Inspired by remarks like “Chinese people like to stay with Chinese people,” “Chinese people live isolated,” “Chinese people don’t mingle (integrate),” I started to reflect on my own lifestyle in the Netherlands and that of Chinese PhD students around me. Those remarks are by no means groundless. Looking around, you will see very often, if not always, a Chinese student who shows up in the company of another or a group of Chinese in the canteen/restaurant, gym, or park… Is it true that Chinese students don’t like integrating into the local community? Or are there barriers, either practical or psychological, for them to do so? And regardless of the barriers, what is the magic that brings most Chinese students together?
By communicating with some friends and from my personal experience, it is easy to answer the first question: no. We like integrating or being integrated into the international community. Communicating or doing activities with fellow PhD students and colleagues brings a lot of fun and inspiration. For me, it is always happy and beneficial to know another culture, to share and exchange ideas, to learn another way of thinking and looking at things, etc.
However, language and culture always stand in the way of integrating. First, for most Chinese students, not being able to naturally or just correctly express themselves in English usually restrains them from socializing with internationals. Such worries and concerns seem to be related to Chinese culture, since it is pretty common among them: “face” is a big issue. The Chinese language is typologically very different from English (or European languages in general), which adds more difficulty to organize ideas in quite different grammatical structures in English. In fact, I don’t think Chinese students really have a serious language problem, nor that it is necessary to worry about it. Language can be learned and improved through actual use. Following Matthew 5:30: if “face” causes you to stumble, drop it down and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.
Language and face apart, the lack of a shared popular culture is another obstacle. They listen to different songs, watch different programs, play different games, grow up in a different educational system. When colleagues talk about or make fun of what they watched on TV yesterday, they probably don’t get any clue of it. It is always fine to ask for more background information and explanation, but there is not always a chance nor proper opportunity to interrupt in a flow of conversation. For people who are not very talkative nor active in raising and leading a conversation in a multicultural environment, which is, admittedly, a weak point of most Chinese, this causes stress and sometimes frustration. When colleagues tell a joke, Chinese may not get it. When colleagues sing a song at party, Chinese probably have never heard of it. It is not good just to stay in one’s “comfort zone.” I totally agree and have mostly enjoyed trying something new. Sometimes pressure from work, life, and their financial situation, or simply laziness restrains Chinese students from trying very hard or making substantial changes.
Well, believe it or not, food culture is second to none that brings most Chinese students together. On the one hand, the tremendously abundant varieties of Chinese cuisine are, of course, what they desperately miss. The huge gap between Chinese and western cuisine turns Chinese students, one by one over just a few months, into a cook. In the meantime, get-togethers are mostly driven by a strong desire for food, which in turn brings more motivation and inspiration for cooking. One the other hand, from arranging the food party to the cleaning-up, it is a learning experience and requires team work: everyone learns to cooperate, to share, to contribute, and to appreciate. It is also over the preparation and eating of food that stress is relived, ideas are exchanged, and friendships are developed. In the end, it is not for food that they get together, but what they can obtain from those get-togethers in the name of food.
What is the distance between the Chinese and Dutch culture? Just the distance between a plate of mashed potatoes and shredded potatoes.