All Sarah Meli wants is a hug. The kind, she says, most Canadians fail to provide.
Like many international students at the University of British Columbia, Meli finds difficulty in adapting to differences in what is acceptable in terms of physical contact.
Although the university provides various support services for international students, they do not specifically address cultural differences in expressing affection physically.
These differences can cause foreign students to feel unaccepted, Meli said.
She has struggled with this for the two months since she moved from Malta to Vancouver, BC.
Hugging is a very big part of Maltese culture.
But in Canada, people have a more rigid concept of personal space and are less likely to hug or kiss on the cheek.
This makes them seem cold to some international students.
Meli constantly wonders whether they are accepting her or enjoying her company because frequent hugging is a sign of friendship in Malta.
“It makes me feel lost,” she said.
Canada prides itself on being a multicultural society that encourages diversity.
However, struggles like those faced by international students highlight some of the challenges faced by newcomers to the country.
Some are left feeling out of place and questioning whether they will ever fit in.
UBC student Ziaul Hasan came from India — a country with one billion residents — so personal space is a foreign concept.
One time, a student asked him to respect her personal space. He feels his actions are sometimes confused for flirtation.
Some international students believe they need to hold back from physical contact to comply with Canadian norms.
After seven months in Vancouver, UBC law student Zelius Kleefstra still reminds himself not to shake hands every time he meets a friend.
In South Africa, male friends shake hands whenever they meet each other, he said. It is a sign of belonging and respect.
At times, he still inches his hand forward and then remembers to pull back quickly.
Retaining international talent
International students’ successful integration is a high stake issue for Canada.
The figures for international students in the country are high, according to a report by Citizenship and Immigration Canada:
- 196,138 international students were present.
- The highest numbers were from China, Korea, the United States, India and France.
- 85,140 students entered Canada
- 47, 620 were male
- 37,516 were female
- 43 per cent were here for university.
- Ontario was the province with the highest entry rate
- Vancouver was the city with the highest entry rate
The Canadian government wants to retain high-calibre international students to strengthen the country’s workforce. Demand for workers will outgrow supply in a decade, according to the CIC.
A university’s role
More foreign students came to Vancouver than any other Canadian city last year, making up approximately 24 per cent of the total number, according to the CIC.
UBC’s International Student Handbook does not mention cultural differences in physical contact. It focuses on Canadian values such as being on time and being polite.
The complexity of the issues of intercultural communication makes it hard to collect in a guide, said Caroline Rueckert, a UBC International Student Development Advisor.
She is part of a team who try to make new international students feel welcomed.
She advises them throughout their UBC experience and provides support through services such as the International Peer Advisor Program.
The issue is not about telling international students how to act, but rather to encourage them to have meaningful conversations about the topic, she said.
“Our approach is to….provide the social opportunities for students to begin to form the connections where they can begin to figure these things out,” she said.
“That’s where educating domestic students is important, so it is about the community learning and having these critical conversations instead of creating fixed solutions.”
Canadians have a reputation as being tolerant and multicultural, cautious of offending anyone.
Domestic students don’t want to overstep boundaries so they don’t initiate physical contact, said UBC student Samantha Meade from Ontario.
“They are not sure if it is a bad thing in other people’s culture,” she said.
Sarah Natrasany, a UBC student from Saskatchewan, said she is sometimes surprised at international students’ physical communication.
However, she understands and accepts their different cultural perspectives. She even tries to follow their lead and greet them in the same way.
Now the challenge for students like Meli is to find a way to fit in without losing her identity.
She worries she will always miss the warmth people express in Malta, but will have to find a way to adapt to Canadian culture.
“Something so petty as a hug could mean so much and make such a difference,” she said.
“I don’t think I could live the rest of my life here without that kind of affection.”