Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Politics 2018 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Blog Post 1: The Missing Friendship (Ethnography of the University 2018: Focus on Politics)

By Yiran Li

This blog post as part of a series by the students of the University of Toronto Anthropology course ANT473 and ANT6200 Ethnographic Practicum: The University, taught by Prof. Tania Li at the University of Toronto in 2018. Click here for the syllabus.

Introduction: According to the data collected in 2016, Chinese international students take up at least 12.8% of the population at the University of Toronto and make up the largest international student community. Along with this data is the lack of communication between Chinese and non-Chinese students, which has created misunderstandings and ignorance among the student societies. As a Chinese student myself, I took the student organizations as my venue and attempted to find out how Chinese students deal with this situation and where do the critiques go. The blog posts discuss three aspects of my observation: Blog Post 1 talks about the missing friendship between Chinese and non-Chinese students, which is opposite to the common imagination of the universities with international students. Blog Post 2 focuses on the idea of success and how could this concept influence the Chinese student clubs events, and distinguish themselves from the other student clubs at U of T. In Blog Post 3 I paid attention to a small group of students who attempt to break the “Chinese bubble” and participate in the student governances.

Blog Post 1: The Missing Friendship

The photo on the U of T website seems to depict an ideal scene for international students: people from different cultures, races, and ethnicities come and sit together, talking happily without boundaries. This is also the imagination for most of the Chinese international students. Having a “foreign friend” is always an interesting topic of the “authentic” experience studying abroad, a way to broaden one’s mind. However, the imaginations often collapse when they meet the realities. The great presence of Chinese international students does not guarantee a great number of friendships between Chinese and non-Chinese students. All of my interviewees told me they had their main social network within the Chinese students, and it is usually hard to keep a non-Chinese friendship.

Behind this phenomenon is not merely the language barrier, but a limited social space for students from both Chinese and non-Chinese sides to navigate and take the risks. Many Chinese students told me they managed to make some friends outside of the Chinese community through the Orientation Week and programs hold by CIE, such as iConnect. However, since individuals at U of T have very different timetables and the campus itself is huge, to maintain a friendship usually needs extra works in socializing. One of my interviewees, Feanor, who claimed to successfully maintain some non-Chinese friendships, told me that he would message and hang out with his friends from the first year actively and regularly. But this type of social life could be difficult for many other Chinese students, especially those students who have an introverted personality and feel shy/afraid to disturb the others. Also, the school-based programs, such as iConnect and student clubs, cannot offer activities that are regular and sufficient enough for some Chinese student to step out of the barriers and build solid friendships with the others. A common notion among my interviewees was: “Those ‘foreign students’ are actually nice”, which means they could feel the friendliness and hope to build the connections. However, it needs great courage to cross the cultural and language barrier, and more energies and strategies to adapt themselves to the non-Chinese style social life.

As a reaction to this situation, some Chinese students gradually think it is natural and tend to make the most of the Chinese student environment at U of T, building their own networks and comfort zones within the Chinese community. There are other students who hold a rather dissatisfied attitude, but feel the problems are on their own, such as “I did not try hard enough”, or “I came to Canada too late, it would be better if I came in high school”. In the end, the missing friendship often goes to a self-criticism: “I should have done more”.

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