Cultural Enclaves at King’s: Life as a true international student

Our College’s community contains a diverse student body from different backgrounds and nationalities; it is a microcosm of the multicultural bastion of London. One walk through the halls of Strand and you can hear multiple languages, the Parisians conversing in French or the Chinese speaking Mandarin. Yet this ‘utopian vision’ of a diverse community does not necessarily reflect the intentions of multiculturalism – the utopia where people share different values and cultures with each other.

According to an article by The Guardian, this pride on ‘international reach’ by universities such as King’s College London is only a myth. Most student friendship groups are in fact commonly defined by nationality and ethnicity. The excuse not to interact with people from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds is justified under ‘cultural differences.’ Indeed, this problem is so widespread that there are colloquial terms that refer to such cultural segregation. The urban dictionary term ‘Chinese Phantom’ refers to such a reality, where these ‘phantoms’ are usually, but not always, from Asian descent, and refuse to socialise with anyone apart from ‘phantom gatherings.’

The Mandarin Chinese are stigmatised for their shunning of outsiders. We must not be quick to judge, however. Instead, we must question why these subgroups exist. It is important to note that there are great cultural differences, for instance, between East Asian international students and international students from Western countries, in terms of introversion and relationships. From personal experience, Asian culture is primarily more conservative and focuses largely on academics, which could inadvertently lead to introverted personalities. Furthermore, there are also cultural gaps within Asian countries, most notably between international students from Hong Kong, which is largely Western influenced, and Mainland China, which had been culturally isolated from the West. Such phenomena are beyond personal control, and should be taking into account when discussing such issues.

This problem cannot be restricted to race; it is mainly about differences in culture and language. A course mate of mine from Mainland China, Z, for example, does not join Chinese societies at King’s such as KCL Pass, as Z is afraid that many of them are dominated from international students from Hong Kong, and thus there would be a certain cultural gap. Z has a fear of being ‘left out.’ Indeed, this was certainly my experience during my first year of accommodation at King’s; in addition to conversing with Western people, I had the privilege of attaining first-hand experiences with such ‘phantom gatherings.’ As I was an international student from Hong Kong, it made conversing with the groups very difficult and at times I felt ‘left out’ from their conversations due to language barriers as my Chinese was insufficiently proficient (but that’s another story). Furthermore, many of them were reluctant to converse and interact with Western students, in fear of language and culture barriers that would ‘exclude’ them and make the situation ‘awkward.’

Perhaps it is just natural that many students would like to stick to social groups that are reflective of their cultural backgrounds. The KCL Korean Society (an unofficial society at King’s as they are not registered to the KCLSU), potentially displays such a phenomenon. In my questioning of one of the society’s members, the response overwhelmingly correlates with the justification of ‘cultural differences’ – he states that rather than being racially exclusive, it is more about ‘Korean culture.’ The society’s activities are mainly annual gatherings in which participants engage in Korean culture rather than Korean ‘pop culture’, speaking Korean, eating Korean food and drinking soju. He states that it would be ‘awkward’ for those who only have an interest in K-pop or K-dramas to join, which is the situation with the KCL Japanese Society or KCL Korean Hallyu Society.

Is it easier to communicate only with people from your own cultures? How do we bridge this cultural gap? It is unfortunate that many students are not taking advantage of the opportunities that come with living in a multicultural city like London. In my opinion, one of the greatest advantages of studying at King’s is to meet people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, and in order to be a true international student, communicating with a diverse background of students is a prerequisite. However, it seems that many students desire to stick with people from similar backgrounds and would rather not socialise with people from different cultures. I pose a question to these students: why did you choose London and not your home countries?

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