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Games of red and black: The problem of love in international students

Away from family and friends, many international students find support in intimate relationships, but at what cost?

Art by Olivia Allanson

The original version of this article, written in Chinese, appears here.

CONTENT WARNING: SUICIDE, SEXUAL VIOLENCE, ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIPS

As I think about it carefully, I realise I’ve been in this city for five years already.

Passing through a glass door after a heated argument with my boyfriend, I shoot a glance at a broken glass cup, shattered moments earlier when I became overwhelmed with emotion and lost control. I sigh and shake my head — it seems that my ability to restrain myself hasn’t improved at all in the past five years. Nonetheless, I linger on the balcony, waiting for my favourite time of day. It’s when rosy clouds, illuminated by the soft glow of the setting sun, slowly begin to fade into the colours of the night, and the dark blue of evening intersperses with the sunset’s waning crimson. Almost like a gift from the heavens to people wearied by the constant rush of the day, the warm romanticism of it all makes me feel as if I’m in an old, dust-filled house listening to a slow moving jazz album, reverberating through a dilapidated bar with its flowing, instrumental sound.

I’ve always been someone nostalgic for the past, now more than ever. Inscribed deep into my mind is the house of the homestay family I stayed with when I first came to Sydney, not yet 18. Located in East Lakes, the house was very new, with walls of red and white melding with the green shrubbery around it. Under the pink sunset, it was almost like a scene you’d find in a Lo-Fi hip-hop video.

There was a curious routine to my life back then. My favourite thing to do everyday was to come home after school, make myself a strawberry jam sandwich, and then drag my roommate to sit in front of the house with me and wait for the sun to set, for the day to gradually become night, for the sky to completely darken – we’d only abandoning our sentry when the moonlight began to shine. And then we’d go back to our room to watch movies which made us laugh, as if we were trying to resist the feelings of isolation and homesick helplessness that comes with moving into a new city, as if the louder we laughed, the less lonely we were. In many ways, we were like the crimson sunset we had just gazed at, stubbornly luminous before being engulfed by the darkness of night.

*****

A roommate who used to watch sunsets with me passed away last week. My mind drew a blank when I heard the news.

After she graduated from the same preparatory course with me, she went to Melbourne, and we hadn’t talked since. Instead, I got glimpses of her life from her online presence. Dying her hair, learning how to do makeup, losing weight, finding a boyfriend, facing challenges in life, graduating – I could somewhat piece together her life just from looking at her profile.

But it was only when I was reading a public post on WeChat a few days ago did I find out about the news. Her face was underneath a headline – Melbourne University student commits suicide. The article speculated that she had an argument with her boyfriend, and then jumped out from her 28th floor apartment.

While the exact cause behind her death has not been officially proven, her sister-in-law and close friends were quoted in an article saying that she had a toxic relationship with her boyfriend. Possessive and controlling to an extreme degree, he would sometimes erupt into physical violence.

That night, there was no sunset glow.

*****

The majority of international students go overseas when they are 17 or 18. When they first arrive in their strange new city, they quickly find themselves knowing no one, without family support, communicating in a language they struggle to speak, surrounded by a society they struggle to integrate into. Combined with a multitude of cultural barriers, their feelings of loneliness, already overwhelming, only increases. When you also consider the academic, economic and familial pressure that is placed upon them, it’s not hard to see how easily mental health problems can arise in the international student community. And when all these problems compound and begin to press down on the shoulders of someone who has not fully matured emotionally, many of these international students begin hoping for a significant other to keep company. Upon finding one, it’s easy for them to then invest all their energy and emotions into them, as if they were their last hope. In many ways, being in a relationship is an attempt to share their feelings of uncertainty, and ease a loneliness most people could not possibly understand.

While overseas, it’s almost the norm for interactions between friends to fizzle out, and friendship circles come and go extremely quickly. The difficulty of making good long-term friends seems to have become a recurring complaint amongst international students. However, their loneliness comes with a side-effect — excessive reliance on others. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of international students who move in with people they only became friends with two weeks ago. While they’re often barely adults, many newly minted couples who move in together begin trying to act out the motions of post-marital domesticity. As these students are still young and maybe lacking in the maturity needed to handle domestic disputes and forgive, problems often arise after they move in together. Many of these romantic relationships ultimately descend into the extremes, becoming mutually-destructive before finally ending.

Emily*, an international student from China at the University of Sydney (USyd), spoke to Honi about a deeply unhappy relationship she once had, saying her “ex-boyfriend would often hit me, kick my stomach, and slap me across the face.” When asked whether she ever thought about reporting him to the police, she says never did.

“I felt really lifeless. I didn’t really know about the local laws, and I thought it would affect my visa. I also didn’t know if they police would care or not.”

Emily told Honi that her ex-boyfriend once locked her in a room, and shut out from any communication with the outside world, she tried to commit suicide through overdosing on medicine. Luckily, a roommate found her and took her to the hospital to get her stomach pumped. And yet, time and time again, she forgave her boyfriend, almost as if she could not bare to deal with the uncertainty or fear of being alone in a foreign country.

“If I was in China, the instant he raised his hand against me I would have left him or reported him to the police. Because my parents and friends would have been by my side, I wouldn’t have been so scared. But I was in Sydney, my parents were thousands of kilometres away, and I didn’t have any friends who could really listen and help. And I was just so lonely. All my friends were in relationships, so I thought I had to continue being in mine.”

Listening to her story, I can’t help but feel a pang of dread. Had Emily’s friend not found her unconscious from the overdose and taken her to the hospital, then another painful tragedy would have occurred.

Another international student from China at USyd, Jennifer*, also described to Honi a toxic relationship she was trapped in. However, what makes her story different is that her ex-boyfriend mostly abused her emotionally. After knowing each other for a week, they quickly decided to move in together. But the honeymoon period ended almost as quickly, and in its place came fight after fight. However, her boyfriend would never admit that he was the one initiating the abuse, and thinking only about his own reputation and interest, he would act as if he was the victim, gas-lighting her into thinking that she deserved to be treated with abuse.

“No one around me knew the truth, let alone sympathise with me. And even though I gave him everything I could and begged him, he returned it all back with coldness and personal attacks.”

Jennifer says that because she had no close friends by her side and her family was far away, she sunk into a constant cycle of blaming herself and wanting to mend things with her boyfriend instead of ending the toxic relationship at the first instance.

“For the month after I was left with no choice but to break up with him, I don’t think there was a moment where I wasn’t crying, no matter if I was walking in the streets with many people, or alone at home. The damage caused by this toxic relationship not only affected me during our relationship, but has left me with this trauma where I don’t believe in love anymore, and think that I just don’t have the ability to love again.”

Chen Xi, a Chinese international student at USyd, wrote her honours thesis on love amongst international students entitled “Sojourner intimacies: Chinese international students negotiating dating in Sydney.” In it, she interviewed many different Chinese international students, and from it, found that the toxic state of many relationships in the international student community ultimately results from both structural and cultural influences. Structural problems include how they are physically removed from the support their parents and friends could otherwise provide, and also the cultural and linguistic barriers they face. She further emphasised that another important cause is how they lack the support of their compatriots upon coming to Australia.

“Co-national peer support groups, namely other Chinese students, are often minefields of toxic peer politics that easily leads to bullying and alienation.”

However, an even deeper issue which Chen found in her research is that these co-national peer groups often reproduce the hegemonic cultures of their home country, including homophobia, slut shaming and toxic masculinity. All these intensify the isolation of international students, making seeking help an impossibly faraway option for them.

This can be easily seen in the social media platforms which are used heavily by Chinese international students. Tucaojun (吐槽君), which literally translates into “Lord of Banter,” is a popular online platform for Chinese international students to satirise and recount things which have happened in their daily lives. Worryingly, most threads which talk about being hurt by a romantic partner, being cheated on, or being swindled out of money are dominated by comments like “Serves you right”, “You’re an idiot” and countless other ridiculing remarks. Comments which actually give advice and comfort are few and far between.

On a thread where the poster recounted how she was raped by a male friend she had invited into her home to drink, many people maliciously criticised her own actions. Half of the top ten most liked comments were along the lines of inviting someone to your home to drink represents giving silent consent for sex. Some went as far as saying that the woman was “fishing.” The other half of these comments were riddled with indifferent mockery and sarcasm. Comments which explained how the NSW law works with regards to rape, and which implored her to report the crime to the police were pushed down under a vast sea ridicule.

Relationships are inherently complicated. For international students, even more so. Being so removed from their homes in a foreign land where they are alone and lack a sense of security has given rise to relationships formed around excessive mutual reliance. Due to a culture of shame perpetuated by their co-national peers, a lack of reliable and close friends, and their lack of understanding of local laws and support services, these issues often compound into tragedy for international students.

*****

Night begins to fall and just like so many times before, I lean on the railings of my balcony to watch. Below me, many hand holding couples walk past. Under the glow of the fading sunset, their smiles seem particularly bright. And yet, I can’t help but wonder about the stories behind those smiles. Maybe they’re indeed as happy as they seem. Or maybe they aren’t, trapped under layers and layers of problems. I cannot tell. Against the encroaching night, right before being engulfed by darkness, maybe the only thing I can do is let out my own sunset red glow.

*Names have been anonymised