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Where’s your identity crisis?

Kida Lin investigates the forces shaping international students' cultural identity.

Line drawn man's face, coloured white, being pulled in both directions by two hands, left hand blue and right hand red. Push and pull: international students face opposing cultural expectations when navigating questions of identity.

For all of us, starting uni brings choices: what degree do we choose? Which major? How do we balance study, work and social life?

For international students, these choices can be especially tough. When we’re thrust into a new environment, the extent to which we adapt or preserve our identities is a significant question.

Do we invest more in maintaining current friends circle or cultivating new ones? How much time should we spend practising  the new language and learning the new norms? Do we put our energy into pursuits that give us a sense of cultural solidarity, or those that would expose us to new things (think the choice between devoting time and energy to Law Society vs. Chinese/Korean/South East Asian Law Students Society).

These choices are hard because they demand self-assessment, forcing us to decide who we are and who we want to become.  To an extent, all new uni students face these crises of self. What’s different for international students—and for any migrant—is that there is a normative force prescribing how we make these choices. That force dictates that we ought to feel conflicted, we ought to be troubled by our choices, and we ought ultimately to arrive at a middle point between preservation and transformation.

The normative force, in turn, exerts pressure on individuals who do not fit this prototype. For me, personally, this looks like constantly being told “I didn’t know you are Chinese”, or being warned by my parents to “never forget you are Chinese”. This speaks to a generalised assumption that migrants are expected to have a natural and ingrained attachment to the culture they were born into. More generally, there exists unnecessary pressure on individuals making choices about their cultural identity. These choices are painted as judgments about the value of different cultures and colours them with moralising languages such as ‘patriotism’ and ‘nostalgia’.

The norm of how one should adjust not only shames those who are perceived to have ‘transformed too much’, it also punishes those who have ‘transformed too little’. The idea that some immigrants have not integrated enough has long been a favourite talking point for the right. It is disheartening, but not surprising, to see many on the left pushing a counter-narrative that over-emphasises a mystified notion of how newcomers ought to act. They ought to struggle with adapting to new norms and practices; they ought to yearn for the culture left behind; and crucially, when they don’t, they must have internalised cultural oppression and must be lacking confidence in their identity. This counter-narrative, originating from a misconceived cultural relativism and a well-intentioned paternalism, undermines migrants’ ability to freely choose who they are and who they want to become.

Ultimately, some choices are hard. There shouldn’t be external expectations and prescriptions to make them harder.