I am Asian and five years ago, I flew on my first international flight alone. With three packed suitcases and a one-way ticket to the United Kingdom, I was bursting with excitement and anxiety. What awaited me at Oxford University, I hadn't the slightest clue. But one thing was certain in my mind - I wasn't about to travel halfway across the globe to immerse myself back into the comforts of my own country; I was not going to surround myself with just Asians in Oxford.
Back then, it seemed like a simple decision. I made up my mind and I stood by it, not because I had any prejudice against my own ethnicity but merely because I wanted to take advantage of my unique position - a position of being able to easily meet people of different races, cultures and backgrounds.
And so I lived this way in the first year, thinking to myself I had it all figured out. I went for staircase parties with my English friends and even went out clubbing despite never really understanding the real appeal of drinking and getting drunk, all in the name of broadening my horizons. Most of it was a lot of fun and I enjoyed my first year at university very much, having acclimatized myself to the British weather and humour.
But one thing always irked me. I couldn't understand why I was only one of the few Asians making an effort to mingle with the non-Asians. My British friends would sometimes comment on this and we would rudely label them as being anti-social. I never stopped to think why this was the case in the first place and whether or not it was a real problem.
Four years later and wiser, I realised that there are very real and legitimate reasons for this and I was only too naïve back then to understand why. Perhaps the most obvious reason is the initial culture shock of it all for international students, especially from the Far East. The cultural differences between England and China for instance, are stark; the food, the jokes and general behaviour of the people are all so different.
It can be quite unsettling to a lot of international students having to quickly adapt to the new culture and make friends with the English locals before cliques are formed. It is much easier to gravitate towards familiar people and hit it off instantly. I know for a fact that it was a real struggle for me having to give up my 'nasi lemak' (a traditional coconut rice dish found in Malaysia) for fish and chips, and having to learn to enjoy drinking and clubbing as social pastimes.
And as if having to acculturate isn't enough, for many Asians from Asia, English isn't their first language. This is probably the main reason for the appeared lack of effort to socialize made by Asians at university. Nobody wants to sound stupid and often people keep their mouths shut afraid of embarrassing themselves by saying the wrong things. This can come across as being anti-social and many of my so-called "anti-social" Chinese friends have highlighted this to me. I never really considered this before because unlike them, English is my first language. And even so, I was often made fun of for my use of the word 'pants' and my pronunciation of 'garage'. So I can only imagine how intimidating it must feel for them having to socialize outside their own circles in their second or even third language.
This sense of wanting to remain in one's comfort zone is not typical of just international students from the Far East. It is very much a common human characteristic. And some times whether local British students realize it or not, they too like to stick amongst themselves. Speaking from personal experience, I have come to realize that more often than not, I have to make the effort to go up to an English person and initiate the conversation. Otherwise, there would be no conversation between us. I think this just goes to show that everybody is a little "anti-social" to some extent. People just like the familiar.
Whether this is a problem or not isn't something I have the space or position here to discuss. But I am all for better integration between all students of all backgrounds. After all, it would be a great shame to stick to the familiar and not explore the richness and vastness of other cultures.
And the solution to this lack of integration between cultures is simple. Everyone just needs to step out of their comfort zone.
After all, comfort is the enemy of progress and growth.
Follow Julian Tan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/julianlipyi