It’s the end of the 2014 Fall semester, and the NYUSH experiment born last summer now hosts two full classes of approximately 300 each. Among us are students from every corner of the globe (for better or worse). Over 50% of us, however, are Chinese, which means a majority of us speak a language which the rest of us cannot understand. As such, many students and faculty alike are concerned that there may be a social divide — a “language barrier” between the Chinese majority and the “International” camp — as a result.
When a mass of people who grew up speaking a variety languages are herded together — anywhere, be it in college or in the workplace — individuals tend to gravitate towards those with whom they can speak most comfortably. This is not a rare phenomenon, nor is it a bad thing, and it has been true at NYUSH from the outset: From the beginning of last year, students who spoke the same language naturally sought one another out, and to this day can still be seen speaking these languages with one another on occasion. The same goes for those who speak Spanish, Urdu, French, or Russian: social groups tend to form around a common language. To be able to speak to another in one’s native language allows the freedom to express one’s self naturally, and provides the comfort of having another whose experiences in this bizarre institution you can connect with your own.
And anyway, no one would contend that people speaking Urdu briefly in the study lounge constitutes a language barrier. The problem of a language barrier seems only to arise when a single language is so widely spoken that, much to the dismay of many faculty and students, native speakers of that language can idle within a familiar language setting with no incentive to make friends outside of it. Thus, at NYUSH, the term is used solely when referring to the relationship between those whose English is better than their Chinese, and those whose Chinese is better than their English.
In truth, most students including many Chinese students seem to have close friends of every culture, creed, and color, all of whom speak with one another comfortably in English. Yet many international students cannot ignore, given the sheer volume of Chinese students at NYUSH, how relatively few of their Chinese classmates they have come to know in their time here.
As a student body, we are conscious of this: Within OCA, for example, has been an ever-evolving dialogue around creating a Chinese language newspaper. The arguments for and against it carry enough bullet points to fill a textbook, let alone fit in this piece, but the very fact that such a conversation is being had indicates some conception that our student body exists in halves rather than as a whole.
And of course, it’s not just the aspiring journalists with our loud opinions discussing the student body in those terms. Suddenly, it seems that all over campus, there is a clear delineation between two groups at NYUSH. “How do Chinese students and International students’ opinions compare on this or that issue?” We might ask. Is the “cultural gap” really such a defining feature of our class that differences in opinion or behavior so fascinate us?
Or is it rather our own rhetoric that itself makes us feel separated?
As students, we would like to see our social groups be more inclusive. Forever encircling over our heads is the narrative which our university all but defines itself with: That NYUSH is a melting pot, where citizens of many cultures shed their differences and become “citizens of the world.” We would, therefore, like to see more students from the “international” camp fitting in with the Chinese groups, and vice versa, and to see students isolate themselves based on culture may frighten us (and certainly frightens the faculty).
The fear of a “language barrier” is so deeply ingrained in NYUSH’s foundation that in a NYUSH student’s freshman year, he or she is assigned a roommate of the opposite culture–Chinese with non-Chinese. For some, this policy eases the transition into NYUSH life and helps us to know our Chinese classmates early on. For others, however, it comes as an authoritative acknowledgement that the students at NYUSH do, in fact, exist as two distinct factions: Why am I being told I must have a roommate of the opposite culture, they might say, unless the assumption is that I will otherwise choose not to make friends outside of my own culture?
To say that our university prides itself on cultural diversity would be a vast understatement. Having a culturally rich student body is practically our only doctrine. Any amount of perceived language separation, then, is bound to be regarded as anathema. But if a language barrier causes a particular student to be less inclined to make friends with other students, do we really believe any university policy or student-wide discussion on the matter will change his or her mind?
What does the social group of a “citizen of the world” look like, anyway? Are we looking to achieve something akin to perfect social integration? Are we meant to be a perfectly homogenous crowd, wherein every group of twelve friends are six Chinese, three Americans, and three of anyone else?
In other words, by talking about a perceived “language barrier” as though it is necessarily harmful, are we therefore suggesting that students should go out of their way to make friends with certain people, rather than those towards whom we naturally gravitate?
In any case, while it is certainly true that many Chinese students and many international students alike tend not to have a very culturally homogenous social life, there are far more of us from both camps that do. The vast majority of both Chinese students and international students naturally find ourselves talking with one another consistently, finding we share a lot in common and forming lasting friendships (and hey, sometimes even romances). We don’t need any outside influence to make us do it; it’s just our nature, and it’s the same nature that brought us all to NYUSH in the first place, despite each of us knowing that we’d be faced with students of dramatically different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
Perhaps we don’t really need to be afraid of language barriers tearing our student body in half, because such a scenario among these students is nearly impossible.
And perhaps it’s only when someone suggests that such barriers are causing damage that they actually do. Perhaps it’s only when we discuss how Chinese students and internationals should be graded differently in this or that class because of their fluency in English, or when the GPS recitation leader talks about “bringing in a Chinese perspective,” in some ill-conceived attempt to patch a wound that wasn’t a wound, that we then start to notice it sting.
The university can do what it will to encourage cross-cultural relations, provide the infrastructure, and warn against “language barriers,” but it’s inevitable that we behave according to our own whims. Sometimes that can mean isolation when so many people speak Chinese or English fluently. In most cases, however, cultural isolation is not as big a problem as we may think: The image one gets looking at the social scene at NYU Shanghai is nothing if not diverse. Not like a melting pot, mind you–more like a tall Christmas tree, beautifully ornamented with ribbons and bows of every color and with hundreds of bright neon Christmas lights wrapped around it, bearing a tag reading “made in China.”
… And a NYUSH Torch plaque at the top, if you like.
This article was written by Michael Margaritoff. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: d’n’c of Flickr