Who’s afraid of international students?

(Photo by UW Admissions / Katherine B. Turner)
(Photo by UW Admissions / Katherine B. Turner)

People generally assume that I’m an American based on the way that I sound. It might not be their first impression when they see me, but I usually throw them for a loop when they try to match my accent to my origins:

“Where are you from?”

“Hong Kong,” I answer.

“But you must’ve lived here for a long time, right?”

“No… I’ve only been in the U.S. for five months. I just started my graduate studies at the University of Washington.”

“Oh wow, but your English is so good!”

I’ve had different renditions of this conversation on multiple occasions over the past five months. Part of me can understand the sense of surprise. I sport a West Coast North American accent, which is not usually associated with a Chinese person coming from Hong Kong.

And yet it is precisely because of my upbringing and what I have known of the U.S. from afar that I am uncomfortable with the assumption that Chinese people coming from Hong Kong or China would necessarily speak “bad English.”

Years of attending international schools bought me the privilege to “pass” as a native English speaker.

A recent article by Katherine Long in the Seattle Times featured international students in Seattle, highlighting an “anti-foreigner sentiment” in current political climes that has caused fear in our community. The article was published prior to the travel ban and alarming rise of neo-Nazi activity, which have only substantiated those worries.

Certainly, there is plenty to fear with visa statuses, careers, livelihoods, and personal safety on the line. The general assumption, however, is that if you are here in the U.S. legally or if you are a U.S. citizen, that you could be exempt from those fears. Yet, the article seems to indicate otherwise.

A significant portion of it is dedicated to the generalization that most international students’ English language abilities are lacking. This is cited as a cause for our perceived inability to integrate culturally and grasp the academic materials taught in English, leaving University of Washington faculty members, fellow students, and members of the public to question international students’ places in their academic institutions.

The story gets more complicated, however. Philip Ballinger, Associate Vice Provost for Enrollment and Undergraduate Admissions at the UW, revealed in the article that a number of the students who were struggling academically specifically due to their grasp of English were, in fact, American citizens.

A report published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2015 indicates that 22 percent of the Seattle metro area population age five and over speak a language other than English at home. For the U.S. as a whole, a survey conducted in 2011 indicated that out of a population of 291.5 million aged five and over, 60.6 million people (21 percent) spoke a language other than English at home.” Only about a third of those were categorized as non-citizens. The rest, some 40 million people, were citizens who speak languages other than English at home.

Language acquisition has little to do with citizenship, and much more with class, race, and culture. Chinese international students like myself can sound like a white Californian valley girl, and U.S.-born citizens can speak with any number of accents that reflect class, racial, and cultural backgrounds outside of mainstream white standards.

(Photo by Christina Chung)
(Photo by Christina Chung)

I sound the way I do because of the global pecking order, which has placed accents associated with white British and American English at the top of the hierarchy for a very long time. There are clear correlations between this phenomenon and the geopolitical power ranking of these nations. Having grown up under white British colonial rule in Hong Kong, my parents were acutely aware of this, and had hoped that I would be able to ascend that hierarchy of power as far as I could possibly go.

In other words, they wanted me to be financially successful, which meant that I needed to speak “good (white) English.” Years of attending international schools bought me the privilege to “pass” as a native English speaker.

This is why students from non-English-speaking countries are often taught English from since a young age. This is why some international students choose to attend university here in the U.S., even if it means that some of them would have to struggle with being “outsiders” culturally, linguistically, and legally. It is because it affords them access to the top of that global hierarchy.

The global pecking order rears its head in proclamations like these from the Seattle Times article:

“To the rest of the world, there’s nothing more prestigious than an American degree… Many students who come to the United States come for the same reasons that people have always come to America — because they don’t want to be pigeonholed in a system that takes no interest in their specific dreams and wishes.”

These statements sting, because they are both partially true and yet also terribly myopic their ignorance of the complex reasons for why international students might choose to study here.

In the globalized world, students who have the privilege of setting their sights upon international prospects can think trans-nationally in their approach towards fulfilling their dreams. For me, the desire to study with a particular respected specialist in my field happened to draw me to the UW and consequently led me to America.

With international mobility, our careers and futures are not confined to any one country, nor are we under the illusion that the land of milk and honey exists. We dream in languages and customs that don’t conform to America-centric norms and aspects of us often go mistranslated, unrecognized, or dismissed. One must wonder exactly how interested America is in our specific dreams and wishes, then.

The gap between the long-held story of America as supreme and the changing picture of a globalized, capitalist economy is the gap between the rhetoric of America and the reality of America.

The world is changing rapidly. I have noticed in recent years how my Chinese language skills have become increasingly more prized as China ascends the economic and geopolitical ranks, and the demand for cross-cultural interlocutors rises. As China quickly gains the economic upper hand, fear is mounting in the U.S.

At the heart of this current wave of xenophobia is America’s simultaneous need of immigrant workers to sustain its international dominance, as well as its need to live up to its rhetoric of prosperity for domestic students and workers who are being left behind in this global economy. The gap between the long-held story of America as supreme and the changing picture of a globalized, capitalist economy is the gap between the rhetoric of America and the reality of America.

While the theater of world politics and economics plays out, international students like me stand in that tension between global powers, and represent a world that was and will be.

In the context of America, however, we represent confusion – not only in terms of our status here and what it means for the continued dominance of white American geopolitical and economic power, but also in terms of what it means to be an American at all.

How does one distinguish between an American student and an international student? Is it by skin color? Is it by accent? Or is it by behavior? Is there just one way to be an American citizen? If so, does that way only apply to white bodies, white sounds, or white ways of being?

Why do international students or supposed “foreigners” appear to be a threat? If the global hierarchy of power and systems of economics are behind this growing population of “outsiders,” then what is the real problem – the symptom, or the system?

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