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Pathway to university: an open letter to racists

Racism is an unfortunate scenario that many international students may face. Gwen Sim opens up about her experiences that, while hurtful, do not overshadow how much she has enjoyed studying abroad

Student life
Study abroad
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Gwen Sim

April 16 2018
an open letter to racism


When I lived in Singapore and Japan, my only encounters with racism were anecdotes from my non-East Asian-looking friends living in Asia. I am privileged enough to be of Chinese heritage so I was able to “blend in” with the dominant ethnicity.

However, in the six months since I’ve been in England, I’ve had a small taste of what it is like to be on the receiving end of racism. I’ve written a series of open letters to those who have displayed such behaviour to encourage them to reflect on their actions. 

I would like to add that I do not mean to scare international students off from applying to study in the UK or anywhere else, as the stories here are certainly not the norm. I am simply raising awareness about another reality of studying abroad that isn’t usually discussed.

Despite these negative experiences, they have not devalued my time studying here at all – in fact, I’ve learnt so much more from it. There have been so many things that I have enjoyed about studying here in the UK and these things outweigh the negatives.

To the young man who asked me for change late at night:

I’m sorry I didn’t give you any – but telling me that I “can’t say no because [I’m] not even from here” wasn’t a convincing reason. Telling me to “go back to where [I] came from” didn’t really help your case either. Neither did holding up your middle finger and yelling expletives at me as I walked away. 

To the group of young boys who harassed me on the street:

No, “ching chang chong” does not mean anything and no, you’re not funny for yelling this at me while demanding I give you all high fives. You didn’t take me seriously when I told you to stop. You continued to wave your hands at me, gleeful at my obvious discomfort. I felt sad when I saw your parents watching but not coming over to reprimand you. 

To the boy who sat behind me on the bus and made fun of my accent:

I remember how you just laughed when I turned around to glare at you. Maybe I should have said something, but it was a two-hour bus ride and confrontation makes me anxious. At least the girl you were sitting with didn’t look amused by your behaviour.

Read the rest of Gwen's blog here 

Pathway to university: seven essential things to know
Pathway to university: moving from Singapore to Stockton

To the people who say “ni hao” to me (and to those who claim that this isn’t racist):

Let’s get one thing clear: yes, this is racist. Stop saying that you’re just “being friendly” because we both know that you’re not. Your sniggering as you greet me with a poorly pronounced “ni hao” gives that away. I don’t understand what you’re trying to prove when you do this, other than your rudeness and ignorance of the fact that all East Asians don’t come from China or speak Chinese.

To the student who said that a classmate’s work “sounded Chinglish”:

I don’t even know how to respond to this. I feel like you’re a lost cause. When the tutor told you that was rude, you simply replied, “What? It’s true.” 

To the student who told me they felt uncomfortable being around so many Chinese people in class:

You told me that you felt like you didn’t fit in and that you were judged because of your Caucasian heritage. You even said that the school should have informed you about the large number of Chinese applicants before you applied. Although I didn’t tell you at the time, I wanted to say that I completely understood. I too, have felt like I don’t fit in and have been judged because of my Asian heritage. I also think that the school should have informed me about people like you before I applied.

I realise now though that I have become used to such behaviour. I’ve also learnt that confronting these people or showing my discomfort makes it worse because they don’t take me seriously. Although nobody should have to get used to being harassed, the reality is that racism is still deeply embedded in all societies, not just here in the UK, and it will not disappear overnight.

In the face of this depressing reality, I find comfort in knowing that I am not alone in facing such harassment because I have many friends who have gone through similar experiences as well. As strange as it sounds, we enjoy exchanging such stories and finding humour in them.

I would encourage other students who have gone through similar experiences not to take them to heart and not to let the negativity of such incidents define your entire study abroad experience. On the bright side, at least we’ll come out of these experiences with thicker skin and an awareness of such issues. 

Read more: The journey from Gaza to Oxbridge

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