Last January, a professor from Duke University sent emails to her Chinese international students, asking them to not speak Chinese and “commit using English 100% of the time.” She stated that several faculty members are searching for students who had been speaking in Chinese in public spaces. In the emails, she also stated that they were “very loud,” and that the students are not taking the chance to learn English seriously, thus missing professional opportunities. It was that professor in specific who got media attention, but it should not be forgotten that she was a messenger for many other faculty members who thought the same way.
I found this incident especially relatable, as I once had been concerning if I was seen as so-called “FOB.” Short for ‘fresh off the boat,’ it is a slang referring to immigrants who have yet to abandon their culture and language and assimilate into the society in the diaspora. Personally, as an international student, I am not a big fan of my country of origin. My early experiences with living in a heteronormative atmosphere where antiquated cultural practices such as the Confucian hierarchy and authoritative patriarchy are still abided by have strain had strained my identity as a Korean. This is why I initially wanted to erase Korean aspects of me and fit into the so-called “American” culture. However, as soon as I realized that such “American” thing was selective exclusion and hostile to certain foreign cultures after all.
People like to seek excuses to target minorities. They bring up superficial words to deny their racist undertones. The faculty members brought up “noise” and volume to justify their selective hostility against these students. Even though many international students like me and those at Duke decide to pursue a higher education that primarily teaches in English, it does not necessarily mean that we are willing to give up our native language and freedom of expression. Living in a country that preaches heavily on basic civil liberties, it should be up to the individual to decide which language they would like to speak. This incident seems to suggest otherwise. While I am condemning the professor who wrote the email in particular instead of the people who primarily warned the Chinese students, her decision to uphold her colleagues’ words and ways of conveying them was inevitable of criticism. She does not recognize how problematic and offensive it is to specify a certain language as loud and rude.
Living under institutions where systemic oppressions are so prevalent, incidents like this doesn’t surprise me. No one problematizes the English language itself when domestic students, especially white and privileged students, speaking loudly in “proper” English. This reminds me of a similar incident several years ago when one student publicly complained about Asian students being loud in libraries. They are just unmannered students, not unmannered “Asian” students. This is all hate speech targeting the non-Western languages and cultures.
One thing I still do appreciate is that the professor has reassured me that there’s nothing wrong about an international student speaking native languages, and I will do so even more publicly without any doubt.