Most Asian students come to New Zealand expecting to form friendships with their Kiwi classmates but less than half actually do, research shows.
Asian students are also more likely to be depressed when they first arrive than their peers from North America and Europe.
“Before students leave Asia they have much higher expectations of what life is going to be like in New Zealand than they experience after they get here,” says Victoria University psychologist Professor Colleen Ward.
“When expectations are under-met, the greater the gap and the more depressed they are.”
Professor Ward, who studies the psychological wellbeing of Asian students, presented her findings at the inaugural Asian Health and Wellbeing Conference in Auckland this week.
She said students from Asia came to New Zealand for the “practical purpose of getting their education and achieving a qualification”, whereas those from Europe and North America tended to come for shorter periods and were more motivated by the cultural experience and scenery.
Recruiters painted a picture of New Zealand as a wonderful place and students often had an unrealistic picture of what life was going to be like, she said. For students to have a positive experience they needed to have realistic expectations, greater English proficiency, social support and low levels of perceived discrimination.
“They will be stressed because of life changes, but we can minimise the distress.”
Singapore student Chan Hoong Leong, who is studying towards a PhD in science at Victoria University, said it had been hard adjusting to life in Wellington, where the climate was different, shopping hours were shorter and the population sparse.
Coming from Singapore, his English was reasonably good but he found it difficult adjusting to the New Zealand accent.
On the whole people accepted him but on a visit to Christchurch he was verbally abused by a group of young people.
“I guess when you are an Asian student in a predominantly Western country you kind of expect it to some extent.”
The 32-year-old had made a couple of non-Asian friends, and said it was easier to make friends in Wellington than Australia, where he studied previously.
Tiffany Zhang, 19, a Chinese student at ACG Senior College in Auckland, said staying in a European New Zealand homestay helped her to meet people.
“It’s a good way to practise my English and I need to know about the society. I want to make New Zealand friends.”
Auckland University international director Andrew Holloway said it was understandable that students coming from a country where English was not the first language would find it more difficult.
Marketers focused on the positive, but it was possible some students had higher expectations than could be fulfilled.
Mr Holloway said that at Auckland University, where 5500 international students are enrolled, a range of support services included advisers in different faculties.
Students’ academic performance was reviewed every semester and that could help pick up any social problems.
Ski trips, film nights and other activities were organised to create opportunities for international students to meet Kiwis.
A survey of 150 students looking at their expectations before they left Asia and after arriving in New Zealand found that
* 80 per cent believed they would be able to understand New Zealand English. Once here, only 57 per cent said they could.
* 87 per cent expected to get good grades. Only 27 per cent said they actually did.
* 91 per cent said they expected to form friendships with New Zealanders. Only 41 per cent did.
* 72 per cent expected to be accepted by New Zealanders. 37 per cent said they were.
* 31 per cent expected to feel stressed. After arriving, 49 per cent said they were.