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Real Friends?

Our intern Laine Yeager takes a look at some pretty shocking (if not slightly outdated) statistics on making friends as an international student in Aotearoa.

Imagine arriving in an unfamiliar city, all alone, thousands of miles from home. You’re about to start at a new university where everyone speaks a foreign language, your lecturers included. You have to find a place to live, sort out all those niggly life admin tasks like opening a bank account, getting a sim card and navigating the public transport system, and, perhaps most importantly, make some friends. Sounds pretty daunting, right?

This is the reality for the thousands of international students who come to Aotearoa from around the world every year. But, unfortunately for many of these students, making friends is the hard part.

There’s a bunch of anecdotal evidence to support that we Kiwis aren’t the friendliest bunch when it comes to making our international students feel welcome, but aside from a study called The Experiences of International Students in New Zealand (last published in 2008), there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of research on the subject.

The aforementioned study, albeit it a bit dated, suggests that a large proportion of international students feel pretty stink about their relationships and general contact with New Zealanders. More than a third of students said they had one or no Kiwi friends, and only 11% indicated they had ‘many’ New Zealand friends.

It appears we’re not giving out the friendliest vibes either – only 17 percent of participants in the study said they felt New Zealanders would like to know international students better, while a whopping 48 percent strongly or mildly disagreed with the statement that New Zealanders desire close relationships with international students.

And if you’re wondering ‘do these students even want to be friends with me?’ According to the study, yes they do. Most students indicated that they wanted more New Zealand friends and contact with Kiwis in general. ‘But they always hang out with people from the same country as them’, I hear you say. Well mate, I’m pretty sure if you landed in a foreign city where you don’t understand a word of the language, you’d be pretty quick to gravitate towards someone in a similar situation who speaks your mother tongue too.

Futhermore, according to the study, increased contact with New Zealanders was related to positive academic, social and psychological outcomes for international students. So c’mon AUT, let’s make more of an effort with our international students – smile, say hello, offer to take them out for coffee and get to know them. Chances are you’ll have more in common than you realise. And just think about how you would want to be treated in an unfamiliar city, all alone, thousands of miles from home.

With the apparent lack of research online, I decided to speak to a group of international students about their experience of making (or not making) friends in New Zealand instead:

Summer Wang, a Chinese student studying at AUT, has struggled to befriend local Kiwis because she doesn’t feel like she fits “one hundred percent” into our culture. Wang says this has held her back from approaching people who are not of her own ethnicity.

The same goes for Yae Li, a Korean student who knew very little English when she first arrived in New Zealand. Li says the language barrier obviously contributed to this, but was keen to make some New Zealand friends as she prefers the Kiwi culture to her own, saying it gives her more freedom and “sometimes Asian cultures are too strict about things”.

Allison Wang, who has lived in New Zealand since she was seven, said despite feeling like she fitted into the Kiwi culture, she found it difficult to make friends when she started university. “It was hard, because most people already had their friends and it was not that easy to approach new friends.”

When she was younger, Wang felt like she was more a part of the Kiwi culture, but as she gets older she says she’s starting to feel more attached to her Chinese culture. “But I do feel that I fit into both cultures.”

Richard Liao, also Chinese, had an easier time making friends when he arrived two and a half years ago. Liao says having Kiwi friends has made such a difference to his experience as an international student. He says they are patient with his English, appreciate his culture and help him with his studies by proofreading his assignments. “Step by step I am fitting more into Kiwi culture as time goes by.”

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