Fighting stereotypes and prejudice
PhD candidate Pingzhi Li discusses the problems the Chinese community at TU/e facesRead more
- The University , People
Fighting stereotypes and prejudice
The Chinese population at TU/e is the second largest, exceeded only by the Dutch. Lately, news reports about Chinese students and PhD candidates have focused increasingly on their alleged threat to knowledge security, but now it is time to let them speak for themselves. On behalf of the Chinese community at TU/e, Pingzhi Li, a PhD candidate at the Department of Applied Physics and himself from China, discusses the problems this group faces. Cursor spoke with him about the stereotypes and prejudices that he believes stand in the way of successful integration. "Many Chinese people feel a bit lonely and excluded."
I met Li when I was working on the Cursor article about MagnEFi-ITN, an EU-funded doctoral program. Li joined the program as a PhD candidate and is currently conducting his research at TU/e's Department of Applied Physics. I interviewed him about his experience of this fellowship, but we couldn't stop talking and soon the conversation shifted to other topics.
When he discovered that I was from the Czech Republic, he totally threw me off guard by speaking Czech to me. He also blew me away with his knowledge of (Eastern) European culture and history. Knowledge many a European would envy. Before his appointment at TU/e, he studied in Russia and Belgium, and learning about the various European cultures, plus their language and history, had evolved into a hobby, he told me enthusiastically.
As our dialogue progressed, he also told me something disturbing. When I asked him what he planned to do after his doctorate, he candidly expressed his intention to go back to China. “For individuals like myself with an Eastern Asian background, it can prove immensely challenging to forge a life in the Netherlands without making significant trade-offs, forgoing such aspects of life as cultivating friendships with local people and steady career advancement.” When I asked him a few days later if he wanted to tell me more about it, he responded quickly. “I would be honored to present my own perspective and also to share some general concerns on behalf of many Chinese students here at TU/e, and get their voices heard.” He finished with ‘take care’ in Czech.
A few days later, he is waiting for me in the cafeteria, his typically broad smile on his face. In preparation for our interview, he has asked around. Do any other Chinese students want to speak to me? Unfortunately he has found no one who does. However, he has gathered their views and he wants to share some general perspectives with me on behalf of the community.
Lonely and excluded
According to Li, it is very difficult for the Chinese at TU/e to form friendships with the Dutch and other western Europeans. “Interactions between Chinese and local students often remain superficial, revolving solely around joint projects, with little opportunity for deeper connections.” As many Chinese students have found, they are often passed over when casual social activities are organized or when a group grabs some lunch, for example. The French, Germans or Italians are automatically invited along though, and it is also much easier for them to be included and to belong. “Many Chinese feel a bit lonely and left out,” Li observes.
For most Chinese at TU/e their social life takes place largely within scattered, self-organized Chinese communities and the Association for Chinese Students and Scholars in Eindhoven (ACSSE) - of which Li is the deputy president - but this is by necessity rather than choice. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that the Chinese communities are very closed and that the Chinese have no interest in or intention of socializing outside their zones,” Li says. “Western people also hold the mistaken stereotype that Asian people are very mysterious and unapproachable. That's not true. In fact, most Chinese people are very approachable and would like to have more social contact with their western colleagues.” Li understands that the cultural differences can be a little scary and can pose quite a few obstacles, but the cultural divide is by no means unbridgeable, he believes. “Actually, Chinese and Europeans are more alike than people often assume. But few people bother to have a real conversation to see whether their preconceptions are correct.”
Lost in translation
At a university where English is the language of instruction, one would not expect language barriers to be a problem. Yet Li sees it a little differently. "If you are only conducting academic research, a very limited amount of English is sufficient. But to have a deeper conversation with one another and to really understand each other, greater language proficiency is required."
"Many Dutch people can communicate well in English, but they often, somehow, still manage to bring the Dutch language into their English," he continues. In the translation process, some of the meaning may get lost. By understanding how the Dutch language works, you can eliminate some of the very basic misunderstandings, he is convinced.
TU/e offers Dutch courses to international students, but, Li believes, the university should encourage higher uptake among internationals and should raise awareness of the Dutch culture and language. “Many people either do not see the relevance of something only loosely related to their own work or are not willing to spend much time on it. But I believe that this awareness is crucial when living in a foreign country and that no significant investment of time is needed to learn the most essential points.”
“For example, in Dutch clauses the verb appears at the very end. Since the verb is the most important word in the sentence, you have to wait until the end of the sentence to understand it,” he explains. “In English and Chinese, the verb often comes at the beginning or somewhere in the middle of the sentence. At that point Dutch people will often interrupt you because they think they already know what you are going to say. For some Asian people this can be a real culture shock.”
Another example of the clash between Chinese and Dutch cultural norms is the well-known issue of Dutch directness. According to Li, Dutch people just say what's up, without taking into account the emotions of their interlocutor. This can make those Chinese who are not used to it feel very uncomfortable. “In China, you communicate directly only when you really want to emphasize something and show strong emotion in the process,” he explains.
The Dutch can say very directly, 'It's your fault, you did this wrong, you should learn…, you must not...'
“In East Asia, you often try to comfort each other in a conversation and put the other person at ease,” he continues. The Dutch do this much less, if at all. In fact, they don't exactly hide their displeasure either. As a result, they may even voice outright criticism. "For example, they can say very directly, 'It's your fault, you did this wrong, you should learn…, you must not...'” In some cases Dutch directness can even be perceived as hurtful, says Li. “It's also something that was clearly mentioned by many of the people I talked to,” he emphasizes. The effect of Dutch directness, he believes, is to create an even greater distance between the two groups. “It can even be a little off-putting for Chinese people, making them less likely to start a conversation.”
The Chinese community at TU/e finds itself deeply affected by open criticism linking them to espionage and knowledge theft orchestrated by the Chinese government. A significant incident that intensified this impact was triggered by a Cursor article published in October 2022, which caused a wave of discontent among Chinese students. According to the article, Jacco Rubenkamp, faction leader of Volt Eindhoven, was concerned about Chinese students allegedly being pressured to steal knowledge from TU/e, and other universities, and channel it to their home country. In response, about sixty Chinese students and employees demanded the withdrawal of the article at the time.
Li does not think the article should necessarily have been removed. “Cursor is an independent medium, so demanding the removal of the article exceeded our rights,” he says. Also, he does not necessarily find the subject of the article disturbing, but rather it is the ensuing atmosphere and implications that are harmful to the reputation of the Chinese students. “A disturbing impression was fostered that every Chinese student was a potential spy working with the Chinese government.”
Since then, reports linking Chinese students and staff with knowledge theft committed at the behest of the Chinese government have only increased, with the latest news being a report in Cursor that Dutch universities are increasingly cautious about admitting PhD candidates with a scholarship from China.
“As someone who is deeply engaged with the Chinese community and has many contacts within it, I have never heard of knowledge theft occurring at the level of PhD candidates. We sometimes have formal contact with the Chinese embassy with a view to organizing culturally inspired events, such as the New Year’s celebration, but during that process they have never asked us, either explicitly or implicitly, to engage in information theft,” Li says. “Nor doesn't it seem logical to me that they would. Even if they were to do it and were to gain something by doing it, they would totally discredit themselves and lose trust. That's far too high a price and a risk that you wouldn't take as a government.” Nevertheless, he does not mean to say that it has never happened. But very often, according to him, there is scant evidence and few precise details, and all of this must be verified and evaluated by the experts and those involved. Moreover, he believes that such occurrences are exceptional and are not as widespread as media claims would have us believe.
Distrust of the Chinese is growing and is strongly felt among the Chinese community, where frustration is running high. “It feels deeply unjust that Chinese students are viewed differently, especially when they are being marked out for political reasons,” Li states. But there's not much the Chinese can do about it, he admits. “Many Chinese students may not be motivated enough to take action and speak up. Often they fear they would be unable to handle the situation properly, which would only exacerbate things.”
Who wouldn't want to work in an environment where there is no prejudice based on your cultural background, where no one feels different from the rest and everyone belongs?
What can the university do to improve the situation? Li has given this question careful thought. Besides encouraging internationals to take Dutch language courses, he suggests the establishment of a platform promoting cultural awareness and facilitating intercultural interaction. He believes that the university should place greater emphasis on conveying the importance of communication between students from different cultural backgrounds. “I understand that it's a technical university and that priorities may lie elsewhere, but it's equally important that interaction and healthy social dynamics are fostered. Who wouldn't want to work in an environment where there is no prejudice based on your cultural background, where no one feels different from the rest and everyone belongs?”
To combat politically driven prejudice, Li believes that the university should steer clear of political topics wherever possible. He argues for maintaining neutrality, even in sensitive situations such as the war in Ukraine. “While I personally sympathize with the invaded country and strongly condemn the invading country, as an academic institution, TU/e has shown historically that maintaining political neutrality enables values of intellectual freedom, diversity and credibility to be upheld and that in some ways this stance promotes an environment of rigorous scholarship, critical thinking and open dialogue. Breaking with this tradition only polarizes people, causing varying degrees of harm without there being any obvious gain. ”
A significant number of Chinese PhD candidates in the Netherlands receive scholarships from the China Scholarship Council (CSC), a funding program run by the Chinese government. Others are paid directly by the Dutch university they are attached to, and a very small number of PhD candidates receive a scholarship from the EU. Li falls in the latter group, making him one of the “happy few”.
It is well known that Chinese PhD candidates with a CSC scholarship have to live on a grant below the minimum subsistence level. They are relatively ‘cheap’ for their universities, which do not usually supplement the scholarship – and TU/e is no exception. These PhD candidates have to make do with only 1,350 euros per month, placing them officially below the poverty line.
Their financial situation is a significant concern, according to Li, particularly in light of the strong inflation we've all experienced over the past year. However, he believes most of them manage to make ends meet thanks to their strict financial management and moderate leisure demands. “The Chinese ethic is that you only go abroad when you are absolutely confident you can make it financially. This is very different from the mentality in many European countries. The Chinese are very monetarily conservative, they always have a plan.” Financial support from the family plays an essential role in this plan. Based on Li's estimate, the parents of most Chinese PhD candidates contribute 20-30% of their total living costs. “If the university does not supplement the CSC scholarship, the family often steps in to provide the necessary financial assistance.”
Because of their work ethic, many Chinese PhD candidates work many more hours than their Dutch colleagues
Nevertheless, in his opinion, it would be very helpful if the university were to supplement CSC scholarships. “It would give them more financial room to maneuver and would increase their dedication to their research, and it wouldn't even cost the university all that much. It would even stand to gain from the increase in motivation.” Not only do Chinese PhD candidates cost the university less money than other doctoral candidates, according to Li, they generally work much harder. “Fortunately, my supervisors have always prioritized the well-being of their PhD candidates, but in other research groups (not limited to TU/e), supervisors treat their PhD candidates more like a tool for achieving their own academic impact. In that respect, PhD candidates are largely being exploited. Moreover, because of their work ethic, many Chinese PhD candidates work many more hours than their Dutch colleagues. I think many supervisors are well aware of that and take advantage of it.”
Stereotypes and racism
According to Li, the Dutch harbor many stereotypes and prejudices about Chinese people, the impact of which is detrimental. “One of the very basic stereotypes is that all Chinese are the same. Despite there being a common language [Mandarin, ed.], China is a huge country that is very diverse. Not all Chinese people think or behave the same way. They don't even eat the same food. By the way, not a single Chinese person that I've met either here or back in China eats the so-called chinees normally seen in Dutch Chinese restaurants.”
The danger of such stereotypes is that they lead to false expectations, which can lead to harmful judgments being formed, Li believes. “For example, many people think that all Chinese are good at math, but not so good at English or at talking and communicating in general. Very often when a Chinese researcher gives a presentation at a conference, they aren't given the respect they deserve; people simply don't listen. They just look at the slides, because they expect the speaker to be unable to express themselves. If the same presentation were given by a German or American researcher, it would be received very differently.”
Very often people who don't know me tend not to take me seriously. They expect my opinions not to matter
Li provides another example of stereotypical thinking: the assumption that Chinese people are obedient, are hard workers and are not natural leaders. “In a group, they are often taken less seriously and are less respected from the get-go.” Personally, Li likes to take on the leadership role in a group project, but it's a role he has to fight for. “Very often people who don't know me tend not to take me seriously. They expect my opinions not to matter. If I don't convince them within three sentences, they won't listen to me, they will listen to the western colleague instead.”
Li has also experienced anti-Asian racism on several occasions in the Netherlands, including on campus. “At one of the first parties here at TU/e, someone made the slanted-eye gesture with his fingers, which most Asian people find very offensive.” He could give more such examples, but he prefers not to elaborate on this topic. “Even if I enumerated all of them, it wouldn't help, it would only polarize things further.” According to him, you can combat racism by coming closer together. “Racism is created by prejudices that persist for a long time; these are caused by a lack of communication. If we start talking to each other on an equal basis, start understanding each other better and learn to be critical of ourselves, in time the negative experiences caused by racially motivated behavior will cease.”