Making a world of difference
DESPITE being surrounded by books which provide almost all the information you could ever need on Japanese culture, from the development of woodblock printing to the evolution of kanji, katakana and hiragana – used in Japanese writing – Eric Bransden is still hungry to learn more.
He wants to improve his Nihongo or, at the very least, ensure he does not fall out of practice in speaking the language, and refine his penwork as he carefully reproduces beautiful kokuji.
It was his aim for many years to share his knowledge and passion with other like-minded individuals, seeking help to establish an Asian cultural centre in Exeter.
But after many years of hard work, he has been forced to concede defeat. "Having spent much time in Japan, I appreciate and enjoy so many elements of its culture and language, and that has extended to all Asian countries," he said. "I had hoped to find people with a similar passion and together we could create something in Exeter which incorporated a museum, arts and a café celebrating the cuisine of Korea, China and Japan. Perhaps it could have had a martial arts dojo.
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"I wanted a building in Exeter to help create this. It was ambitious and we needed a willing millionaire. But I was sure it could be achieved.
"The real problem, though, was the lack of interest. They have a similar building in London and in other cities I've seen but Exeter, for some reason, was not responsive."
Eric, who lives in Topsham, reflects on whether he believes Exeter has become a multi-cultural hub. He said "I have two Korean friends who work at the university. I once asked them if they had many other English friends and they said I was the only one.
"Why? They found that most people they spoke to had little interest in finding out more about them and used all manner of colloquialisms that made them very difficult to understand. I think that can happen a lot."
In 2009, the actress Emma Thompson, in a speech to Exeter students, claimed her Rwanda-born son Tindyebwa Agaba suffered racist abuse during his time studying in the city, famously suggesting that BNP leader Nick Griffin would "love" the city because of the "depressing racism".
Her comments were widely, and quite rightly, criticised. Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw said her words were "both untrue and insulting" and there is no evidence, from the police or otherwise, that the city, bar a few isolated incidents, is any more racist than anywhere else in the UK.
But, as the Echo reported last week, the number of international students – that is students from outside the EU – at the university numbered 500 in 1995; by 2005, it was around 1,000, and in 2012 it was more than 4,000, with the majority from Asia. That number is going to be capped at around its current level.
The university argues that, more than simply being motivated by finances, the benefits to the wider South West economy and Exeter's standing around the world are not to be underestimated, as well as helping to foster greater cultural understanding and exchanges.
So, how is the university ensuring that there is successful integration between its diverse population and city residents and that, unlike Eric's experience, diversity is truly given a platform from which it can be celebrated?
Ghee Bowman, part of the team which runs the city's Global Centre, says the university's actions should be welcomed but does feel more needs to be done to see Exeter benefit from the move.
He said: "The increasing diversity of people the university is bringing to Exeter is to be welcomed. Of course, this is nothing new.
"As we are discovering through our project Finding Our Roots, Exeter has always been home to a wide cross-section of nationalities, although not always in the volume it is now.
"International students more actively seek out contacts in the community for friendship and conversation, normally from within their own nationality, but we are starting to see the impact. There's a changing pattern of shops, for example, offering tastes from home.
"But improving integration is an issue. There should be more engagement between Exeter's population and the growing international community that is here."
Cllr Rosie Denham, the city council's lead councillor for economy and tourism, was similarly welcoming and said the council was playing its part in promoting harmony.
She said: "The university is certainly changing things for the better, not least by connecting the city to an increasingly interconnected world.
"The opportunity for cultural exchange not only helps to increase people's understanding and perspective of other parts of the world but also our positive perception of ourselves."
Earlier this month, Chinese New Year was celebrated in the city and on campus in an event organised by the university's Chinese Society.
Sky Jaichang Hu, a second year BA economics and finance student, took part and she believes the students have as much of a role to play in becoming part of Exeter as the university has in helping them to do so.
She said: "I chose the University of Exeter because of its good reputation – it is ranked in the top 10 in the UK and that is very important. It is a friendly place. I like the people, there is not much pollution and the lovely area."
As the general secretary of the university's international student council, she plays a role in organising events to help international students and improve integration.
She added: I think international students are trying hard to make Exeter their home when they are here. Many move into accommodation off the campus because it is cheaper and a lot are willing to get involved in different organisations. I have a friend who does a lot of work with Age UK and enjoys her work with the elderly."
The university has just marked diversity week, organised by the International Students' Council.