International students vs Long term diaspora.

racism Apr 20, 2020

Right now, there are around 700,000 international students from Asia enrolled in Australian universities. Although many were unable to return or move to Australia due to Covid-19 being conveniently timed with the start of semester, many of the 700,000 students here are without jobs, without family, without their support networks and most importantly, with no way to return “home”. They are essentially stuck here, not just during a public health crisis but during a time where violence against East Asian people is high even in a progressive, multicultural city such as Melbourne.

What can we do to help?

We can firstly keep universities accountable for supporting the wellbeing of their students. If you know of any lecturers, subject coordinators, professors, don’t be afraid to ask them, “how are you supporting your international students?”

Secondly, for us in the Asian Australian community, I think that we can try and examine our own feelings about recently arrived immigrants (because I know that there are lots of feelings) and perhaps turn the clock back to our student days and think about the divide between international students and those of us who grew up in Australia. In doing so, I think we can create spaces or come up with our own solutions that look out for this group of isolated young people.

Let me tell you my own story in full embarrassing detail:

All through my school years, I worked really really hard to assimilate. I made sure that I was as white as possible; eating ham sandwiches for lunch, wearing clothes from Surf Dive and Ski and never ever bringing any of my Sanrio stationery to school.

I also only spoke English with my family in the presence of others and would shrivel and die when my parents happened to bump into other Japanese people - WHY is there so much bowing involved?

And then, after years of successful high school assimilation, I turned up for my first semester at the University of Melbourne only to be confronted by so many Asian international students who actually dared to act Asian in public.

HOW can they bring their thermos’ to class and openly eat their Asian lunches in public?

HOW can they speak their own language in Australia so loudly?

HOW can they bring all their cute and shiny things … without feeling ashamed?!

It was one of the most confronting things I’ve ever experienced. All my 13 years of making sure that I was white enough, and here they were, these international students unabashedly looking and being Asian for everyone to see.

How dare they.

As a 19 year old, my first reaction was to despise them with a vengeance. Fearing that I might be confused for an international student, I tried to be even more white (not sure how) and prayed that no one would confuse me for one.

Little did I know that what I was really processing was a deep grief for the culture that I had repressed and refused. I was grieving for the loss of my mother tongue and the exhausting process of hiding myself for all these years.

It all got too overwhelming and confusing for me and this led me to drop out of uni and move to Japan for three years (after shaving my head and living in an Ashram in South India for 6 months - more on this another day).

Fast forward a good 15 years of a lot of self inquiry and a lot of healing, here I am now stuck to an ex-international student for the foreseeable future. Seems like some kind of sick revenge from the universe.

“You hate international students? Well here’s one that you’ll have to spend the rest of your life with. LOL”

Fresh off the boat.

What I came to understand after all of these years was that I hated having to witness FOB-ness (fresh of the boat-ness) in others because immigration hadn’t been an easy experience for me. It was confronting seeing others struggling to fit in or completely missing the mark on Australian norms and made me have to remember all the times that I also had no idea what was going on. On the flip side, I also hated not feeling “Asian enough” in the presence of anyone from Asia too.

But, once I brought these feelings to the surface, I found that there are so many stories of immigration, displacement, living between two worlds, surviving without an extensive network and so many more, that I share with the East Asian FOB’s of Australia.

Although our experiences of being Asian diaspora are so different to those who spent the majority of their childhood growing up in Asia, we must remember that we are essentially the cultural bridge that can support recently arrived immigrants feel safe and welcome in this country.


If you’re an international student reading this right now, get in touch with me via email HERE as all my future resources will be available to you for free. Alternatively, don’t forget that your university is not only responsible for your learning, but for your wellbeing during your studies - reach out to them, ask for resources and ask them to be translated if need be.

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