Bogotá, Colombia

International students are weird, until you are one


You’ve seen them around. They rarely speak up in your politics tutorial but when they do, it’s a basic opinion. They talk more in their group of friends, babbling on in their own language. It’s group assignment time: they wait for you to divide up the work. Look at her! How could any local student afford that Louis Vuitton tote?, you remark quietly as you pass them.

The way we treat international students at our universities needs to change, comrades. I held all but similar sentiments toward them before being thrown into the ring and becoming one.

I write from Colombia, from a small corner in the university library, three months after arriving. I have toughed out the hard part which is acclimatising not to unsafer food handling practices and street crime, but to the terror of young people — rich, privileged and unacquainted with the advent of foreigners. That is, kids who didn’t grow up side by side with them in their high school, speaking and dressing the way they do.

My status as a quiet undetected foreigner did not last long: I was outed in the first week and had to give a short presentation: on Ancient Greece, in Spanish. Each word was a reminder to everyone that I was a dented outsider. I try otherwise to remain quiet in class. A couple of girls pried me out of my clamshell once. My pronunciation fascinated them… they giggled heaps and made me say ‘arrecho’. Mere seconds later (kids with phones are the future of journalism), I was the subject of a Snapchat story video with the caption “how weird are gringos! [Americans]”. My viral fame had arrived: and my first words were estoy arrecho?? (‘I’m horny’.)

Although I took it lightly in the end, spending every day reminded that you are ‘foreign’ or different in one way or another every time you open your mouth is not a fun combination of feelings to have carry on for months. I haven’t even played with the thought of what initial social turmoil I might encounter being a more permanent international student: one who spends their entire 3-year degree overseas. But this is the reality of thousands of students studying alongside us at our Australian universities.

There are other troubles too. The seriously high tuition costs in Australia compared to the rest of the world are even higher for international students because their places are not part-subsidised by the government. A University of Sydney business school survey last year revealed that as many as 80 per cent of international student workers reported being underpaid. And like the rest of us they are condemned to Sydney’s insane rental costs. The controversy of racially motivated physical assaults and robberies targeting Indian students in 2009 may very well still be a fresh fear in the minds of new students.

Financial stress at the same time as an ongoing complete re-orientation of our surroundings in every linguistic and cultural sense means that… social things can be hard. Please. Local students, no offence, but moving suburbs to the Inner West just doesn’t compare. 18 years of knowing the ins and outs of your city, how to say and pronounce food items when you order them… and you want me to keep up with you and your slang in my first few weeks when we start working together on a group assignment?

Fun fact, there’s a theory in linguistics that a period of emotional and social disorientation occurs when you start to talk a foreign language but you can’t express your personality the same way. Imagine that! Personality loss! It clicks when you think about the thousands of adjectives that you can fire away to describe music or a film you saw, in your own language. Students from overseas are in some ways just starting out, colloquially and socially.

I don’t think any of us are asking for a medal. But there are some things that “locals” (that’s you, privileged silver-coloured Opal card holder) could do to make student visitors’ social lives a little easier:

  • Explain words when asked, but don’t assume we are children (Maria Paola: I know what house is, and even really long words like orchestra after you used it in a sentence.)
  • In group settings, don’t dumb down your words, just say them slower with less urgency. (Native English speakers are reportedly among the worst English speakers in the world and have been known to be the culprits of intercommunication failures in global organisations. Be aware of your colloquialisms.)
  • Yes, my grammar may suck, but unless you kindly inform me of services like, you aren’t any closer to solving the problem of your group assignment.
  • Please don’t make fun of my pronunciation in front of other people.

In my first few weeks living on another continent, I never wanted to avoid people more and just read off a prepared script. This could be the social experience of many students you share a classroom with.

Article first published on 4 April 2017.