Saturday, December 27, 2008

Foreign students - socialising with the locals?

To build on Kian Ming's points about students from Botswana, I thought I would relate my own experience from spending one-and-a-half years at a local college with many foreign students, especially from Botswana.

As I mentioned before, I did my A-Levels in KDU College, an institution that has attracted many foreign students interested in pursuing degrees in law, engineering, and other disciplines. My foreign classmates were mostly from the Maldives, India and Bangladesh, and most of them had no problem integrating with the locals.

At the same time, there were often a lot of students from other countries in other programs - guys from Botswana, Mauritius, places in the Middle East. One thing I observed is that most of the African students kept to themselves in their own cliques, while students from other places mixed with the locals freely.

To some extent this can be attributed to racial attitudes. People from the Indian subcontinent look like locals, and so we probably have an easier time relating to them than we might with someone from the Middle East or Africa. A lot of my friends, especially the girls, were frightened of or otherwise not interested in mixing with African students. So I can see where the Botswana government is coming from when they worry about their students having a hard time integrating into Malaysian society.

But I think the real and main problem is one which Malaysians who study abroad might have noticed themselves: we stick to groups we are familiar with, to people we feel an existing kinship with. In UK universities for example, you often find colonies and cliques of Malaysians and Singaporeans who don't really talk to people outside their group. The experience of being in a foreign country and mixing with different people is largely gone because we climb into our own shells.

The same, I think, has happened with students from Botswana. Because their government sends them over in such big groups, they clump and stick together in their own groups; they feel no need to approach locals and befriend them, and the locals feel intimidated at the thought of entering a large group of people they are completely unfamiliar with. Students who have come over because of their own private initiative, by themselves, don't seem to encounter such problems finding a group of Malaysians to hang out with.

Looking back, one remarkable thing about many of my friends from other countries is how quickly and enjoyably they adapted themselves to Malaysian student life. Many of them mamaked and DOTAed in cybercafes with the Malaysians as if they had been doing this their whole lives; they made the most out of the Malaysian experience. And the cultural exchange went both ways; we learned Mauritian creole and the politics of the Maldives from our international friends. When foreign students mingle with local students, everyone benefits.

Now, I cannot say for sure how justified the complaints of some foreign students like those from Botswana are. Maybe the true reason for their difficulties in adjusting is something besides their social isolation. Without an empirical study it is hard to say. But I can see why students from Botswana would complain about this, and if we want to address this, we must understand the social dynamics international students encounter. Cliquing is prevalent wherever international students are; it even exists to a large extent at Dartmouth in the US, where I am studying. But if we want internationals to make the most out of their studies and stay here, we must figure out a way to integrate them better into the mainstream of student life.


Anonymous said...

" Students who have come over because of their own private initiative, by themselves, don't seem to encounter such problems finding a group of Malaysians to hang out with."

Not so true JLee your above statement. Most importantly KMing is right about the role and responsibility of the host institution. The university or college management has to have enough on-campus accomodation and food facilities for those first and second year students as they are very new to the environment; at least this will give them time
to settle down and adapt themselves to local situations.

Organise on-campus activities involving international students and show case their countries to the local classmates and friends etc.and let them be proud of themselves from wherever they come from.. these will boost their confidence in their outlook of things.

Overseas universities do that for our students who go abroad.. Spore is a good example.


Anonymous said...

John,since that you said there are many problems with the Malaysian Education then which way you would suggest to make it into a better system? Sometimes its easy to suggest but hard to apply it in real life.Please share your point of view, ty.

Anonymous said...

It is ok having foreign students so long as they are not here for prostitution, human trafficking or something worse. It is next to impossible for staff to look out at foreign students to make sure that they do not involve themselves with vice especially those from Asia. Secondly, it is cheaper to come here on a student visa than work permit so many atimes the student notion is abused and not monitored. You might find a postgraduate student plying their wares in upmarket hartamas as an accupuncturist but the outfit has many rooms and makes you kind of wonder what on earth is going on?

Anonymous said...

Many foreign students use Malaysia as a transit point to Australia and New Zealand for work. They are not really interested in studying in Malaysia save for the fact that it gives them a chance to have a degree from the West and substantiate their emmigration requirements.

Anonymous said...

I think the government and the institutions of higher learning need to be careful when bringing in large groups of students from a particular country especially when the culture is significantly different from our own. We have large groups of Indonesian students in Malaysia and they generally do not find much difficulty in fitting into the Malaysian culture as both countries have similar cultural backgrounds. Bringing large groups of African students into Malaysia is however a different scenario as there are large cultural and social differences. Our government and the institutions that bring these students into the country have a moral responsibility to ensure the students are culturally educated and briefed before they commence their education in Malaysia. I believe that small groups initially is a better way of assimilating these students into the Malaysian culture compared to bringing in large numbers too quickly.

Anonymous said...

Some how i m agree with my anonymous frd that bringing large group of African students into Malaysia is however a different scenario as there is a different cultural and social differences, Even every part of the world has good and bad peoples and every country and nation has their own cultural and family values.Student should respect the host country's cultural value instead of complainings.The government where these students belongs to have a moral responsibility to ensure the students are culturally educated and briefed before they commence their education in Malaysia.

Unknown said...

African students having a hard time fitting in, what’s new? Although I have not had the privilege of having an overseas education, all my friends who went overseas back in the early 90s to mid-90s also faced some sort of discrimination. I had friends who had their food at a diner spitted on, beer splashed at their faces and so on.

Generally, Asians are not the aggressive type. Even when they have their food spitted on, Asians tend to walk away. One reason could be due to our culture which is generally soft spoken and non-aggressive and moreover, Asians are generally physically smaller than our western counterpart.

Now, when it comes to Africans, since there are physically much bigger than their local counterpart, it makes them more intimidating. Also, Africans tend to be loud and more aggressive which is their culture, and it’s this culture that is clashing with the local culture.

It also does not help that many Malaysians have bad experiences Africans. Coming in big groups to restaurants and being rowdy and not paying for their food. Many coffee shops often insist that Africans pay for their food when it is served whilst local can pay after eating. This is a form of discrimination but can you blame the shop owner who had bad experiences in the past?

Local colleges are also to blame. Lets be honest, most of these African students are not coming to Malaysia because of our excellence Education system. We are probably getting the third-tier quality students as the first and second tier will be going to UK/USA, etc. Hence, the local colleges must enforce strict discipline amongst their students, especially foreign students. Miss more than 30% of your classes and you are barred from final exams. Fail the final exam and you have to repeat the whole semester and fail again and out of the college together with the termination of the student visa and an immediate report to the immigration on the status of all their student visas. However, how many colleges will be strict with their foreign students and risk this lucrative source of income?

Accommodation is another major issue. Most Malaysians do not like renting to foreign students, especially foreigners from Africa and the Middle East. Exceptions are given to “China Dolls” or pretty foreign female students from France, Britain, etc. Hence, the college must make arrangements for suitable accommodation and again enforce discipline for theses foreign students. Ask the tenants at the Apartments behind a certain college in Cheras and you will hear horror stories, being loud and rowdy. Having wild and loud music blaring all night long, even the Guards are afraid of these foreign students. Can you still blame the locals if they have certain prejudice towards African Students?

Don’t get me wrong, prejudice is wrong. African students must make the first step to adapt to the local culture and not expect the other way round. And locals should reciprocate and not prejudice towards Africans. Malaysians should take this one step further and not discriminate each other. After all, we are all humans.

Anonymous said...

i once was a student but i didn't had the privelege to study abroad.but i know somehow that it is hard for any students to fit in with the locals when they study abroad.

i have a friend right now who's a girl that studying in Egypt.besides the weather,the youngsters there are quite ill-mannered at times.there's one time where there was this group of youth who name-calling my friend as "bitch".

life is tough when we know we are in a completely different place far from home.

Unknown said...

i dont have any problem if anyone from outside of Malaysia wanna study in our country.must they must know and respect our culture and customs.or else it's gonna be harder for them to interact with the locals.

Fikri said...

"Organise on-campus activities involving international students and show case their countries to the local classmates and friends etc."

I think this is a good and practical idea given by the first commentator on this post. I do think, however, that in order for it to be effective, the locals also need to be a bit more open-minded and be willing to accept and take in such activities.

I recently had such an experience in Korea, where the foreign students organised a festival to showcase their abilities and works. With the exception of a few, the people who attended the exhibition, short film screenings, dance performances and closing night were the foreigners and friends of the foreigners. The almost-empty film screening, especially, was quite demoralising.

Such events, then, can galvanise foreign students to get stuck in and actually do something. Like almost everything else, however, it's a two-way street, and I believe that judging people one by one by their character rather than the HIV rates of their country might help.

prachai said...

That's right. Except a handful of students, most will clump together and form cliques if their numbers are large enough. I have seen this happening to Malaysians, Singaporeans, Chinese, Indians, Africans, Vietnamese, Thai, etc.

Unsurprisingly, the most sociable group I came across with were made up of students who do not have large student groups in campus.