Yang Hu discusses the challenges faced by Chinese students at Scottish universities
Developed capitalist country on paper, Braveheart on TV, and gay culture hub on the internet—this is generally what Chinese students make of Scotland before they come here. Like most of my countrymen and women, the main factor in my decision to study at the University of Glasgow was the expectation that this degree would substantially enhance my employability. This is a very practical consideration that is more important to me than other incentives, such as broadening my horizons or networking with foreign peers. However, these benefits may blind Chinese students to culture shock, a factor that can potentially harm their well-being.
Chinese students generally find their academic programs to be more demanding than they expected, but when they are not studying, they tend to be at a loose end. The ultimate reason is the struggle to integrate into Scottish university culture, which inevitably leads to loneliness and alienation. First of all, most Chinese students have to face the difficulties of language barriers. Due to the examination-oriented English education back in China, I initially faced a tough adjustment period. This not only manifested in difficulty following lecturers, but also in the trepidation of chatting with students from other countries, especially with those whose first language is English. This is only exacerbated by the fact that most Chinese students don’t know where to socialise with fellow students.
“We like to socialise in restaurants, at karaoke, or through a late-night snack, while Westerners mostly socialise in bars,” said my friend Yingbin, a Chinese sociology student. Although some have the confidence to step into a bar, they still often feel uncomfortable. A PhD student told me that her foreign peers really enjoyed talking about politics, but that she knows nothing about Brexit, not to mention the Scottish independence referendum, Trump’s presidency, or the G20 summit.
As a result, those who are not able to adapt to these cultural differences may find themselves turning to dangerous coping mechanisms, such as gambling.
“Every night, quite a few Chinese students gamble here; I think some have gotten bogged down, because I see them several times a week,” said a casino waiter in Glasgow. Casino gambling, which is illegal in mainland China, is growing increasingly popular among Chinese students. While curiosity drives some to have a go, boredom is turning them into frequenters. A Chinese student tells me he once lost £20,000 in one night. “I know it’s bad,” he said, “but I just don’t know what else I can do in my spare time.” He explained that he did not want to gamble in the first place, but after watching his friends gamble a couple of times, he found it to be a wonderful way of killing time.
Many Chinese students also spend a large amount of time and money on video games and online shopping, which often leaves a bad impression on their foreign peers. “They [Chinese students] rarely talk to strangers outside their groups - I have no idea whether it’s because they are too shy or something else, so you have to start the conversation first,” said Jeff, a Colombian student. In fact, the fundamental reason as to why Chinese students encounter this problem, from my point of view, is because of insufficient psychological preparation.
Nevertheless, some Chinese students have adapted to the Scottish lifestyle and have successfully made use of some cultural differences. For example, the lower tax on many goods as well as the relatively low domestic demand catalyses a growth of student entrepreneurs. As a ‘sneakerhead’, I sometimes camp outside sports stores, such as End Clothing and Foot Locker, to queue up for limited edition trainers. During the wait, I often see many Chinese students who make money by reselling trainers.
Clothing, cosmetics, and maternal products also appear to be best sellers. This informal entrepreneurship fosters their business thinking, eventually impelling some to become professional buyers after graduation. Meanwhile, tourism is another promising area for Chinese student entrepreneurs. Due to the rigid visa policy, Chinese students consider Scotland a decent springboard for traveling to other European countries. “During the winter and summer holidays, most Chinese students like to have a multi-country trip, so our business is good,” said Yanyao, who completed her master’s at Glasgow and is now the co-founder of a travel agency catering specifically to Chinese students.
All in all, studying in Scotland is beneficial but socially alienating. A Scottish degree should not be the only pursuit for Chinese students, who should be prepared to regard their studies as a challenge and, more importantly, to know precisely what they want to gain.