Conversations with international students


Since the Whitlam Government's official repudiation of the White Australia policy in 1973, Australian policy makers have prided themselves on recognising and fostering the multicultural nature of Australian society. As a primary school student in the 1990s, I was repeatedly told that Australia embraced people from all different backgrounds. 'Multiculturalism' was the buzz word of my social studies classes, and I've grown up believing Australia is a leading example of a racially tolerant society.

And until recently, if someone from another country asked me whether Australian society was racist, I would have admitted we didn't have an unblemished history of racial tolerance, but would vehemently claim that was behind us; most Australians today don't have a racist bone in their bodies. While memories of drunken slurs I've overheard directed towards international students might come to mind I would dismiss these as being the result of a tiny minority of 'un-Australian' individuals.

However, lurking behind my assumption that Australia hits a high mark on the racially tolerant scale is a stirring uneasiness. The recent violence towards Indian students in Melbourne sickened me, but I'm embarrassed to admit it didn't surprise me. I was tempted to chalk it up to that 'tiny percentage' of Australian racists and go on believing that the large majority of Australian society is innocent. It has been my experiences as a volunteer conversational English teacher over the past couple of years that have made me question whether racism in Australia is confined to these few extremes, or whether a subtler form is prevalent in my own, and many Australians' attitudes towards international students.

Through the Education Services for Overseas Students (ESOS) Act 2000, Australia has the highest legislative standards for international education in the world. Today, international student education is our third largest export and contributes over $12 billion annually to the economy. However, for many of Australia's 455, 000 international students, their experiences in society don't meet the same high standards as their education.

As a domestic student I remember the mixed excitement and nervousness of my first semester at university: finding the right lecture theatre, organising my program, and even finding bathrooms no more than a ten minute walk from my current location was challenging. Also, for the first time in an educational setting, I found it difficult to make friends. I would talk to people in my lectures and tutorials, then, after 13 weeks, I had new classes with several hundred new students and the process of gradually learning names would repeat. It was hello and goodbye to many, many acquaintances. I became less selective in the 'class buddies' I made. Having nothing in common with another student other than the class we shared was enough; I was grateful to have someone to sit with.

For a lot of the international students I've taught, this eagerness to accept new faces into at least the outermost realm of friendship is intensified by their desire to make Australian friends — not just to improve their communication skills, but to embrace all the opportunities available while living in another country.

Last year, I returned from four months in China teaching English and related some of my experiences to a friend. I told her how pleasantly surprised I'd been by the number of people-strangers on buses, neighbours, the lady at the tea shop-who made an effort to speak to me. My Chinese and their English was pretty basic so we often didn't get far, but there were plenty of laughs when we resorted to charades. Despite the language difficulties I felt welcome. After finishing my story, my friend related an experience of her own.

She was waiting for a bus in Brisbane's CBD when an international student sat next to her. My friend remarked upon the likelihood of rain. The young woman smiled and agreed, and my friend asked her about her time in Australia: what was she studying and was she enjoying herself. When the bus arrived ten minutes later the student was in tears. My friend had been the first Australian (other than service personnel and her teachers) to speak to her in the six months she'd been living in Australia.

I was disturbed by my friend's story and questioned whether I would have spoken to the girl. My conclusion: probably not. Truthfully, I would have been more likely to initiate a conversation if I thought she was Australian. I don't think that, like me, most Australians are deliberately racist; I'd have wondered if she could understand me, and wouldn't want to embarrass her if she couldn't. However, I wasn't embarrassed when people talked to me in China and I couldn't understand them. I was grateful they made the effort, and was encouraged to improve my Chinese. I was shocked by the hypocrisy of my attitude.

In April I met a student from Malaysia who's studying an undergraduate degree in accounting at the same university where I am completing my Arts degree. She's been in Australia since February, and is living in international student accommodation on campus. So far, the university campus has been her entire Australian 'world'. Two weeks after we met she sent me an email saying she had a 'big problem' and could we meet and have lunch together?

I agreed, and, shyly, she told me her problem. Her statistics class is made up of roughly half international and half Australian students. She wants to migrate to Australia after she's finished her degree and is keen to make Australian friends; the better chances of gaining a permanent residency visa upon completion of her studies is largely why she chose to study in Australia rather than the US or UK. When an Australian guy sat next to her in her first class and made casual conversation about their studies, she was grateful for his friendliness. She sat next to this student a few times in later lectures. One week he asked her to have coffee. At the cafe he asked her to have sex with him. She didn't know how to respond. She said goodbye without answering his request, and now was worried she had behaved inappropriately.

Her understanding of Australian culture is largely made up of what she's seen on TV, where, after just one or two dates, characters often sleep together. She didn't want to sleep with him, but suspected her conservative Hindu values may need to be adjusted if she was serious about wanting to be an Australian. She asked whether I thought she should have behaved differently. Disturbed at what she'd just told me, I suggested that other than not smacking him in the face before leaving the cafe, she'd done fine.

She was relieved and confessed that another student in her apartment building had a similar experience and neither of them was sure how an Australian girl would respond in a similar situation.

Her story opened my eyes to the vulnerability of young international students who've recently arrived in Australia and are eager to embrace what they understand Australian culture involves. The fact that some Australians are preying upon their vulnerability is appalling. While universities and colleges have student-support staff, each staff member is responsible for many students and students often feel uncomfortable talking to a stranger about personal troubles.

To better understand Australia, international students need to be meeting Australians and getting a better sample than a few opportunistic predators. Universities organise social activities designed as 'meet and mixers' for domestic and international students, but these are often attended solely by students from overseas. Free conversational English classes hosted by Australian volunteers are available in Australian capital cities. If their number could be increased one-hundred fold, most international students would have a chance to get to know an Australian in an environment broader than their university or college campus.

Advertising Australian education abroad, then isolating students who arrive isn't acceptable, and is doing nothing to change how Australian culture is sometimes misunderstood. Poor social experiences aren't something that can be fixed by throwing money at new facilities or raising teaching standards. Students not yet confident of their language skills are understandably unwilling to risk troubling an English speaker by initiating a conversation. I've been as guilty as anyone (and with my experiences overseas more culpable than many) of using compassionate reasoning to justify ignoring international students. If we accept these students and their $12 billion contribution to our economy we need to accept the responsibility of welcoming them into our society. At worst violence and at best cold intolerance are a poor welcome. Most of our laws and social norms are built upon the 'do unto others as you would have done yourself' principle. Let's rejuvenate that principle in our attitude towards our international guests. We may even discover hitherto unsuspected charades skills.

Helen BrakeHelen Brake is studying English Literature at the University of Queensland. She has recently returned from four months English teaching in south-west China, and enjoys continuing to meet students from other countries at a volunteer-run, conversational English class in inner-Brisbane. Her essay won Third Prize in the 2009 Margaret Dooley Awards.

Topic tags: Helen Brake, Margaret Dooley Awards, international students



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Existing comments

what is worse is that international students are encountered a lot of man made barricades to enter the job market.
Andy Zheng | 03 September 2009

Thanks for your essay, I have been teaching in this area for a number of years and find the same as you, that few people extend conversation, kindness or hospitality to International people. I often feel there sorrow, and have invited them to my home.They are so excited to be invited to an Australian home.

I have wondered why, sometimes thinking, that people love to be busy, too busy for others. Only today a student emailed me with a volunteer, justice issue. Differences are an issue, and the above issue wasn't from an anglo.

I believe there needs to be some research into the whole concept of acceptance and would be interested if you know of any.

It is a problem in Australia.
Denyse Roberts | 03 September 2009

I don't know how it is in Brisbane but come to Melbourne and you'll see the results of really large-scale international education. Over the last 5-10 years the make-up of the people around me has changed substantially. As an Australian, I am more often than not in the minority in the street, on public transport, and on a university campus. I hear foreign languages more often than I hear English. I have gotten used to being one of the few white faces in a crowd of East Asians and Indians.In this environment it's a bit hard to feel sympathy for their isolation, they don't seem very isolated going around in their monocultural groups. It is a bit hard to feel interested in someone of another culture, solely based on the fact of their being from another culture, when they all seem quite happy doing their own thing, working towards that qualification, to get PR, and yet still remaining in their segregated worlds. I'm sure some individuals do feel isolated, but I imagine just as much as some Australians, but the vast majority seem happy with this situation. Australia must be far from their minds when they hardly have to deal with any actual Australians. Now, if they were here in smaller, more manageable numbers, then I think they would actually have more opportunities to have meaningful interactions with the locals.
Michael | 04 September 2009

Most Australians accepted multiculturalism in Australia until the 1980s and 1990s, but now we are innundated and over-populated. The public are given no say in our government's immigration program, and we are accused of being "racist" if we dare to question these policies. Sydney is full and so is Melbourne. We are being crowded by foreigners and our tertiary education system is being accessed by international students while domestic students are struggling to get finance to study. We are being globalised, and silenced by political correctness. The multicultural social experiment is failing due too many people coming to Australia. Too many students want to stay here! They are now a burden to Australia at a time we should be stabilising our population.
Vivienne | 05 September 2009

I am a retired English teacher who is just about to start a new career in TESOL teaching at a Melbourne Tafe. I found the article informative and heart rending. I hope that the issues that it raises will influence my treatment of these young people whose presence in our country has enabled me to "begin again" a career that had somewhat waned in enthusuiasm.
Joan bell | 11 September 2009

This essay has touched a tender point in my conscience. I tend not to talk to strangers on public transport, immediately burying myself in a book. I was the same on my university campus. I didn't even look to make friends in my classes. I already had my friends, mainly through church, and they were all I needed. But one of the things I've loved about some of the places I've lived in overseas has been the friendliness of locals who have helped me and talked with me and given my warm encounters when I've been far from home. And I don't offer those encounters to people in my home town. I need to think more about this. Thought-provoking essay!
Avril | 11 September 2009

Your article is a sham. Most Australians are welcoming. However, if international students hang together in groups then it Is hard for them to meet locals.

I have recently returned to university after 10 years - the difference between now and 1999 is like chalk and cheese - the majority of people I see in the library are now international students.

The problem is that ever since Howard brought in vsu structured mixing has disappeared and the number of international students has exploded.

Universities need to introduce structured mixing and there should be cap on the percent of international students in classes so there is a chance they will meet locals

the system has failed both locals and international students
it's time to start again. The starting point is to decouple education from migration.
Chris | 08 November 2009

Thought provoking.
Wes Shaw | 27 February 2015


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