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Local and international students – who should make the first move?

Leon Saw

Thu Jul 26 2012

International students

IS it really that hard? Former international student Leon Saw weighs in on the debate over local and international student relations.

At the Council of International Students Australia (CISA) National Conference 2012 held recently in Brisbane, I was privy to a discussion about ways to improve interactions between local and international students.

There topic sparked many animated responses suggestions put forward from international student delegates. Many suggested grand ideas like holding multicultural fairs and bazaars in university campuses. Others lamented how such suggestions were inadequate. One delegate even went as far as to say more broad-spectrum, scorched-earth ideas should be adopted.

“These multicultural events only attract the Australian students who are already interested, not the ones who don’t care and ignore international students,” she said.

All this talk about international-local relations got me thinking. Maybe I had been really, really lucky. In my time as an international student, I don’t remember having any issues communicating with, and eventually befriending, the local students.

I’ve been in Australia for almost five years now. I have studied and worked here, and am currently volunteering at Meld. In all these years, I’ve met Australians from various backgrounds and quite a few of them have become really good friends of mine.

One of them I met at an after-class drinks session at the university bar. We discovered we had both served in our respective countries’ militaries. His stint in the Australian Defence Force included tours of duty in the Middle East, while mine in the Singapore Armed Forces was just the general two-year mandatory service. Other than his deployment to the Middle East, our respective experiences had plenty of parallels and there was mutual respect for having gone through them.

Another friendship of mine has its roots in more trivial circumstances. The person in question was a friend of a friend who found out I was organising a game of mahjong and asked to join in.

I had bigotedly assumed that he was kidding because he was Caucasian Australian and neither of his parents were of Chinese descent – but he’d apparently picked up the game from his mother who played it socially. Thus we had our first of many game nights to come. Subsequent ones would feature board games or video games instead of mahjong and would include many other people.

I absolutely understand that being in a foreign land, international students would have a tendency to identify themselves with their various nationalities and band together along those lines to tackle issues like local-international student relations.

But all you need to do is reread my examples above and you’ll see there are more nuanced, grassroots approaches to solving the friendships conundrum.

Perhaps the international student delegates should consider tempering the monolithic charm offensive, which I feel just accentuates the differences between domestic and international students. Not sure what I mean? Read this story we wrote earlier in the year about the ‘us’ and ‘them’ phenomena.

While it’s tempting to find safety in numbers, to identify with the cohort of students who have come from the same country, there is merit for international students to learn to find his/her identity as an individual – and maybe then, local students can, as one student to another, relate to their international student counterparts better without feeling intimidated by their international origins.

However, I would like to point out that even as individuals, some international students just won’t hit it off with local students. There are a number reasons why this might happen. The local student in question could be xenophobic or just plain racist. The same could be said about the international student.

But that has nothing to do with the Australian local or international student population as a whole, and everything to do with the individual.