass redistribution in any event. Point being, for all that I will say later, Clark’s article makes an invaluable contribution to the ongoing discussion on minority representation.
So much for the set-up. Clark’s main argument in the piece is that “international students” are not a homogenous group, and hence “there is no such thing as an international student”. My worry, though, is that Clark runs the risk of replacing one form of over-generalisation with another. Clark presents, unwittingly I believe, a picture of international students as many groups with diverse interests that are nevertheless internally homogenous.
We are told that, “they see themselves as who they are: a citizen of their home country.” We are told that, “they are more likely to relate more with others from their country than with other overseas students.” We are told that, “[this] is why cultural and country-specific clubs are so popular… as they create a place for ambitious overseas students to cut one’s teeth in student leadership.” These descriptive claims are worrying not only because they either are widely inaccurate or rely excessively on stereotypes. They also carry off-putting normative connotations. We are told, later in the piece, that the “institutional change” we need is simply that “student leaders” and residential staff understand the “legal, cultural, and socioeconomic barriers” international students face. Informed by the above-mentioned conception of international students, one can’t help but wonder what kind of understanding such institutional change will produce.
To be fair, Clark does mention that “even… simple descriptions [like Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong and Singapore] hide the complexities and contradictions of these places”. I don’t know, however, whether “ethnically homogenous China with its ‘new rich’ and rising middle class” — referenced by Clark in the same paragraph — obscures more than just the “complexities and contradictions” of a place.
Of course, at the level of university and residential policies, some degree of generalisation is unavoidable. The question rather is whether generalisation is unfairly and disproportionately directed at some particular groups.
In fact, as an international student myself, I find it slightly puzzling that, for an article published in the university newspaper, people like me are referred to almost exclusively as “they”. Perhaps it’s just a matter of the proper use of grammar; I am not sure. I do, however, struggle to find any shred of agency for people like me in this picture. We seem merely to be passive recipients of “inclusion” and “support”— if only we could be integrated; if only “student leaders” and staff could help us.
Now, how to understand the agency of disadvantaged groups is a very general problem for historians, sociologists and philosophers. For example, we do not want to theorise indigenous peoples solely through the lens of victimhood, nor should we only sing a feel-good anthem about their triumphant resistance. The point is not that Clark doesn’t resolve this intricate issue. Rather, it is simply very curious why international students are singled out. There are presumably a great many students who have difficulties adjusting themselves to the new environment. A great many, perhaps, “want to be included into the community but are struggling”.
Even some of the seemly specific problems identified by Clark are hardly unique to international students. We are told that, “a Chinese dumpling making event, for example, does not necessarily appeal to South Asian students as it would to East Asian students.” Clark then says, “this is exacerbated when you continue to see events that continue to borrow upon one cultural region over another”. I am again quite puzzled by this. Isn’t this just a general problem of how to accommodate the interests of minorities in democratic institutions? How is it different from, say, political factions dominating certain student societies on campus?
Perhaps I am being unfair here. It’s certainly true that just because something is a general problem doesn’t mean that it is not serious. It’s also true that many of the issues identified by Clark, such as the under-representation of certain groups of international students, are very real. The question, though, is how we should approach these issues. I see no reason why we ought to prioritise, say, “providing services and support to struggling international students” over “providing services and support to all those who are struggling”. I cannot agree more when Clark says, “we must be careful of how we use language to refer to overseas students”. That’s why, given the prevailing social message, we should caution against framing international students predominantly as powerless victims to be provided for. Clark also calls for international students be “respected for their cultural diversity and humanity”. I agree; better yet, why not drop the “cultural diversity”?
Of course, it might be said that some issues are in fact primarily faced by international students. Perhaps, as Clark mentions, these are issues associated with English language skills and cultural differences. As I have written elsewhere, though, I personally find over-generalisations and (well-intentioned) assumptions about my identity a bigger irritation than the lack of meaningful support or services. There are simply way more instances where I am told, “oh, so you study philosophy… not… finance?”
Now, it should be pointed out that different students do in fact have different needs and interests. It’s also the case that the ANU should provide better support and services to its students. (I once had to wait three weeks for a counselling session, which is a common experience of many.) But this makes it all the more important not to generalise — particularly when it comes to groups about whom so many generalisations have already been made.
Perhaps, Clark and I do not really disagree after all. There is indeed no such thing as an international student. What should be remembered, though, is that there is also no such thing as a non-struggling student.
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