I wish I got that Duke University warning when I was in college

Jan 29, 2019

I knew the moment I saw that viral letter from the Duke University graduate studies director that it would divide sentiment on the internet.

Thinking back about my time as a clueless international student at New York University, my initial reaction was first, wishing someone had sent me a similar warning with such transparency and honesty during my time in college; and second, that this Duke administrator probably had no idea what trouble lay ahead for her.

I was born and raised in a city called Shenzhen on the southern coast of China. Before attending college, I had never studied or lived in an environment where Chinese wasn’t the only language spoken around me—I was as “Chinese” and “international” as a student could get.

I never let anyone hear me speak Chinese on school grounds.

During my time at NYU—a school that is statistically one of the most diverse in the United States—I, as both a person of color and a foreigner, still experienced a fair share of discrimination from the school administration, faculty, and even fellow students. With time, I figured out how to navigate through college while evading as many situations as possible.

I noticed that although Asian-American students made up the second-largest ethnic group in NYU’s student body, I faced an extra layer of discrimination by being foreign. To deal with this, I started by never letting anyone hear me speak my mother tongue on school grounds, and it did help me blend in.

I found that between lectures, if I didn’t speak Chinese to fellow international students, the non-international students would be friendlier to me and even invite me to their study groups. I found that with my gradually passable American accent, if I never let my professors know I was from China, they seemed to nitpick less on my grammar and focus more on the content of my papers.

I eventually discovered that the kind of discrimination I faced was not necessarily that of race, but that of “foreignness.” Later in sociology classes, I learned that this was called xenophobia and has roots in American history through acts like the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese American internment, and so on.

I found that the more I denied my identity as an international student, the easier it would be to get by in college, both academically and socially.

Neely's email is a reflection of a bigger problem.

When I read the email sent by Duke administrator Megan Neely, I was shocked—not because of how outrageous it sounded, but how close to home it was to my personal experience. Her email, which asked international students from China not to speak Chinese in school buildings, is not necessarily racist but unreservedly xenophobic. It is a reflection of a bigger problem: administrations at higher education institutions in the United States often fail to identify and address xenophobia in the industry.

I believe Neely’s intentions could have come from a genuine place: to warn and help the Chinese international students evade xenophobic discrimination. But perhaps having internalized xenophobia without realizing, Neely failed to understand that her seemingly good-hearted warning validated the xenophobic behaviors of the two unnamed faculty members in the incident. It delivered the message that Duke University finds it acceptable for faculty to punish students for—essentially—speaking a different language and being foreign.

Professionally, Neely has already paid for the way this incident was handled. But beyond this initial outrage, there is still a lot more to be done with higher education institutions in the country.

For me, I’ve come some way since that time I was a clueless 18-year-old foreigner. Today, I proudly wear my nationality at work, and am keen to explore all stories Chinese.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Goldthread.

Xenophobia Mandarin Discrimination Duke University Blacklash