Friday, November 26, 2010

When Cultures Collide

Are western campuses becoming too 'Asian' for anybody's comfort?

This is a provocative question that the article, "Too Asian?" poses. The reports suggest that there is a trend of cultural segregation in top campuses in North America. Asians tend to be those who are high achievers.

"That Asian students work harder is a fact born out by hard data. They tend to be strivers, high achievers and single-minded in their approach to university." (Maclean's)

In contrast, white students tend to be:

"White students, by contrast, are more likely to choose universities and build their school lives around social interaction, athletics and self-actualization—and, yes, alcohol. When the two styles collide, the result is separation rather than integration." (Maclean's)
Already, the University of British Columbia is addressing this racially sensitive topic, by holding a forum for students to express their views. The student body at UBC published this report in response to the anonymity of sources used in the Maclean's report.

How Cultures Clash
I can understand the negative sentiments posed in the controversial report in Macleans. There are complaints about Asian students sticking together and not integrating with the rest of the student body. They speak their own languages instead of the local language. Volunteerism is extremely low, that does not reflect student body representation. For example, in one campus, it was reported:

"there is little Asian representation on student government, campus newspapers or college radio stations. At UBC, where the student body is roughly 40 per cent Asian, not one Asian sits on the student executive."
Unfortunately, the furor the article has created is beckoning those who opened the pandora's box of race and culture, to quickly shut it again.

My Comments
I think the issue is more of a cultural difference and a set of mismatched (and misplaced expectation more than anything else.) "Too Asian?" article is clearly written from the White perspective. It stereotypes Asians as those who work harder and get better grades. It places the onus on Asians to make the first move toward integration. If two cultures are already different, it will be wrong to place one expectation over the other. In fact, the mood written in the article is already divisive and segregating people in the first place.

  • Why can't one regardless of culture make the initiative to integrate?
  • Isn't it better to promote integration via education and cultural representatives? 
  • Integration is not just the responsibility of any one group. All groups need to participate, though some may feel it stronger than others.
  • There are both hardworking students from ALL ethnic groups;
  • There are also lazy students from ALL groups;
  • Hear both sides of the story before attempting to make sweeping generalizations.
That said, the article does have certain benefits. It boldly brings up a taboo topic that society tends to shy away from. Race may be a taboo topic, but it is very much a part of our identity. If people do not talk about it upfront, they will talk about it behind each other's back. Truth is: they will talk about it, in some way.

I have had the benefit of studying in both Asian and non-Asian campuses. Segregation exists more often because it can be a very lonely environment. Even among same ethnic groups, there are pockets of subcultures within. In other words, people regardless of skin colour will always have a tendency to segregate rather than integrate. Look at China or India. Every province, every town, and every village will have different subgroups within a group. It could be differences due to dialects, to faculty groups, to food choices, even to which football team we support. 

When I was studying in Singapore, there was a huge problem in attracting volunteers in various clubs and in house societies. The administration soon learned to incorporate a points system. For example, points could be earned by volunteering a certain number of hours and be members of committees so that one could get better chances at getting a hostel room. It was a win-win scenario, albeit the stress and complaints they generate.

In the West like the UK, I notice that Asian students tend to be 'out-segregated' by the White students. While some earnestly attempt to invite Asian students out, a large number chose to mingle among themselves. We all speak English, but we are too different for them to mix with.

At Regent-College (Canada) on the UBC campus, the administration and student body emphasizes community so much that many programs are planned for integrative purposes. Still, there are pockets of ethnically specific enclaves that apply to all groups, both Asians and non-Asians.

When cultures collide, people feel funny, even threatened. Yet, I think a mature society needs to learn to talk openly with different cultures. First, seek first to understand than to be understood. Second, be slow to impose expectations, but quick to listen to alternative views. Third, do not be stymied into stereotyping any group, regardless of language, race or religion.

Due to the fallen nature of human being, there is a natural tendency toward segregation rather than integration. Let me state that again. Segregation is a part of human nature. All groups, must take note and take initiative to work toward integration. Such a responsibility must be shared. Such a movement must be valued. Then and only then, we we break away from a sinful segregational disposition, toward a community building integration.

It is better not to label anyone or any group too 'Asian' or too 'white, or too 'black.' Throw these words out of our vocabulary. There are hard working Asians, as well as non-hardworking Asians. There are boisterous whites, as well as quieter caucasians. All seek a common goal. Let that common goal unite us. Let cultures collaborate, not collide.


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