Chinese Students in the UK: Isolated With or Without Covid 19

Cultures clash quietly

By: Joyce Chen

There is a sense of anxiety and disbelief among Asian students in the UK at the contrast between their two homes, becalmed as they are in England while the coronavirus rages in their homelands. Although virtually nobody ventures into the street in China without a facemask, there is hardly one to be seen in England, except on the faces of Asian students.

While most boarding schools have just broken up for the week-long midterm holiday, when international students fly home to see their families, many airlines have canceled most flights to and from the Chinese mainland, leaving thousands of teenagers marooned.  

The onset of the coronavirus in Asia, now formally known as COVID-19, shines a light on the striking increase of Asian, and particularly Chinese, students in the UK, serving as a cash cow for private education institutions which typically charge two to three times what they charge domestic students. Rapidly-rising incomes in China have led to parents sending more than 12,000 secondary students to England’s ivy-covered halls. The university population has similarly soared by 34 percent in the past five years to 120,000.

Private schools are imposing a two-week self-isolation period on students returning from China, Hong Kong and a string of other Southeast Asian regions. As a result, these children, who constitute a substantial 18 percent of the schools’ student bodies, have been forced to cancel their trips home, staying instead with their guardians, many of whom are assigned by lucrative Chinese agencies and were previously unknown to them and their families.

This emergency situation has also shed light on the largely unaddressed problems that Chinese students already face in British private schools, due to a combination of lack of recognition and the inability of senior management to control playground politics.

Lucy*, 17, moved to an English boarding school three years ago. Asked about the presence of Sinophobia that has shadowed Asians in other cities and situations, she explained that although Chinese students don’t attract hatred for no reason, “It’s sometimes really annoying when people start talking about situations in China – for example, someone the other day said, ‘the Chinese government is doing nothing about the Coronavirus.’ They think they’re superior to all of us, like we don’t know anything.”’

However, Lucy often finds that the language barrier prevents her from voicing her opinion, “especially if it is your first or second year in a new country,” so she “find[s] it easier to bond with Chinese people” rather than seeking out western friends. Some of her friends, she says have been called “‘brainwashed by the Communist party” for defending their country. 

While she said that attitudes towards her haven’t changed since the outbreak of the coronavirus, as they have elsewhere, fear of the rise in Sinophobic racism across the world have “made [her] parents really stressed… they heard there was a girl who got beaten up somewhere in London by strangers just because she was wearing a mask” [the incident actually happened in New York]. And for good reason – there have been several videos showing commuters on public transport moving away from Asian-looking fellow passengers, as well as several more serious accounts of verbal and physical abuse.

Ben*, 16, who has been in the UK for six years, said that, “It [racism] happens all the time… most people would see [the comments] as a joke, but not for the person experiencing it,” and “when people don’t know much about China… they just make stuff up.” 

However, these seemingly harmless jibes strike a more personal chord in light of the outbreak. Ben describes how his aunt in Shanghai, returning to work after the extended Chinese New Year holiday, has been “really affected because she’s scared of cases near our living area… it’s more the mental damage than the physical threat.” 

Lucy, seeing “all of [her] Beijing friends staying at home” is concerned about the lack of urgency in England, stating that “people should be more aware of the potential danger.” She angrily recounts seeing a beauty influencer on her Instagram feed “who posted her nails painted with an Asian face wearing a mask – you wouldn’t do the same thing if it caused loads of deaths in England, they’re using our lives as a source of attraction.”

Why are we not seeing the empathy that followed the flames of Notre Dame, or the bushfires of Australia? Of course, the coronavirus is a highly contagious disease and global health threat, but the level of racially-charged response and complete lack of sympathy – more than 2,000 Chinese citizens have died - is disproportionate. Perhaps it is down to lingering colonial ideas of superiority, with China often condemned as a “culturally less developed country”, as shown by the huge number of comments on social media about Chinese people eating dogs, cats, and bats in recent weeks. 

At the same time, the Chinese public’s fiercely patriotic stance towards a Communist government makes them an easy target for belittlement and ridicule. No matter the cause, Ben fears that “the divide is growing… when you have people who are not so good at English, then [other] people don’t like them because they don’t speak since they’re worried they’ll get judged. When that happens to a group of them… you get segregation.” 

Especially as some students, both in secondary school and university, complain of Chinese groups speaking solely in Mandarin, it is clear how antipathy and basic lack of mutual understanding develops; both Chinese and British student groups may find each other hostile and exclusive. Lucy believes that “a lot of people are immature and can be racist just because of their ignorance… it’s dumb jokes like, ‘Do you eat dogs?’… but when you grow up, it’s not about the racism, it’s that even if you go talk to them, as a Chinese person, it’s too hard to get through.”

With British students unwilling to constantly explain slang and jokes, repeat themselves or slow down their speech, and Chinese students quickly withdrawing into ethnically aligned groups, it seems that there is no easy way to integrate the huge influx of Chinese students at sixth form (year 12). However, Lucy is ultimately optimistic: “In my old school, they had an international day… by doing a fair, you get to bond with different people because they get to see what your culture is like. I made them dumplings and bubble tea, then I learned Nigerian dance! It’s about having the opportunity to create topics to talk about.’ For the moment though, she stoically concludes that, “For us, we just have to grow up and accept what happens and learn to deal with it.” 

*students’ names have been changed

Joyce Chen is an Asia Sentinel intern. She is a Hong Kong resident and is currently studying in England.