Living in Australia probably made me fully realise what it is like to be foreign, but local friendships helped me truly understand what it means to be Australian.
I know people move for different reasons, many move for the clean air and blue skies of Australia. But that’s not me. I made the move for my passion and eagerness in pursuing career options in journalism, an age-old industry that’s experiencing transformative changes.
What drove me 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.
Making friends through study
It is not hard to think of lecture halls as places where friendships have started for a lot of us, but the struggle is real: a lot of international students see themselves “clustering” with people from the same country, while communication is scarce with their local peers. It is first of all over-simplying 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: actually, 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 feels like a bit of a cop out.
Another factor that has indirectly contributed to the lack of engagement is a lack of diversity plaguing many degrees at universities. For example, many would know that internationals 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% of class comprises of people from her or his 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 difficult political climate and restricted media sphere in their own countries. Around 70-80% of my coursemates are Aussies, while internationals hail from a diversity of places like Indonesia, India, Malaysia and the U.S. It’s a true blessing for me: learning from experienced locals and a miniature of 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.
Finding a pal or two through share-house living
Although friendships can be forged anywhere, anytime, who you live with is absolutely vital. Over the past year or two, I have lived in four places around Melbourne. To be honest, my living situation has been the biggest opportunity to build my understanding of the Australian life.
I started out living in the CBD, but I found it impossible to connect with the soul of the city from inside the CBD alone. I have been living with locals in the inner suburbs ever since. Having met Melbournians from all sorts of backgrounds, ethnicities and working in all sorts of industries: two teachers, a software developer, a masseuse, a social worker, two musicians and two cats. Collectively, these housemates 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.
Sharing stories alone isn’t hard, but it takes much more to live in a share-house. It’s about the ability to transcend differences and understand and respect the habits, quirks and countless possible ways people live their lives. This was when I gained the experience and learnt how to respect others, how to negotiate when in disagreement and how to be straightforward with your concerns.
Some say internationals students can be vulnerable in a share-house situation: I agree, currently we often are. But that’s not the way it has to be.
Making mates at work
At work, making friends with locals has been a great experience. The key is to ask lots of questions. 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 their 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.
In friendships, nationalities do not take part. 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. Friendships could even blossom from a simple pint at the local.