Break


What it’s like breaking down the local and international student divide

IS it so hard for local and international students to get along? Since arriving in Melbourne, Amber Wang has had an eye-opening and extraordinary learning experience, and she shares her remarkable story of integration on campus, at work and at home. 

Life-as-an-international-student

Living in Australia probably made me fully realise what it is like to be foreign, but local friendships also helped me truly understand what it means to be Australian and the importance of breaking barriers.

I came to Australia by myself on a cold winter day on July 17, 2014. At the Melbourne airport, staring at luggages on the conveyor belt, I was not thinking much. I guess it was a brave decision, to fly 8,000 kilometres away to a foreign country, on your first trip abroad.

What drove me I guess was the fundamental interest in broadening my horizons via exploring differences, which can both connect and divide.

I know people move for different reasons, but for me it was not for the clean air and blue skies of Australia which I know are major attractions for my smog-inhaling fellow Chinese, but my passion and eagerness in pursuing career options in journalism, an age-old industry that’s experiencing transformative changes.

What drove me I guess was the fundamental interest in broadening my horizons via exploring differences, which can both connect and divide.

It’s a big part of the conversation I have on a daily basis with local Australians, who grew up in a society and system where things operate under a vastly different model. It’s been an extremely eye-opening and extraordinary learning experience so far.

Study

I understand many international students experience difficulty engaging with the local community. I think it is to a big extent determined by limits to their circle of friends. Because international students are required to study full-time in Australia, a lot of time is spent on campus, and naturally, friends mostly come from uni too.

campuslife

Photo: Wan Shing Lang

It is not hard to think of lecture halls as where friendships have started for a lot of us, but the struggle is real: a lot of international students see themselves “clustering” with only people from the same country, while communication is scarce with their local peers. It is first of all over-simplifying the issue by saying that only international students are to blame. Local students should take their share of responsibility too, as the same “clique-y” issue exists with people from all backgrounds. I have seen many Australians who avoid sitting with international students at seminars, for fear that “it’s hard to talk to them”. To me it’s a lazy and very passive approach.

How do you expect a foreign student to properly engage with locals when 99 per cent of the class comprises of people from his or her own country? This should not be a lesson for students only, but for educational institutions and policy-makers as well.

Another factor that has indirectly contributed to the lack of engagement is the lack of student diversity in many disciplines at universities. For example, many would know that international students are predominantly found in business schools, and I admit that Chinese students in recent years have taken business degrees by storm. So how do you expect a foreign student to properly engage with locals when 99 per cent of the class comprises of people from his or her own country? I guess it’s what not any of us would expect from studying abroad in the first place. This should not be a lesson for students only, but for educational institutions and policy-makers as well.

Journalism is nowhere near a popular choice for international students, many of whom are disenfranchised by the difficult political climate and restricted media sphere in their own countries, as told by my friends from China. Around 70-80 per cent of my coursemates are Aussies, while international students hail from around the world including Indonesia, India, Malaysia and the U.S. It’s a true blessing for me, learning from experienced locals and a miniature of the United Nations from one bunch. And it surely has been fun. As much as I got to tell my own stories, I got to hear or read about stories – good and bad – from Aussie journos that are also passionate about telling them. Yes, it takes a lot of passion and curiosity to be in the industry indeed, and the probing questions about China from my fellow coursemates never cease to amaze me.

Share-house living

Although friendships can be forged anywhere, anytime, I’d say first points of contact always come from the people you live with. It was the case for me: over the past year of two, I have lived in four places, in Melbourne’s CBD, south east, north east and inner north. It’s truly all the share-house experiences I’ve had both from living with locals and exploring local communities that built my understanding of the Australian life.

housemates

Like many other international students, I started my share-house experience in Melbourne’s CBD. Having frequented all the iconic places to be, like Queen Victoria Market and Federation Square, I decided the city was not for me. The lifelessness of its high-rise apartments, many of them recently dubbed as “dog boxes in the sky” by Melbourne’s own mayor Robert Doyle probably drove me to leave – but it had more to do with a need to experience the real Australian lifestyle, in a house in Melbourne’s suburbs.

While the sharing of stories might not be that hard, it takes much more to live in a share-house. It’s about the ability to transcend differences, understand and respect the habits, quirks and countless possible ways things could be done differently.

I have been living with locals ever since, having met Melburnians from all sorts of backgrounds, ethnicities and doing all sorts of things: two teachers, a software developer, a masseuse, a social worker, two musicians and two cats. Their telling of different tales opened my eyes to things I’ve never heard, seen or felt, and it inspired me to know more and more about a city and its faces.

While the sharing of stories might not be that hard, it takes much more to live in a share-house. It’s about the ability to transcend differences, understand and respect the habits, quirks and countless possible ways things could be done differently, by people under the same roof. The ability comes from nothing but experience. In my case, the ability came from learning how to respect others, how to negotiate when in disagreement and how to be straightforward with your concerns. Some say international students can be vulnerable in a share-house situation. I agree, but we can change the vulnerability by getting to know how things work locally.

At work

I’ve worked in different places since I came to Australia, and I’d say the work culture here is very different from that in China. Locals definitely know how to have fun in life, and they’re much more relaxed at work.

office-work

First of all, there’s not so much of a well-defined hierarchy in organisations as in certain Asian countries, where there is a deep-rooted culture of competitiveness and ranks based on seniority. It has given me the opportunity to ask bold questions and thus actively learn from locals. Secondly, Australians have a good division between work and leisure, which I think is just great. Back in early 2015, I was working at a website with a team of locals, and the sales manager would leave almost everyday at 5:30pm and sometimes earlier. Coming from a country where working extra time for free is not only the daily routine but valued by employers (sadly), I was quite struck by how locals value their time off so as to channel more energy and focus during office hours.

I have always been making sure that I ask a lot of questions, and reflect on the experience – questions about procedures, local laws and rights as a worker in Australia, and how you can use them in your defence.

At work, making friends with locals hasn’t been too hard for me. I have always been making sure that I ask a lot of questions, and reflect on the experience – questions about procedures, local laws and rights as a worker in Australia, and how you can use them in your defence. Many international students do not even know what the minimum wage level is, or where they could seek help when exploited, and it’s largely due to a disconnect with the local community. I think it’s essential knowledge for anyone living in Australia regardless of his or her background. Although governments, companies and individuals should all play a role in facilitating understanding, the key lies in grassroots ties between international students and their local peers, and how they engage each other in important affairs.

I was lucky to have met many amazing people from work, who were more than happy to help me and nowhere near indifferent to me as a newbie. I’m grateful for the connections I made, and it has certainly inspired me to inform others via writing.

It takes two

friendships

Image: Vaughan via Flickr

In friendships, nationalities do not figure. But it’s also important to acknowledge barriers stemming from differences in background, and do something about it. Many say that speaking the local language is the key, or in other words, proficiency makes a big difference, but it’s more about taking a keen interest in local cultures, finding out more about the Australian way of life. It could be from sports, cultural events or just meet-ups at a pub for a pint.

However, no matter what we do, we do it to no avail when locals do not respond to our efforts, or shy away from doing so based on assumptions about us. After all, it takes two sides to build bridges, and each of us have the potential to make important connections as the next generation of leaders and thinkers.

1 comment on this postSubmit yours
  1. This is simply an amazing article for a read! I thoroughly enjoyed the shared experience from Amber who came from the same country. It sent me down my memory lane reflecting on what its been like for me last couple of years of living in australia.
    Thanks Amber and MELD Mag for this great platform of sharing experiences.

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About

Meld Magazine was incorporated as an independent not-for-profit media outlet in September 2008 to reach out to international students in Melbourne, and provide students the opportunity to gain real work experience.

Many international students live in or around the city because of the proximity to their colleges and universities, and that was where we decided to focus our efforts first. Many of us live, work and study locally too. Our editorial team is made of both local and international students, and it has worked to our advantage in providing local content in every sense of the word.

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