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My Fear of the ‘Colonial Student’

In a little less than a week, I’ll be flying out to study in Kunming and my biggest fear is becoming a 'colonial student.'


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85 points

In a little less than a week, I’ll be flying out to study in Kunming, China on a language immersion program run by Middlebury College. 

Kunming is in Southwest China; it is closer to Vietnam than it is to Beijing. Its culture is unique and it is one of China’s most ethnically diverse places. 

The program connects us with its local culture and creates opportunities for us to make Chinese friends and live a local ‘Chinese’ lifestyle. In short, they want us to avoid the pitfalls that plague many U.S. study-abroad students — isolation, failure to explore, building friendships exclusively with other Americans, and failing to improve their language skills. Basically, becoming a ‘colonial student’.

I’m excited for the semester; I’m also nervous and terrified. You see, I don’t want to be a ‘colonial student’. 

Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00tjp59/p00tjkgl

I’m no stranger to studying abroad. I lived in Hong Kong as a teenager and studied in Beijing for a couple of months after my freshman year. I’m also an East Asian Studies major. However, I still fear waking up one morning and realizing that I’ve become a ‘colonial student’. 

I’ve watched other friends transform into ‘colonials.’ They regard themselves as superior to locals, retreat away from the local culture, and treat their study abroad as an extended frat party rather than a learning experience. 

The slip into this behavior is gradual. It starts with expecting American food at restaurants, demanding special laowai (foreigner) treatment and getting annoyed when your expectations are not met. I’ve certainly encountered college students like this abroad. I’ve also found myself, from time to time, slipping into the ‘colonial’ mindset. 

The promise I have made to myself is to keep my ‘colonial’ mindset and privilege ‘in check’. 

  • I will become comfortable with discomfort. 
  • I will embrace change and difference, rather than run away from it. 
  • I will live like a local rather than try to Americanize my experience.

I suppose it is the simple, daily actions that will hold me to my promises. I’ll ride cheap bicycles as frequently as possible. I’ll hike up Heifeng Mountain. I’ll eat street food. I’ll make friends with locals and college kids at Yunan University. Simply put, I’ll live a Chinese life (or as close as I can get to one).

I’m super excited to go to Kunming and continue sharing my experiences with you. 

I’ll keep you updated and you all can hold me to these promises. 

Stay tuned for more. 


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Ezra Kohn

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