By: Muhammad Khairillah (4B), Tharun Suresh (4C), Vasu Namdeo (4C)
From the shade of the Raja Block Foyer one inevitably peers at the imposing Boarding Complex across the road. This group of buildings is home to the international students who come to RI every year, making the leap from their home countries into Singapore and the classrooms of RI, and, in the process almost invariably undergoing a culture shock.
Zhang Zixuan (14S06P), a Year 6 hailing from the Chinese province of Guangdong, shares the first stereotype he faced on his first day of school in 2011 as a Year 3 student: ‘Someone shouted at me, “Chairman Mao!” and the rest of them stared at me as if I was someone from another planet.’ It was a strange moment for him as he took his seat. Was he to take this as a Freudian slip? Or perhaps a hostile response of resistance? Whatever it was, after spending two weeks touring this new country, settling into Boarding and entering the classroom of this premier institution, hearing such a remark must have felt…strange.
Zixuan faced yet another challenge when it came to schoolwork. ‘When it came to finding groupmates for Research Education, most of our local classmates had already formed their groups in Year 2. Those who did not have a group then were reluctant to be grouped with us simply because they did not know us and were worried that we might be a burden to the team. So most of us formed groups among ourselves,’ he said.
Leo Wattanapon Tunsaringkran (4L), who comes from Thailand, spends much of his time in the midst of fellow foreign students. He claims that, as international students, ‘not only do we have to cope with the culture shock from the transition between our home countries with boarding life in RI, we also have to struggle academically, in a new education system, as well as socially, in terms of establishing new social connections with people from all around the world’.
Leo’s and Zixuan’s stories represent two common challenges that international students often face, namely, stereotype and mistrust. Herein lie the obstacles to integration.
Mr Low June Meng, who heads RI Boarding, describes the myriad of struggles that lies ahead for international students when they first enter RI thus: ‘Not only do they have to understand the deep complexities of a culture totally unfamiliar to them, these nuances also have an impact on their personal beliefs, lifestyles and cultural practices and their personal expectations on how a life should be led.’
What often goes unspoken and unquestioned on our parts is the assumption that international students should rapidly assimilate and become indistinguishable from the rest of us. If we find the presence of international students amongst us unsettling, then we need to ask ourselves—what makes us perceive international students as somehow different? What is it that makes a Rafflesian Rafflesian?
Nationalism and the Rafflesian
One starting point might lie in how our school identity is entwined with that of the country’s—we aren’t a nation-neutral community, after all. The problem of integration seems to prove the point that RI is a Singaporean community—one defined by national identity. The Singaporean flag is raised before the Rafflesian one, and a smaller version also peers down on us in the classroom. Perhaps we really do possess a nationalistic solidarity in our ethos.
Jokes along racial and nationalist lines are fairly common. I recall PE lessons in which we played soccer with Chinese vs Non-Chinese students—all in the fun of things. Sometimes in class we crack jokes that make fun of Indians disappearing in the dark or Chinese not being able to see very well. Or we attempt to imitate the confused ‘l’s and ‘r’s of Chinese pronunciation. However, we are all very much aware that it’s all a joke. A special brand of humour. Yet, at the heart of it all, the jokes, giggles and laughs are revealing—they suggest that we hold fast to certain deep-seated, subtle aversions to people whom we find strange and alien. Might we really be reticent when it comes to relating to people whom we don’t easily understand?
The Native Rafflesian
Beyond nationalistic concerns, there is also something else at work here. Not everyone who joins RI at Year 1 is a Singaporean. Many Rafflesians are PRs who may not have any patriotic ties to Singapore. Why do we not feel averse to them, but feel averse to the international students?
Clearly, a second factor goes into the creation of the ‘us-them’ binary, which we think could be the Orientation Programmes at the beginning of our Rafflesian journey. We seem to only identify with the people who were with us from the start. Could it be that the Orientation functions to create a small, insular family which is resistant to the people who haven’t passed through the fires of ritual? So we come to see the RI community in terms of ‘Native Rafflesians’—those who joined the community right from the start—and ‘Pledged-in Rafflesians’—those who came later? That to ‘us’, they’ll forever be branded as ‘international scholars’—lesser Rafflesians?
Put another way, this divide exists because of the ways in which we have chosen to define ‘Rafflesian’-ness. The moment you set up a group such as the ‘Rafflesian’ (or any sort of group identity, for that matter) with its identity and circle of people that excludes, you already begin to set off an instinct for solidarity. Unless you’re super self-aware, it is all too easy to fall into an easy, unexamined habit of line-drawing and mental pigeonholing.
The parallels with Singapore today are clear. Currently, in our National Education we are taught to embrace the fact that we are Singaporean—yet when it comes to foreigners we are immediately asked to give up this nationalistic notion in favour of promoting hospitality toward these people. This sets up a contradiction between two facets of national identity—the notion that there is something special about being born here (solidarity) and the expectation of graciousness towards foreigners (hospitality). A more nuanced approach—both to how we form our national identity, and how we relate to newer Singaporeans—needs to be found, or a better balance struck between solidarity and hospitality that does not sacrifice one for the other.
And that is perhaps the reason why integration and assimilation into RI is such an arduous process for those who join us later. We have too narrowly defined what it truly means to be a Rafflesian as those who enter from PSLE or DSA at Year 1 and who go through the Orientation Programme like everyone else. Rafflesians band up because during Orientation talks they are indoctrinated into joining a ‘Rafflesian Family’. What about those who don’t go through those rituals of Orientation? What about those who come in at Year 3?
We shout ‘Chairman Mao’ at them.
The Dotted Lines of Identity
What emerges from all this, ultimately, is the question of whether strong identities (Singaporean, Rafflesian) can be formed in non-exclusionary ways. Or is the process of identity formation always going to mean the drawing of lines to create insiders and outsiders?
Mr Bernard Low, the Year 1–4 Head of Community and Citizenship Education, makes this observation: ‘Many of the local students I speak to generally have an open mind about friends from a foreign culture joining their midst. Being in their comfort zone, local students have few incentives in general to step forward to include them at the start. There will always be the phase where they get to find out about each other on a surface level and over time, develop the level of comfort to take friendship to the next level.’
He goes on to point the way forward, noting that ‘successful relationships are always a result of reciprocal efforts. International students should also take the effort to break out of their comfort zone and reach out to understand a receiving culture that is foreign to them.’
Sara Ahmed, an academician in the field of Cultural Studies, argues that ‘solidarity does not assume that our struggles are the same struggles, or that our pain is the same pain, or that our hope is for the same future. Solidarity involves commitment, and work, as well as the recognition that even if we do not have the same feelings, or the same lives, or the same bodies, we do live on common ground.’ To Sara Ahmed, solidarity and hospitality are not necessarily opposing concepts—hospitality arises by an effort to find a more transcendent solidarity, a more encompassing identity.
We must not remain so aggressively tight with what it means to be a Rafflesian; we have to expand that definition because we are not Rafflesian simply by virtue of entering this institution. Our school’s emphasis on leadership and service, in this context, could well mean making the effort to find or to create common ground. The key word here, however, is effort. Common ground is not something that’s going to spontaneously spring up, but requires the committed effort of individuals and groups pulling together in the same direction.
The challenges that we face in creating an inclusive community here in school parallel the larger challenges facing Singapore today. The solutions that we attempt here in our school are important, because they could well signal how our country might feel and find its way out of the maze of integration and assimilation.