What people don’t tell you about European exchange

Racism lurks within the glitz and glamour of a summer abroad

Artwork by Simone Cheuanghane

When people ask about my exchange in Barcelona I find it hard to give an answer that is both concise and honest. On the one hand, I realised my travel dreams and actualised everything the brochure promised. I cherish the friendships formed from shared wanderlust, the personal growth earned through daring sojourns into the unknown, and emancipation from Australia’s restrictive alcohol and tobacco taxes. But on the other hand, homesickness and loneliness became infrequent but sobering acquaintances, while routinized drudgery would eventually occasion back into the everyday.

What I ultimately tell people is that my exchange experience was profoundly positive, and that is the truth, although a shallow one. I confide to closer friends about the troubles I had during exchange and the difficulty I’ve had in articulating these experiences. The most difficult to speak about, in particular, was my experience of racism and identity abroad.

As an Asian-born Australian, it is hard to detach from the perennial anxieties of race and identity, which, as with many other first-generation Australians, constantly shape my experience.

By now, I’ve developed a standard protocol for dealing with the customary “Where do you (really) come from?” and its attendant secondary interrogations of my identity.

When I’m feeling irate and combative I double down (“did I stutter?”), when I’m petty I tend to mock (“I escaped from North Korea actually…”) or sometimes flat out invent a country (“My parents came from Chionmay… it’s an island off the coast of Malaysia…”) but occasionally I’m accommodating and truthful.

Obviously, in Europe, these questions , as well as potential for cultural misunderstanding, are par for the course amongst a cohort of diverse cultural backgrounds. The prudent POC would have by now, discerned between cultural misunderstandings and intentional microaggressions, lest they wish to be constantly exhausted. But if the frequent questioning of one’s identity grows tiring, then the belittlement of one’s race becomes downright frustrating. To my dismay, experiences of racism I had not encountered since primary school where I was the lone Asian soon followed me around the socially liberal cities of modern Europe.

Chino, Chino, Chino…” was the first racial slur I heard, on the bustling open plazas of Barcelona’s Raval precinct. It took me by surprise. Amidst busy foot-traffic, I caught sight of the vulgar rhetorician: a slightly framed man in his early 20s smugly basking in my confusion. Oafishly he gestured to his eyes, then pulled them into narrow slits just to leave no room for misunderstanding his intentions. He took off on a rusty bicycle before I could collect myself enough to respond.

These types of incidents happened dozens of times throughout my exchange, in Barcelona and other places in Europe. As my friends and I travelled through various countries, the ‘Asian-ness’ of our physicalities seemed to invite all manner of bizarre modifications to the hospitality of the people we met. In an unexpected shift in conversation, a pleasant but rather inebriated man in his early fifties casually queried during a chat at a Barcelona street festival, “¿A qué sabe la sopa de perro?” (‘what does dog soup taste like?’). Stunned and ill-equipped for a witty response in Spanish, I politely explained that no one eats that.

However, where my personal experiences of racism could at least be distilled to cultural ignorance, other friends experienced more dangerous and violent iterations.

Stephanie*, an Australian of Bruneian-Laotian heritage, who decided to undertake her compulsory exchange in the stridently liberal city of Copenhagen in Denmark, recounts the numerous times she and her friends dealt with the threat of racial violence.

When Stephanie first arrived at her host university, she was taken aback at several posts on the student Facebook group which warned of a pattern of racially charged confrontations. Like myself, Stephanie had taken for granted the extent to which racism would be prevalent in her exchange life. She soon found herself consoling another friend, Miguel, a Singaporean national with mixed South Asian heritage, who had been racially abused and physically assaulted.

The altercation, Miguel recalled, seemed to be provoked by the brownness of him and his friend. Both were wandering around the whimsical anarchist municipality of Christiania at 2am when they were accosted by a gang of four inebriated and presumably ‘coked up’ Danes.

When I met Miguel in Copenhagen on the last leg of my European tour, he told me his assailants had spat vague nationalist epithets such as “Denmark for Danes”, a slogan frequently used by leaders of the burgeoning far-right Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti). Miguel told me that incident, although the most physically violent, was not the only racialized confrontation that he or his friend group experienced whilst in Denmark.

That racial abuse has become a common, nearly routine experience for international students of colour exchanging in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is jarring but unsurprising and unfortunately not widely reported. A combination of unfamiliarity with their host country’s law enforcement system, or a distrust of it altogether, discourages students like Miguel from reporting these incidents to the authorities.

The popular expectation of Europe as a socially liberal and tolerant continent, in conjunction with its image of cosmopolitan sophistication, is what makes Europe such an appealing exchange destination. In this light, it is easy to view these spontaneous incidents of physical and verbal xenophobia as deeply disappointing aberrations of the progressive European norm. But in reality, we can not divorce incidents of xenophobia and racism from the political and structural developments across the continent that are now inciting nationalist populist fervour.

A banner strewn over the side of the main underpass in the provincial Catalonian town of Girona read “pisos per a residents, no estudiants” (flats for residents, not students) and urban graffiti reading “barcelona no per als turistes” (Barcelona not for tourists) can be found all around the city. Whilst radical left-anarchism and secular progressivism has shaped the political history of Spain’s Catalonia region, it has similarly been unified by an uneasy concoction of historic provincialism and soft ethnic nationalism. So in the frenetic context of hyper-gentrification, high rent, and unemployment, foreigners and international students, by virtue of their otherness, are perceived as part of the problem.

These problems are not unique to Europe. At home, an international student from Pakistan studying at Newcastle University was recently bashed by a group of locals on account of his nationality. This incident, the most physically violent in recent memory, follows a deeply disturbing trend of hostility and abuse lobbied against international students studying in Australia.

With the volume of international students studying in Australia, and abroad elsewhere, only set to increase next year, it is easy to misconstrue these students as additional ‘competition’ and burdens on countries beset with socio-economic anxiety. In such circumstance, race and identity once again come to the fore, as facile and intuitive instruments to sort the ‘good’ foreigners from the bad. Having experienced both sides of the domestic-international student binary, my exchange in Europe has highlighted how despite their fragility and vacuity, nationalised identities are still powerful proxies that set the boundaries between inclusion and exclusion and, at times, violence and nonviolence.