Written by Bin Wu.

With respect to the social life of international students in the UK and other western countries, a common scenario for students from mainland China (hereafter Chinese students) is for them to study and live together, resulting in so many small and closed “circles” with little time or opportunity to engage with people from other social groups. I noted recently the term ‘Chinese Phantom’ which describes Chinese and other East Asian International university students “who live in halls of residence with other students and stay in their rooms all day, don’t socialise (apart from at Phantom gatherings) and often don’t even introduce themselves to fellow flat mates”.

The phenomenon of “small circles”, however, is not limited to Chinese students but is a common feature of many Diaspora Chinese, which has prevented them from better integration into the mainstream society in many host countries. As a result, Diaspora Chinese are often perceived by local people as a “hidden” or “invisible” community.

As China has become a leading supplier of international students in the global higher education sector in the 21st Century, there is an increasing concern for the effective segregation between Chinese and local students in destination countries, and the consequences on their learning, social life and mental health during their stays abroad.

It is debatable whether all Chinese students can be seen as a homogenous group in terms of vision, motivation and social behaviour patterns. Nonetheless, it calls for further research on the phenomenon of “small circles” among Chinese students as it has become a symbolic of international student (un)integration in the debates over the internationalisation of higher education. Furthermore, we know that the small circles have both positive functions (e.g. mutual support to overcome various barriers, difficulties, and challenges facing them) and negative impacts (e.g. preventing the improvement of their foreign language competences, across-cultural communication understanding and skill). What we don’t know is the actual extents to which Chinese students limit themselves to small circles or the factors responsible for this phenomenon.

These questions have been addressed by a recent survey project in Nottingham, a leading city in the UK in terms of hosting two universities including the University of Nottingham which has successfully established overseas campuses in Malaysia and Ningbo, China respectively. Thanks to the internationalization of higher education, the Chinese student population in Nottingham has increased more than 8-fold in the last decade or so, reaching over 4000 by 2011. Accompanying the growth of Chinese students, the local Chinese resident population in Nottingham City has also increased from less than 2000 in 2001 to over 10,000 in 2011. The share of Chinese students in the local Chinese population increased from 15% to over 40% in the same time.

With a focus on the scope and type of students’ social contact and friendship within and beyond the university campus, a questionnaire survey was conducted this summer among 160 Chinese students, of whom 70% come from mainland China. A number of research findings can be drawn from this survey.

First, on campus there is a strong tie between Chinese students from the same background in mainland China- more than 80% of correspondents confirmed their friendships in this category. By contrast, only one quarter of correspondents claimed that they have friends among Home students (i.e. from the UK), a similar proportion to friendships with Chinese students from other backgrounds such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. A larger proportion of Chinese students (38%) make friends with students from other nationalities. Different from the stereotype perception which assume no local friends for Chinese students, our survey seems to suggest a significant effort and progress made by Chinese students in term of breaking through the barriers from the “small circles”, leading to the establishment and development of multiple-circles with different groups of students  in the campus. However, there is still a long way for Chinese students to go to balance their social communication with local and international students, and even balance with other Chinese student groups from outside of China.

Second, off-campus 64% of correspondents claimed that they have social contacts or friends in local communities, including the local Chinese community. Regarding the question about who are their friends, 36% of correspondents pointed to local Chinese residents from mainland China, and about one quarter (26%) have friendship with people with different ethnic backgrounds. In contrast, only 18% of correspondents have friendship with local Chinese from different background, like long-established Cantonese. These findings suggest the growing impact of Chinese students on local Chinese community from the perspectives of not only the demand for Chinese products and services (e.g. Chinese restaurants), but also supply and contribution to local Chinese community and cultural development (e.g. Chinese New Year celebrations). Compared with campus integration, the links between Chinese students and local communities are still relatively weak, and many factors constrain them from contacting and working with local communities directly.

Finally, reflecting the limited scale of social contacts and interactions with local communities, only 40% of correspondents had working experience, either paid or voluntary. Work experience and opportunities for communication with local people are listed as the top two desires among a list of their considerations as key issues constraining their social lives in Nottingham. Given the importance of local engagement for the social life and personal development of Chinese students, a salient question for universities, local governments, civil society and Chinese community organisations is what can we do together to foster and support to international students, including Chinese students, to access to and work with local community projects?

The evidence shown above seems to suggest increasing awareness and exploration made by Chinese students for better integration in both university campus and local communities on the one hand, and a long way to go to break down “small circles” on the other. For individuals, according to our experience, the attitudes and confidence to take some voluntary opportunities are vital for them to overcome psychological barriers and develop their global vision and cross-cultural communication competencies. The Chinese Students and Scholars Association (SCCA), a major channel influencing the behaviours of Chinese students from mainland China and interfaces with other groups of Chinese students, local authorities, NGOs and in particular local Chinese resident groups are key to pushing this forward. But it is no less important that universities and relevant Schools/Departments play a significant role in terms of bringing the local context (including internship opportunities) into the curriculum system and also encouraging staff and students to engage with local communities.

Bin Wu is Senior Research Fellow in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham.

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