University cultural relations should be more sweet than sour

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Resuming life here for my second year of university has had me reminiscing about the day I first arrived in the Arctic Circle; i.e. Lancaster. It only occurred to me just how far I had strayed from Hackney in London when I witnessed, in the middle of the village square, a collection of fully-grown men joyously hacking at each other with wooden swords (in pure daylight.) This is a phenomenon that I now understand is not a dark age mating dance but what locals refer to as ‘rapper’, a term that means something very different back home. It seemed I had travelled so far that aspects of my lifestyle would come to change intemperately. Within the first week of living in Lancaster University my diet already consisted entirely of steak bakes, I met human beings oblivious to ecosystems outside of their bedrooms and I developed a worrying fondness for the smell of rained-on tracksuit. As a Londoner, there are no words that can adequately describe the feeling of pure terror: learning that there are less than three Starbucks in the mile radius. Where do people here go to discuss cricket? What in the name of Big Ben is a pie barm? Many of these things remain a mystery to me even now, but in my second year, much like those other brave southern warriors who survived part one, I’m learning to adapt. I think.

The thing about northerners and southerners is that we’re essentially batter and Mars bars. Funnily enough and despite our differences, we do get on well but many are unwilling to branch out and embrace the combination or are just incredulous as to how two things so different could work together. It’s a weird form of partiality. Lancaster University should provide a great example of a habitat in which both sides of the equation can co-exist in relative harmony. We have a large campus with a bustling student population, plenty of bars to break down the inhibitions, the weather here is a travesty of nature (this should provide mutual ground in which to gripe because, seriously, when is it not raining?) and I’d be inclined to assume we’re all united in silent hatred for the 2A bus route. The question then, is why, within an academic institution, are there still divisions? I use the North-South divide as an example; the truth is that our university is the perfect specimen of implicit segregation.

University is, in theory, one rare place where you can truly embrace yourself for what you are and become whatever that is. Some have chosen, with this great privilege, to become a traffic cone on Sugar Wednesdays, others dress in wizard robes, recite spells and play quidditch beer-pong. That’s alright, alarming to watch, but fine. Because the idea is, whatever route we follow, in addition to finding self-acceptance, ideally, we should validate other people and ways of life too. Which brings us to the main topic at hand: to write an article addressing ethnic dissension, normally, would be an exercise in futility. It’s almost a cliché for the student writer to naively approach the behemoth subject of race divide, usually only to be laughed at, ridiculed and subsequently pelted with rocks and cynicism, especially when the problems are so widespread. But this is not a country or a city; this is a small manure-filled town that is home to 13,000 intellectuals.

By now you’ll realize I’m alluding, of course, to an ethnic divide, the detachment of our international students, some 14% of our undergrad student population (if UCAS is to be believed). Statistics show the overwhelming majority of our international students have travelled from China, with another large portion from my father’s home city: Hong Kong. In particular, I have found the Asian community to be the key example. There is a clear divide between the white and Chinese populace at this university, perhaps not due to racism but rather indifference. I recall a friend of mine last year stating: “If they leave us be, then we’ll leave them.” No problem, it seems. There is no explicit race conflict here; there is relative politeness and, from my experience, at it’s worst, only a surly, underlying dabble of ignorance. So why should any two ethnic groups be forced to integrate? The answer lies outside of the academic environment, in the repercussions that our graduates have on society. Racial education and integration is important now because after university, especially in the case of the hundreds of ambitious business students, our political views are going to have a direct effect on the shaping of society. We’re the people of tomorrow and it would be lovely if we got on well.

How does one go about addressing the 1700 student-strong elephant in the room? The problem lies on both sides of the equation. My Hong Konger ex-flatmate told me: “Most English people don’t talk to me.” This outlook often goes both ways. In pick-up basketball games at the Grizedale courts (where Asian students make up the majority of players), I find I’m largely unacknowledged until I’ve made clear my own Asian heritage. In group-work, there are many accounts of there being difficulty and loathing at having to work with non-English speaking international students.

The language barrier proves to be a dominating reason behind the race disparity. It could be argued: if you’ve moved to a new country you should embrace its culture and attempt to learn its language. I sympathise with that notion but it can be daunting immersing yourself in a new lifestyle, especially one like ours. Our blunt, football kicking, staff-walking, pint-guzzling ways can be difficult to understand when you weren’t brought up on Roy Keane and Channel 5. There’s also the fact that in 2012, almost 407,000 of the 544,000 undergraduate applicants were white. English natives make up the majority of students here and in most UK universities so, really, it’s us indigenous folk who need to extend the olive branch first.

There’s no need to sing kumbaya about this but, at the least, it should be acknowledged we’re very lucky here. We have an ethnically diverse campus; we’re harnessing cultural hybridity. We’ve got some of the brightest (and bravest) from all over the world working to benefit the university and its students. The influx of international students at Lancaster helped stimulate a rise from 51st place in the Guardian league table (2005) to our current 11th. We were Tranmere Rovers, now we’re Arsenal. That’s reason enough to say “hello” in your seminars to our non-English friends or at the very least, try dim sum. It’s delicious and char sui pork would probably taste great with a Mars bar and batter.

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