04 May 2011

The East-West Divide

I rarely write about the social dynamics in the graduate school setting. This is partly because since I've been in graduate school for 6 years now, I am at this stage where I am just busy with my dissertation, working in the lab and writing up the results of my experiments. I don't take classes anymore. Thus, there's this feeling that wow, there's all these new people in the department and yet I don't know them at all.

Regardless, there's this one factoid: there is a subset of people that I don't know at all, not because I am too old in the program, but because this subset of people never really integrated into the whole set of students. I am talking about the subset of people that nicely fall under the label of international students.

See, in my department, the international students aren't really a varied bunch. There's one from the United Kingdom, one from Germany, one from the Philippines (that's me), there used to be one from Argentina and one from Mexico, oh, and there's one Indian. The rest are the East Asian international students. There are plenty of students from Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and mainland China. In fact, I think international students make up about 50 percent of the graduate student population in my department.

However, the sad thing is that the East Asian international students are nowhere to be seen. Whenever there is a Happy Hour, they're not there. Whenever there's a graduate student meeting, chances are they are not there. They just show up for classes, and disappear in their little cliques. Yes, I admit that the American students can be cliquish too, but they (we) definitely like to integrate with them more.

Haha, let me do a little digression here. I guess it's obvious by now which camp I belong to. I might be from the Philippines but I have plenty of friends that are American. This is not to say however that I have no friends who are international students: I do, I just have friends from both camps.

Anyway, I guess what I find bizarre is this groupthink that I sort of see with the international students. They come all the way to the United States in order to study, they travel halfway around the world to attend school, and yet when they go here, all the friends that they make are fellow students who come from their own country. Their English doesn't improve, their experience is limited to interacting with their own countrymen, and in the end, it just seems like they went to school in their own country as well. What's the point if that would be the case? It feels so similar to this bizarre habit I observe with Japanese tourists: they go and visit a foreign place, and yet they still eat in a Japanese restaurant.

Perhaps it's just that I grew up in a very international setting that I find socializing with the locals rather easy. Perhaps I am the exception, and that for the most part, it's very hard for people to break the wall. It's a pitiful situation, but perhaps that's the reality of things.

(Jagged Rocks, from my Ollantaytambo Series)


  1. Some nationalities or cultures like to hang out together... some of my friends in Canada hang out exclusively with other French. I never really understood that, especially considering how much they miss on the local culture!

  2. Zhu,

    I guess so. I'd like to vary my circles a bit, and try not to choose just one group. Because like you said, there's quite a lot to see and do if one opens up to other cultures.

  3. This post makes a good point. However, to be fair: in my own experience, the students in the program who so thoroughly isolate themselves predominantly belong to one particular East Asian nationality. And even from that group, there are those willing to "reach out" to some extent.

  4. K.,

    Really? I'd be curious what that nationality is. Because in my experience, regardless of nationality, they just keep to themselves. But then again, perhaps, I only see that because those are the only nationalities that can actually form a group. The other nationalities are just represented by one person per nationality, and perhaps, if given the chance (by having multiple people per nationality), even if you're not East Asian, you'll mingle by yourselves.

  5. Maybe it's a culture or personality thing. After all, I know some people who takes advantage of the whole place their in at the moment (it doesn't matter if they're in another country or in another local place over here) by talking with the people in the place they're at, eating different food, etc.

    And yet, there are also others who find it hard to leave their comfort zone.

    Maybe the "East Asian clique" people just find it hard to integrate with the others. A language barrier perhaps?

  6. Prab,

    I really think that's what it is, something stemming from the language barrier. Come to think of it, I used to have a roommate who was also Filipino (aka not East Asian), but it was his first time to go somewhere outside of the Philippines (he was in the Philippines from birth until he was 25), and he just hung out with the other Filipino people in his department (his department was unusual in that there were at least 8 Filipinos in one department alone). So yes, I think it's a language barrier and ease (or lack thereof) of integration issue.