Project Coffee gives Chinese international students a safe space to say #MeToo
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Project Coffee, a peer-led initiative, is a response to the cultural obstacles international students face.

Project Coffee gives Chinese international students a safe space to say #MeToo

by Yenee Saw See Profile
The University of Sydney, Camperdown NSW 2006, Australia
13th Dec 2018
Project Coffee gives Chinese international students a safe space to say #MeToo

This time last year, the #MeToo movement emboldened women to share their experiences with sexual harassment on social media. It takes courage to tell people what you've been through. This does not mean that those who chose not to share and to publicly declare #MeToo lacked courage.

Last year, the Australian Human Rights Council and Universities Australia conducted a joint survey on sexual assault and harassment, with 22 percent of international students reporting that they experienced harassment in universities. However, underreporting likely occurred because the survey was unavailable in languages other than English and written in a way that lacked cultural sensitivity.

Xi Chen is a researcher who looks at the challenges that Chinese international students face when navigating the dating scene and sexual intimacies in Australia. Cultural upbringing can function as a deterrent to opening up about sexual harassment. According to Xi, there are cultural upbringing barriers at play, such as a strong emphasis on maintaining your reputation and “not losing face”, which deter Chinese international students from reporting sexual harassment or assault. Xi says that in a shame-oriented culture where sex remains a taboo topic not discussed openly, victims of sexual assault are likely to stay silent.

Chinese international students are unlikely to speak up about verbal or physical assault due to their cultural upbringing which instils that you should not air your dirty laundry in public (家丑不可外扬) and that you should try your best to endure unpleasant things and people (能忍则忍).

In her research, Xi notes that students in Sydney lack a good support system with their friends and family overseas. Facing both a language and cultural barrier as well as feeling isolated in student accommodation, Xi says that they are “living in a vulnerable position that makes them easy targets in the eyes of sexual predators and abusers”.

Dating is hard enough even when English is your first language. But for international students navigating the local Sydney dating scene, Xi explains that “it is not a general lack of English proficiency that is the problem but predators taking advantage of these students’ lack of experience as well as [their] lack of vocabulary in negotiating sex (and a drastically different sex culture)”.

According to Xi, international students are afraid of approaching official university counselling services because of the fear that information may not remain confidential and their student visas will be affected. She recounts the story of an international student whose ESL teacher in a university pathway program sexually abused her but because of the power imbalance, she feared the repercussions of telling someone.

In response to the cultural obstacles international students face Xi has devised Project Coffee, a peer-led safe space initiative for international students in need of support, free of judgement. The premise is simple: any international students who need a chat or a rant can set up a one-on-one coffee date with another veteran international student. So far, Project Coffee has had experience offering peer support on various topics such as: bad dates, racism in the dating scene, yellow fever (when Asian women are fetishised), queer sexuality, sexual harassment and coercion, and surviving abuse from family/peer/partners.

When interviewing Chinese international students for her research about how navigating the dating scene in Sydney, Xi said she was pushed into taking action after hearing about people’s experience with violence and abuse.

“It’s the least we can do as researchers and veteran international students to organise casual face-to-face coffee chats with anyone who needs to be heard.”

Xi expressed a fear that an official Facebook page or website for Project Coffee may appear “cold, formal and clinical”, potentially discouraging students in vulnerable situations from approaching them.

Through building word of mouth, Project Coffee has come to embody a grassroots movement which is approachable, informal, and above all friendly.

“We are just a bunch of approachable friends, we are not psychologists or lawyers, we just offer our ears and will refer people to suitable services or professionals.”

Pictured: Xi Chen delivering guest lecture on her research findings entitled “Sojourner intimacies: Chinese international students negotiating dating in Sydney”.

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Xi Chen
Yenee Saw

About Yenee Saw

Yenée Saw is a writer and mum to a one-year-old cat. She has experience working with vulnerable clients at community legal centres, previously volunteering at the Refugee Advice and Casework Service as well as the Welfare Rights Centre.

More from Yenee Saw


The University of Sydney, Camperdown NSW 2006, Australia
13th December 2018