On the whole, I had a wonderful time at Oxford University and I miss it very much. The beautiful city, the atmosphere, my friends but not the workload just to be clear. But there’s one thing that’s always bothered me. Being half Chinese and often seen wandering around with a camera (blogger, duh), I’ve been mistaken for a tourist a few too many times and I just had to get this off my chest.
Chinese students are not a minority at Oxford University. Not in the same way that black students are in any case. With the growth of Chinese wealth and their culture’s focus on education, Chinese students constitute the second largest group of international students at Oxford. You’d think, then, that the staff and porters would be accustomed to seeing Chinese student faces around. That I wouldn’t have to worry about being mistaken for a Chinese tourist when making my way to class alone. Hm.
Let me tell you about my last day ever at Christ Church, one of many incidences throughout my time at university when I was stopped and questioned because of the way I looked. More specifically, because I look Chinese.
To clarify, I am a British citizen. I was born to a Chinese mother and English father, both also British citizens. I’ve lived in London my entire life and have an extraordinarily British accent to boot. I earned my place at Oxford and studied damn hard to get in, so being continually singled out as a “tourist” in my own college, my home for four years, was a source of much aggravation.
I wake up bright and early, planning to nip across the road to college to take some final pictures of my beloved University for the last time as a student. I’m wandering around, snapping away, and the college is pretty much completely empty. The day hasn’t really started yet and, crucially, the college is not yet open to tourists.
I head to one of my favourite places in college – the library, of course. I take about a million pictures because it’s probably the last time I’ll ever step foot in it but the librarian watches me with her beady eyes throughout. This isn’t altogether unusual, but it does make me feel a little uncomfortable. I’m not being a nuisance, I deliberately arrived before the students would, so it’d be empty and I could snap away in peace.
Eventually, I leave, the librarian still evilling me and sizing up my movements. I go out the doors and into the sunny quad, but librarian follows me. I turn around. She pointedly drags a sign in front of the door that says the library is out of bounds for tourists. My heart sinks. After four effing years, I’m still mistaken for a tourist?
Being the mature, level-headed, soon-to-be graduate that I am, I marched straight back in there and went poking around for a book I could borrow. I head to the computer to take out this random book that I haven’t even looked at, whip out my library card, proving I’m a student, and loaned the book out. So there, librarian. I showed you. I belong here.
I exit, triumphant, and continue to take pictures in Peckwater quad, the most beautiful in the college. Then, a porter comes up to me and says, with a hint of annoyance: “the college is closed to tourists today.” Seriously? Twice in one day? I take a deep breath in and tell him that I’m actually a student here, I have been for four years, and I’m taking pictures because I’m leaving today, and I’d like to remember the place in years to come. At that point, he’s all smiles, being super friendly and telling me to take as many photos I want. But it’s too late – the damage is done.
Don’t get me wrong, this certainly isn’t the worst case of bias at Oxford and, comparatively, Chinese people have it much, much easier than many other minorities. But that’s no reason to take it lying down.
To some extent, I get it, it’s their job to make sure the pesky tourists don’t bother the students as, after all, the college is a place of study, not a tourist attraction. I’m very grateful that on the whole they do manage to do this. But this is an issue that bothered me throughout my degree, not just the final day, and it needs to be addressed. I’d often walk through the college gates, looking straight ahead to avoid the porters’ questioning gaze and hurry through. If I was unlucky, the porters would stop me and ask for my bod card (a student card). The feeling is akin to that when you’re 23 and the bar tender still asks you for your ID. You roll your eyes and make a big show of pulling your ID out. But this is 1000 times worse. It’s not because it’s “policy” or there’s any legal issue involved. They just want to make sure they keep those that don’t belong out, and clearly, they’ve decided I’m one of those people.
So, dear Oxford porters, don’t be so quick to judge the Asian-looking gal with the large camera. Or anyone you think doesn’t quite belong. No one should be made to feel like an outsider, no matter their race, education, class or wealth. Whilst Oxford is making attempts to address its numerous stereotypes, the focus, as far as racial diversity is concerned, seems to be on encouraging BAME students to apply and succeed. Important as that is, they also need to look inwards, and make sure that they feel welcome when they arrive.
Update: Thank you for the overwhelming support from other POC and particularly Oxford and Cambridge students who have got in touch saying they’ve experienced similar things at their respective colleges. I’m saddened to hear that the implicit bias against Asian students when coming and going from their colleges is so widespread! For further reading on the topic, numerous people have recommended The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla, which you can purchase here.
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