It seems that as much as NYU likes to promote itself as a global institution, the students here can be just as closed-minded as anyone else; they have just learned to adjust their word choice.
As my first semester has progressed, I’ve become increasingly convinced that being an international student is only cool and worldly if you come from certain countries. Meanwhile, non-white international students experience frequent discrimination and xenophobia on campus. For East Asian students, this often takes the form of the weaponization of the word “international.” While walking around NYU, I constantly hear statements like “International students have completely taken over the lounge,” “I know that international students talk trash about me, just not in English” and “International students are so unfriendly.” Replace “international” in any of these statements with “Asian” and suddenly these statements are a lot more problematic.
Approximately 48% of NYU’s undergraduate international students are East Asian. While this is undeniably a substantial portion, it still means that the majority of international students come from other countries. Yet when people use the phrase “international,” they invariably mean “East Asian.”
I’ve observed multiple instances of passing microaggressions against East Asian students, but they’re almost always disguised as mere observations about international students in general. This can be found everywhere in the popular Facebook group, NYU Memes for Slightly Bankrupt Teens. In the endless jokes about the expensive clothes that international students wear, it’s always a given that “international” refers to East Asian international students. The most common use of the coded word “international” can be found in the rhetoric that domestic students use to describe groups of East Asian students spending time together, speaking in a non-English language.
I take specific issue with the statements I’ve heard white domestic students say along the lines of “international students only hang out with each other” or “international students don’t even try to befriend domestic students.” I have yet to meet a domestic student who has specifically gone out of their way to meet East Asian international students, so it seems unfair to expect East Asian international students to extend that same courtesy. Furthermore, these types of statements never seem to catalyze any form of self-reflection among domestic students; while large friend groups comprised solely of domestic students are completely fine, large friend groups comprised solely of international East Asian students warrant close scrutinization and are seen as something to be corrected.
Even if all international students came from East Asian countries, it would still be inappropriate for domestic students to use the descriptor “international” in order to get away with making racist comments about Asian students. If your statement about East Asian international students suddenly sounds problematic if “international” is replaced with “Asian,” you should refrain from saying it altogether.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 28, 2019 print edition. Email Emily Dai at [email protected]