By Pan Han

“I came to study in London because it’s London!” says Shang Xin, 26, an MA Documentary Photography student at University College London (UCL).

“Ever since I was in high school, my dream was to come here and live the kind of life that I had watched in many European movies. Movies influenced me a lot, in fact; if I was not studying photography, I would study film, and London is the city I love the most; I was so fascinated by the classic British style, and also its cultural tolerance. In this culturally diverse city, life is full of excitement!” 

Every year, many Chinese students apply to study in the UK and for most, their first choice is a university in London. Like Shang, most have learned about this country from European movies and books and have the same impression of this country they have never been to. 

“I hate Chinese education,” Shang said when recalling school life in his native Xinjiang province. “The test-centred education system in China puts too much pressure on students, so when I watched some European movies talk about young people’s lives in school in the UK, I longed to visit and study in this country. I was full of enthusiasm and imagination about the art in the United Kingdom and the country itself.” 

However, after Shang arrived in the UK, his fantasies were not fully realised. The reasons are different and complex. It’s partly because his experiences in London are not what he imagined – but it is partly, perhaps, just because he is Chinese. 

Shang is critical of his fellow Chinese students in London, saying that they prefer to spend their time with their compatriots and rarely mix with British people. “Actually, I thought they were weak and lonely, I would see most Chinese students socialising together when they were in school, so reliant upon each otherThey don’t have a voice in western society, or in the classroom.” 

Other Chinese overseas students share Shang’s feelings of disappointment. Twenty-three-year-old Danyang Zheng did her BA in Journalism at University of the Arts London (UAL) and is now on UAL’s MArts and Lifestyle Journalism course. “When studied journalism, there was only one Chinese student here, which was me. I had no friends in my class, and I felt lonely most of the time. My best friends here are my roommates, who are all Chinese and one of them was my classmate in high school. I do everything with them in my daily life.” 

chinese students and their teacher pose for a picture in their classroom

Chinese students and their teacher pose for a picture [Flickr: Nick Kenrick]

According to the Chinese Ministry of Education, there were 94,995 Chinese overseas students in the UK in 2017, making up the largest proportion of international students in the UK. However, most seem to live the same “Chinese life” in the UK, and this is not a new phenomenon among Chinese overseas students. The reasons for this situation and the influences it has upon students cannot simply be summarised as “finding a familiar environment abroad is a person’s normal behaviour.” 

“It’s the same situation if foreigners came to Beijing. No matter American or British, they both speak English and would form their own small groups; this is a matter of common sense among people,” said Yue Zhang, who has lived in the UK for the past 10 years, where she has stayed working after graduating with her PhD from University College London. “These kinds of interdependent groups are not unique to Chinese students, but excessive grouping reduces the opportunities for cross-cultural communication, and small groups can make outsiders feel excluded. Conversely, small groups that form because of loneliness can feel more isolated.” 

“In addition,” Yue Zhang emphasises, “a lack of communication can cause misunderstandings. For example, one of my professors believes that Chinese students lack the ability to study independently. Relatively speaking, students from Western countries are more independent and like to experience new things, so they often participate in various activities. I feel that they are more likely to make friends than students from Asia.” 

When talking about the reasons behind this phenomenon, the first is that finding familiarity among people from the same cultural background can eliminate loneliness. “Staying with people who speak the same language and have the same cultural background is more comfortable,” says Danyang, “but the other reason that should not be ignored is the language barrier. In my first year in London, I didn’t even know how to tell my landlord to change the tissues; I used the word ‘paper’ and felt so embarrassed after.” 

Although almost all universities in the UK offer a pre-sessional course for students who don’t meet the standards of the IELTS that their university demands, taking a pre-sessional course means that before they actually start university, these students will have to work very hard in a language class. For some students, this may take two or three months. But, if students don’t pass the course, they may have to return to China before the beginning of their formal course. 

“In one class, there were 20 people, all of whom were Chinese students.” Yuxuan Gu, 24 years old, a student at the University of Manchester said: “the teacher would specifically ask them to sit apart to prevent them from speaking Chinese rather than English.” 

“There are dirty blackboards, maps, and some grammar tips written on the classroom wall in colourful pens,” said Yuxuan. “In the student’s homework notebook, one of the questions asked: ‘What is the main purpose for British youth to go to a bar?’ The next line read, in neat handwriting: ‘To find a girl and fall in love.’ There were only 12 students who passed the language course in the end, including myself.” 

Students in this English class circle around the library, dormitory and classroom every day. “They spent a lot of time completing countless hours of online listening exercises, the contents of which include choreographing short dramas that are trivial and have nothing to do with their real lives, in order to explain British culture.

One of the short plays is about a husband who buys a rose to cheer up his angry wife; the other talks about how a family spends their summer vacation.” Yuxuan said. “Because Chinese students like to stay together and because of the language barrier, they have few channels to truly get in touch with authentic British life. Although these people are in the UK, they are still only learning about British culture through textbooks.” 

“They are in pre-sessional classes, like living in a gap between China and the UK,” Danyang concludes. Although she has lived in the UK for almost five years, Danyang still finds communication difficult. “I simply can’t understand some British jokes and I only laugh with my classmates sometimes.”  

“Shang says that Chinese students are subjected to damaging stereotypes”

When Chinese students first arrive in the UK, they are often very excited. However, when they have been in the country for a year or half, there is often widespread frustration. They don’t always know what to expect when they come to the UK but they know that they do not want to meet so many Chinese students on campus.  

Although many have no problems in basic communication in English, there are certain obstacles to communicating in depth, such as differences in living habits, cultural background and hobbies. “There will be differences, plus some foreign people are biased against the Chinese. Although this does not hinder our communication with each other, it hinders integration”, said Shang. 

Shang says he has lived a different life in the past year from what he thought he would before coming to London. “I thought the cultural diversity in the UK, especially in London, would lead to more cultural tolerance in such an international city,” said Shang.

“But after I had studied here for a while, after some experiences I have been through, my impression of the society of the UK went from good to bad. Now, I have completely changed and, after two years, I don’t criticise overseas Chinese students anymore. I have begun to look at this issue dialectically and have begun to understand them. They should not be blamed for living like this.” 

Shang experienced discrimination when he was caught up in terrorism alert in central London in 2017 (which ultimately turned out to be a false alarm)Shoppers in Oxford Street began to run in panic and Shang started to run as well. 

“Everyone ran into a store on Oxford Street to take refuge. But when I entered that store, the store manager told me, ‘No Chinese’, and pushed me outside. I have always remembered that moment. The London I had imagined was a diversified and friendly international city for foreigners, but at this juncture of life and death, I had discovered that no one ‘loved freedom’ that much. They refused me as a Chinese person.” 

Shang also had to deal with cultural problems at university. His tutor initially thought that the subject he had chosen for his dissertation, expressing the experiences of Chinese students studying abroad, was very boring and that his foreign classmates wouldn’t be able to understand or relate to this unique feeling. Indeed, Shang’s mentor failed him for his first draft.

However, his mentor and classmates suddenly expressed their understanding when he turned his views into a criticism of Chinese students who were not good at communicating and were often ignorant because of the unique Chinese political environment and system of education. After this alteration, Shang’s work received both high scores and recognition and acclaim from his foreign classmates. 

chinese students listening to teacher in lesson

Chinese students in lesson [Chinese students listening to their teacher [Flickr: UCL Institute of Education]

“I don’t believe a work that doesn’t criticise China can be accepted in this market. Who defines authority in this art market? The answer is white, western people. Look at the famous Chinese photographers who are popular in the west. For instance, Guo Yingguang, who took a picture criticising women in Shanghai and become popular. Or there is Ren Hang, who became popular because of his portraits of the human body objected to the Chinese government and promoted freedom. Most Chinese artists I can think of are accepted in the west because they are critical to China,” he said. 

“China has problems that are often highlighted and attacked by the western media, so foreigners often label Chinese people with a political bias. But not all Chinese people support the policies of China’s Communist Party.”  

It’s the same situation with Danyang, who says she hated how China’s education system restricted her thinking and was obsessed with European teen dramas. But upon arrival in the UK, she struggled with the English language, finding that she spent most of her time at home, burdened with study and uncomfortable with the late-night drinking and partying culture that dominated the campus social scene in the UK. “I don’t really feel as though I belong to this university,” she said, “Most students are nice, but I don’t think I can be friends with them, but I also don’t care about that.” 

These sorts of academic and social challenges can take their toll on overseas Chinese students. One Yale University study found that 45% of Chinese students surveyed at British universities reported symptoms of depression — triple the rate of the general university population. Studies in America and Australia have yielded similar results. 

Shang says that Chinese students are subjected to damaging stereotypes. People assume that they are wealthy, because of news reports that mention the high tuition fees for international students in the UK. There is also, he says, an assumption that Chinese students will be strong learners, good at interpersonal communication, and fluent in foreign languages. However, the reality seems to be different. Overseas Chinese students face so many challenges to be able to fit into western society, and it’s not as easy as they imagined.” 

“Foreign people are biased against the Chinese. Although this does not hinder our communication with each other, it hinders integration” – Shang

When I was doing my final year project, I simply wanted to show people what life was like for most overseas Chinese students,” said Shang, “Then I thought of ‘China town’. In China town, people get together, you can see them smoking Chinese cigarettes, speaking Chinese, no matter whether Mandarin or Cantonese, talking about their homework, recalling their hometown…from this, I concluded that Chinatown is not only a geographical landscape but also an ideology, a distinction, consciously or unconsciously embodied within each Chinese overseas student who belongs to an ethnic minority group among international students. Even two Chinese can be ‘Chinatown’”. 

“Maybe this kind of situation is closely related with the education we have accepted during the time when we were growing up”, said Xuyuan Gu. Xuyuan hasn’t decided what she will do after graduating, but she doesn’t want to go back to China, which hasn’t gone over well with her father: “He asks why I’m so obsessed with other countries, and says, ‘you should love your motherland, don’t be such a rebel.’” 

The idea of being a rebel bemuses Xuyuan since she has often been upset by criticism of China from her classmates of other countries. “I know China is not a free country and the President is not perfect,” she says, “but I really don’t like people talking shit about it. They think Communism is so bad and that China is the same as North Korea, but it’s not. And meanwhile, I have also realised that I was really affected by the Chinese system of education– I have always been taught to defend my country no matter what.” 

“I have come to appreciate many aspects of British society, including how people seem to be less judgmental of women, and how homosexuals and other traditionally marginalised groups in society receive less discrimination”, says Danyang. “Also, the teachers in school have taught me how to think and not only memorise. The longer I stay here, the more complicated the feeling is, but anyway, I have no regret about studying in the UK.” 


Featured image courtesy of UCL Institute of Education via Flickr