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Forum challenges perceptions of international students in Australia

Grace Yew

Tue Jul 31 2012

Are international students and local students really that different? Photo: Eastop

ARE international students so different from the rest of Australian society? That’s a question the “First Generation of Multicultural Australians and International Students” forum explored. Grace Yew reports.

Tough questions about international students’ place and treatment within Australian society were addressed at a forum at the University of Melbourne earlier this month.

The symposium, titled “First Generation of Multicultural Australians and International Students: Key driving forces of challenging social categorisations”, was co-ordinated by the Asia Institute’s Dr Jun Ohashi and Dan Ednie.

Dr Ohashi said the purpose of the forum was to promote intercultural communication and confront preconceived notions of what constitutes cultural normalcy.

“The objective was to showcase the beauty of intercultural learning,” he said.

“People from different backgrounds can cross the borders of different cultures to question what they consider to be normal, and realise that it is not actually normal to others.

 “Intercultural learning gives us this opportunity to become critical thinkers, to challenge ourselves and our day-to-day activities.”

Attendees at the conference were mainly members of various academic, housing, and government institutions.

Guests of honour included higher education authority Professor Simon Marginson and award-winning author Alice Pung, renowned for her literary examinations of multiculturalism and identity.

Ms Pung presented a historical analysis of local perceptions of Asians, including the controversial claims that neither Asian-Australians nor international students can assimilate into Australian culture.

She also elaborated on the White Australia policy and discriminatory legislation at the dawn of the 20th century, when immigrants’ entry to Australia was conditional on their ability to learn English and pass dictation tests.

She presented old government propaganda to the audience in a demonstration of White Australia’s past prejudice toward the ‘yellow peril’.

She said seeing openly racist material as the “first representation of (Asian) faces” left a negative impression on them.

“White Australia has trained us to spot differences,” she said.

“Even growing up as an Asian-Australian, you see that Asians in Australian media had to make fun of themselves.

“It makes sense in the Australian vernacular, as piss-taking is part of Australian humour.”

Nevertheless, Ms Pung asserted such negative portrayals of Asians inspired self-loathing in non-white ethnicities.

But she highlighted differences between Asian Australians and international students.

“Growing up Asian-Australian is very different from being an international student,” said Ms Pung

“There’s this perception that international students are not like us, living in high-rise flats in the city…but we interact with international students on a daily basis, whether we know it or not.

“If you walk into a Chinese restaurant, chances are you’ll be dealing with an international student.”

Many international students, added Ms Pung, occupy an “invisible economy” that is unprotected by the law.

“These people are scholars and work in the lowest-paid industries,” she said.

“This is not the way to treat scholars who come from overseas and contribute to our economy.”

Ms Pung also suggested international students faced difficult expectations in terms of culture.

“When I went to school, the expectation was that you were either bright yellow – pure Asian – or white, fitting in and speaking perfect English,” she said.

“It’s what we expect of refugees and subconsciously, what we expect of international students.”

Nevertheless, she added, ethnicity was nothing to be ashamed of.

“My grandmother always taught me that we were gold and not yellow,” said Ms Pung.

“This is our identity. This is where we belong.”

After the presentations, guests engaged in informal debates on topics including stereotyping, segregation, academic aid, and further opportunities for domestic-international interaction.

The workshop contributions were collated by conference staff, and are currently being compiled for submission to government and academic bodies.