Cue the praying hands and ill-informed bow

July 16, 2004

Well-intentioned ignorance characterises British attitudes to foreign students, says Ayako Yoshino.

About two years ago, while researching my PhD, I spent a few days at a provincial library. Every time I entered and left the building, I noticed that a white-haired librarian on the front desk would raise her hands in front of a broad, friendly smile and, holding them as if praying, slightly dip her head.

At first, I vaguely imagined that this might be a general, if rather eccentric, greeting to all her customers, but, as the days went by, it became clear that none of my fellow readers merited such treatment. They just got the librarian's lovely smile, unadorned. The praying, it seemed, was my own special welcome and it began to grate on my nerves. I suspected it had something to do with my slitty eyes.

On the morning of the last day of my research, I turned to the librarian as I entered the library and, copying the praying bow, snapped: "Is this an English custom?" The smile immediately dropped and was replaced by wounded innocence. "Well, I thought it was Oriental," she said. I told her I had never seen it in my own country.

I have often guiltily relived my behaviour that morning. The librarian was clearly just trying to be welcoming to a foreign guest, and I repaid her with a put-down. On the other hand, while I do feel Japanese, I have never felt particularly "Oriental". Where I come from, we bow and we shake hands sometimes, but I have never seen people holding their hands in front of their face when greeting each other. I have since been told by English friends that the librarian was probably inspired by the Hollywood film The King and I , set in Southeast Asia, nearly 3,000 miles from my homeland.

Imagine travelling to China and visiting a library where your host insists on spitting on his hand and then shaking yours in a phlegm-flecked fist every morning because he once saw Jimmy Stewart do it in a Western and thinks it is a "Caucasian" custom.

Between joining my first language course back in 1994 and submitting my PhD this summer, I have got used to some rather eccentric behaviour in the British university system. I am accustomed to professors sitting next to me at formal hall dinners and exhibiting their knowledge of China - a bit like sitting with a Spaniard and reliving your time in the Ukraine. One old gentleman began reciting every word he knew in the Japanese language in the middle of hors d'oeuvres, progressing from "one, two, three" to a laboriously pronounced string of obscenities not exactly calculated to enhance the appetite.

But the more I think of my time in Britain, the more the librarian's friendly but ill-informed bow seems to sum up an important aspect of my experience. In Britain, I have encountered some of the most inspiring teachers I have ever worked with; individuals - both academics and university support staff - have gone to extraordinary lengths to help me; and the British system's relative lack of bureaucracy has made me feel as though I am a person rather than a number on an admissions roll. If and when I return to Japan, I will have positive experiences to relate to other Japanese people thinking of coming to study in England.

And yet I would hesitate before offering them an unqualified recommendation to study here. This is because the key strength of British universities - their reliance on individual rather than systematic and concerted efforts - is also their main weakness when dealing with foreign students. All too often, individuals seem to be left to their own devices, with little back-up or systematic information, when dealing with students from fundamentally different cultural and academic backgrounds from their own.

The result is much well-intentioned ignorance.

I have grown used to reading of sophisticated recruitment and expansion efforts by British universities in non-English speaking countries.

Nottingham University, amid much fanfare, recently announced a new offshoot in Ningbo, China. It is usual for professors to go on long recruiting trips in the darkest Orient, and extensive contacts in rich foreign countries have helped more than one vice-chancellor into their job. And yet I sometimes wonder whether even half as much systematic effort is spent on ensuring that the prized foreign students receive the education and experience they are promised when they reach these shores.

In my ten years in Britain, I have never received specifically targeted instruction in academic writing in English. In the US, it is common not only for foreign but for domestic students to be offered workshops in academic writing. Academic writing courses do exist in Britain - at Oxford University, overseas students are offered up to three terms of free academic writing courses - but such provision is sporadic across the university system, and there does not seem to be much sharing of good practice. Where such courses are provided, some have been in place for more than 20 years. On the other hand, institutions that do not provide support seem blissfully ignorant of the whole concept.

In Britain, the mentality often seems to be that tuition in English as a second language exists to address inadequacies on the part of the student.

In fact, the problems many overseas students experience with academic writing often have more to do with a shift of academic environment and the need to learn new rhetorical structures than with normal English ability.

Students often find themselves with fluent English but without adequate grounding in the ways of expression rooted in the English-speaking academic tradition. They will first encounter such difficulties in the British university environment, which is the only place they can be addressed, but the courses on offer will often be designed to address much more basic English problems.

It is particularly infuriating to hear problems with such rhetorical styles attributed to imagined inadequacies in the student's education in their home country. I have often had conversations in which it has been suggested to me that Oriental students come from backgrounds in which originality and critical thinking are valued less than acceptance of orthodoxy. Apart from the lack of critical thinking apparent in any use of the category Oriental, such analysis is misleading because it confuses differences in style of expression with a lack of academic rigour. What it fails to understand is that a prizewinning English academic essay translated word for word into Japanese is likely to be received as clumsy and ill thought out.

Of course, the challenges that non-English speaking students face are not limited to the academic sphere. Many will be tens of thousands of miles from home and trying to survive in a very unfamiliar world. If something goes wrong, they cannot simply get on the train back to mummy for a bit of tender loving care. Instead, it is vitally important for them to establish supportive social networks in the university environment, and they may initially rely heavily on organised, university-facilitated social events to establish such links. Yet such "fresher" events are sometimes set up with very little thought for the needs and sensitivities of outsiders.

Indeed, some social events inadvertently emphasise difference. Would you go to Japanese folk song karaoke and all-you-can-eat eel-eating party on your first night in Tokyo?

When students really get into difficulties, the support from universities is often haphazard. You might expect foreign students to rely more than domestic students on university counselling services, since they often have less access to personal networks, yet uptake of counselling among foreign students is low. Counsellors, when they are consulted, often seem inadequately trained to deal with foreign students' problems. Early in my time in England, a Japanese friend complained that her attempts to sort out a problem with sexual issues were being met by a constant vague insistence from her counsellor that it had something to do with her "cultural background". In fact, she had a psychological problem common in the West and problematising her homeland did nothing to help her deal with it. Eight years later, I attended a group-counselling session and encountered a similar scenario. The final straw came when everyone in the group had been asked to draw a picture of a tree. The counsellor's only comment on mine was: "Now, this tree looks very Japanese to me."

Over the past five years, the number of overseas students in British higher education has risen 30 per cent and could triple by 2020, according to the British Council. This increasingly strategically important group for British universities contains individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds. While my mother in Japan can clog up my email inbox with minute-by-minute messages sent from her mobile phone, a Vietnamese friend of mine at Cambridge cannot afford to contact his parents directly, and instead must relay messages to his parents through his sister's university email account. When I am invited to the cinema by English friends, I can unthinkingly accept, whereas he has to calculate carefully whether he can afford it. And yet I suspect we are both lumped together in the minds of many people in British higher education simply as eastern Asian students.

If British higher education is to compete with Australasian, North American and other European universities in attracting foreign students over the next decade, it will need to devote more time and money to understanding and systematically addressing our diverse needs.

Ayako Yoshino is an English Literature PhD candidate at Girton College, Cambridge

The United Kingdom and I

'Imagine travelling to China and visiting a library where your host spits on his hand and shakes yours because he saw it in a Western'

'One old gentleman began reciting every word he knew in the Japanese language in the middle of hors d'oeuvres, progressing from "one, two, three" to a laboriously pronounced string of obscenities'

'In my ten years in Britain, I have never received specifically targeted instruction in academic writing in English'

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