9 February 2012

Helping international students adjust

By Mohamad Ehwan

How do we react when we see an international student? Do we greet them and include them in our conversation, or make jokes about their physical appearances, stare and compare them to ourselves? No matter what our reaction may be, our instincts and past experience influence stereotypical ideas towards individuals who are different from us.  

We differentiate ourselves by our skin colour, religion, the organization we work for, and where we come from. Simply, we may treat people who are different from us differently. Stereotypes reflect ideas that groups of people hold about others who are different from them. They ignore the uniqueness of individuals by “painting” all members of a group with the same brush.

The number of international students on our shores is increasing as Malaysia strives to become an education hub. These students come to a country that is unfamiliar to what they are used to in many respects. Adjusting to life in a foreign land is undoubtedly challenging for anyone and they are no exception. Some go through frustration, fear and loneliness. Stereotypes, especially negative ones, by some quarters of the local community certainly does not help. Based on the Royal Malaysian Police statistics for 2010, the percentage of international students involved in crimes was only 0.03 per cent. This means that out of 100,000 only 30 were problematic. What is of concern, however, is the perceived adverse image of these students by a section of the local community.

Academy Award winner and proclaimed African-American actor/director Forest Whitaker recently thanked media stereotypes because it made him successful. He said “stereotypes do exist, but we have to walk through them”. We have the opportunity to learn that within each culture or group of people, some individuals are delightful.

Typically, we have many stereotypes about international students. If we really want to understand them we have to put ourselves in their shoes. Empathy is the root towards cultural understanding. With empathy, we will learn that our behaviour influences their psychological well-being. We will also understand that it is not easy for a student from one country to live in another with a culture as diverse as ours. Befriend an international student and you will be amazed to learn the views he or she may have about you, your culture, and your country. But keep an open mind and don’t be defensive if the comments are not pleasant. Instead, find out what gave them the impression and clarify any misunderstanding. This is one way where you can spark interest and create better understanding.

Teach them about our cultures, traditions and religious taboos, for example why the expression of personal affection between a man and woman in public are not encouraged in some states. Arm them with some social survival skills, such as the accepted manner when addressing people in different social groups, how gender roles affect social relationships, what are acceptable behaviours and the local gestures and body language.

Teach them some useful slangs and idioms. You will be surprised to see how quick some pick up our language. But you might want to slow down when you speak so that they can understand your accent. While they also speak English, some find it quite a challenge to grasp our pronunciation or expression.

Introduce them to the local fare. Some love Sarawak laksa. Even better, show them where they can get ingredients to prepare their local dishes, which is a great way to deal with homesickness.

Communicating well with international students will be better if we are aware of their communication styles. Depending on their culture, some may be more vocal than others in expressing their opinions. Expressing themselves may be viewed as assertiveness in their culture, in contrast to ours where we may prefer to keep our opinions to ourselves. Mutual learning therefore occurs when we communicate with these students.

To avoid conveying the wrong message, we need to communicate our intentions clearly. In classrooms, academics are challenged to internationalise their teaching, deliver interesting and competitive learning to augment intercultural interactions.

For the local community, socio-economic policy makers need to welcome critical and assertive views from international students. Doing so could lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of what others think of us.

While there are no magical solutions to reduce stereotyping of international students, connecting with them will help us understand them better, and vice-versa. With empathy comes acceptance.

Mohamad Ehwan is a counsellor with the Student Operations Unit, Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at mehwan@swinburne.edu.my