In Australia this year, a series of allegedly racist attacks on Indian students has sparked outrage among international students. According to Australian and Indian media reports, the commotion following the attacks almost caused a diplomatic impasse between the two countries. But while furious Indian students rallied in the Australian capital with slogans denouncing “racist Australia,” expatriate Indians living in Australia presented a different side of the story to the naïve Indian students. In widely circulated e-mails, they alleged that Indian students are often unwilling to respect Australian customs and are bent on recreating India embracing new opportunities and experiences.

It is, of course, quite absurd to suggest that these students brought stabbings and assaults upon themselves by acting “Indian.” And it’s even more alarming that expatriates from India are insensitively propagating that view.

But the e-mails address an issue pertinent not only to Indian students in Australia, but also international students globally. And despite the arrogance and controversy that shades the Indian expatriates’ statements, I agree with what they were trying to warn against. Caught up in their attempts to create a familiar space, international students risk forfeiting — as cheesy as it sounds — the opportunity to immerse themselves in a culture and experience they are unaccustomed to, which is the essence of a foreign education.

There’s certainly some degree of conformity and understanding of cultural propriety that international students are expected to grasp. It’s not difficult to see why some local Americans would feel excluded when caught in the midst of a conversation in Hindi, so the University’s International Center organizes a special workshop at orientation to brief incoming international students on taboo behavior and conversations each year. Admittedly, I thought it ridiculous at the time and duly skipped the session. But it’s quite likely that the session will save at least one new student from an embarrassing conversation during Welcome Week.

But despite these attempts to break down cultural differences between international students and Americans, international students are still drawn to one another. In 2007, the University of Southern California campus newspaper the Daily Trojan interviewed a number of international students in an attempt to explain the prevalence of this “clique culture.” The article revealed that a number of students felt threatened by the possibility that a collective group would invade their privacy and space. Many clung rigidly to cliques, perceiving diversity as a means to force compromises on cultural values and assimilation into an alien lifestyle.

As a result, international students often end up roaming exclusively in groups determined by a common nationality or language. It’s understandable, given their transition to a foreign setting, that international scholars have a high tendency to form cliques. They need a group of peers with similar backgounds and experiences to provide a strong local support system. A Pakistani, for example, will seek out fellow Pakistanis or Indians who speak the same language and share cultural or academic experiences.

But international students need to change their perceptions. The belief that cultural interaction and establishment of a “common ground” necessarily requires compromises on important values poses a wildly false dilemma. And while international students and ethnic student organizations repeatedly remind the University of their worth in a multicultural campus, it becomes a redundant claim when exclusive cliques deter outside participation.

Ideally, ethnic and international student organizations would serve as portals for cultural interaction. But in practice, many organizations fail to provide such a forum, become parcels of segregated groups and merely serve as societies for a select group of students with little room for maneuver. As a result, many cultural organizations are viewed with suspicion, even disdain, and find it difficult to draw support from the general student population.

Maintaining an association with fellow international students does not, in itself, restrict cultural experience, provided students explore avenues and activities that provide a variety of perspectives. But if international students continue to stubbornly subscribe to an exclusive “clique culture” and fear assimilation or rejection, they will only alienate themselves further from their host culture and ultimately forgo the foremost experience of a foreign education.

Emad Ansari can be reached at heansari@umich.edu.

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