Australia needs more cultural ambassadors to bridge gap between locals and migrant communities

The Sydney Opera House (pictured) lit up with a red hue to celebrate the 2020 Chinese lunar New Year festival Source: sydney-nye

By Xiao Ming

THE SYDNEY POST – 20-04-2020 – After hearing reports last year that there were only 130 Australians of non-Chinese heritage proficient in Chinese, I was shocked. I never expected there to be so few as I had met a couple of bright Anglo-Aussie students that spoke Chinese quite well at university. I was seriously expecting the number to be about 1,000, as China has become Australias main trading partner and our regions largest power.

If there was anything more clear from my days at university and being employed as a cultural ambassador, local Australian students and Chinese international students never really saw eye-to-eye. I was often called in to handle disputes between students due to my high level of English and Chinese proficiency and daily experiences with both Eastern and Western cultures, allowing me to see situations from a wide range of perspectives.

Group work in tutorials was a common theme, what struck me if anything was how divided the classrooms were. Locals sat with locals and Chinese students sat with Chinese students. Some lecturers didnt particularly like this and carefully planned social science experiments placing an even number of locals with International students. I, of course, had to become a diplomat, interpreter and even negotiator at times even outside of my former part-time job.

What became increasingly apparent was a breakdown of communication. I found myself having to follow up with both locals and Chinese students to meet assignment deadlines. Chinese students often complained of the non-willingness from locals to communicate with them, often casting them aside and ignoring them. While local students complained of the other never voicing opinions or asking questions regarding chosen topics and assigned tasks. It was clear the communication and learning styles were utterly different.

I remember that the Chinese students would often say to me that their English had dropped off considerably while living in Australia. The students often told me locals didnt seem to have the time or patience for them, making them turn to other Chinese students. Then I would go to groups of locals and ask their opinions, on occasion I would hear banter along the lines of how they thought Chinese students spoke poor English, and especially in social science departments, laughing at them for their political views and alleged lack of social skills.

Upon thinking about remarks made by local students. It takes me to an example I have experienced often regarding the differences between the recruitment of foreign students in Australia and China.

Chinese students have to learn English to a high standard and be able to communicate effectively in order to apply for a visa to enter into Australian universities. Meanwhile, foreign students applying to Chinese universities never have to learn Chinese, and institutions purposely lower requirements to get as many foreigners into fully English speaking classes as possible. A foreign face in a Chinese spoken lecture theatre is a rarity in China with foreign students never interacting with locals as Chinese students in Australia have to.

Quite a few local students are unaware of what barriers international students have to cross in order to be heard in university classrooms. This made me think that despite Chinese students often getting the blame from locals for their unwillingness to participate, many local students dont seem to have the time for them.

Australias geographical isolation from the rest of the world hasnt helped. Being an island nation with no land borders, exposure to other cultures is not common and even discouraged by some. Combine that with a distinctly Anglo-Celtic cultural heritage and the former White Australia Policy, Australia hasnt done particularly well, or never really needed to do well in understanding other cultures in comparison to their European and North American counterparts.

However times have changed, monolingual people are at a massive disadvantage in a globalised world. Australians more than ever need to learn foreign languages as not only to improve their own prospects, but to move Australia further into the international environment and be able to compete with the rest of the world.

With language also comes cultural acquisition and the ability to break down barriers and stereotypes. Learning about or living with people of other cultural backgrounds is an antidote to racism and prejudice.

Many of the Australians who come back from abroad with language and cultural skills can also become ambassadors bridging gaps with immigrant communities. It is often seen that the children of first generation immigrants find themselves having to bridge their parents gap with mainstream Australia, acting as ambassadors between their communities of origin and the rest of society and vice-versa. It is extremely rare, almost unheard of for Australians coming from Anglo-Celtic cultural backgrounds becoming cultural ambassadors themselves.

This can also change stereotypes of the majority that some migrants and their families hold. Many in immigrant communities may turn inward due to previous discriminatory behaviour from a minority of bigots who dont represent the majority. Locals bridging gaps can also allow for more disenfranchised migrants to be able to better survive in Australian society, building trust with locals and making positive contributions.

Poor behaviour from some members of society serve to further strengthen the divide between groups, an example being the recent discriminatory behaviour against Chinese and Asian Australians. The violence that has been perpetrated is graphic and disturbing. Despite recent condemnation from Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the recent anti-Chinese shift in mainstream media and society combined with COVID-19 rumours, has left Chinese-Australians getting caught up in cold war-era conspiracies led by people that cant even speak a word of Chinese. Someone with an understanding of Chinese culture would know there is something seriously wrong going on here.

Chinese students also have to tread carefully and continue to be self-aware, as there are some local media outlets hungry to expose any small misstep they take, attracting unwanted attention from bigots who often have a field day after reading such negative stories.

There is no denying that Australia is a multicultural society with many coming from different backgrounds to form the basis of Australian culture. Despite populists trying to convince the more gullible members of society that multiculturalism has failed, it has not. If there are a lot more locals reaching out and working together with migrant communities, then multiculturalism can work to our advantage bringing us closer together.

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