A university subject about contemporary Australia for international students – most of them in the country for only a semester – is an education indeed. For me, the tutor. I always tell them (partly in the hope of getting them talking from the beginning) that I learn at least as much about Australia through their eyes as they do. I have always lived here, I tell them, aside from some brief sojourns in the US and UK. Perhaps I have an overly benign attitude to Australia’s (perceived?) egalitarianism, relatively trouble-free multiculturalism, and longstanding democracy. Perhaps, I tell them, I need to have this problematised by an outsider’s eyes.
For the most part polite and respectful, the last thing this melange of Asian (mainly Sri Lankan with some single representatives of South East Asia), US and northern European twentysomethings would wish to do is cause a problem, much less problematising. However, they do it by default.
Pauline Hanson is of course one hurdle. Curiously, last year’s batch of internationals (proportionally, pretty much the same groupings) brought Hanson up as a phenomenon. They’d heard of her and were worried about her influence (an Asian student was adamant that she had made a proclamation on television early in 2004 that she had become a lesbian, a claim I took merely to indicate the degree of her celebrity in the Asia-Pacific). I adjusted the course to pre-empt their queries this year. None of the new group even claimed to have heard of her. Irritated – I see her as a blip we had to have, and a manifestation of perceived disenfranchisement, rather than as an important indicator of Australian attitudes on race – I am stuck with Hanson over my shoulder for the rest of the semester. Students will later write in essays about the ‘Hanson government’ or the about her introduction of racist ideas to Australia; as I feared, they came to ascribe her too much importance. Or do they? In one class, they passionately argue with me that her clear electoral appeal in the late 90s – not to mention the way in which Howard has adopted a number of her ideas – shows that Anglo-Australians are racist. I retreat into entreaties not to generalise.
All students – and this would possibly extend to some Australian students too – have a major difficulty with the appellation ‘Liberal’ on a major conservative political party. By a process of elimination, they tend to assume that since the Liberal party must be ‘liberal’ (it’s like gay pride: why would you claim such a title if you weren’t?) then the Labor party must be the conservative party. Faced with a whole lot of concepts that don’t correlate to America – ‘Democrats’, ‘Republicans’, and the aforementioned Liberals – the Americans tend to zone out on political matters, apart from one student who declares preferential voting to be ‘really lame’.
The Americans and the European students are distinctly different from the Asians, in interesting ways. The Asians have often been in Australia for a longer period of time, know how to engage with it on a day-to-day basis and are, in some measure, respectful of what they see as an interface with The West equal to and interchangeable with the US or Europe. The Europeans and Americans are far less forgiving. It is in their interests to identify elements of Australian culture they see as ludicrously derivative, such as the young Danish men who claim every 20th century Australian painting in the art gallery is an imitation of a well-known European artist (in their defence, they do not mean to be derisive but find this ‘interesting’). Others claim that Australian television is besotted with American television and that Australian television programs – though they cannot name any examples – will soon be swamped under globalisation. Another student writes an essay condemning Australian cities for imitating the USA (you would have to assume a margin comment from her earnest assessor entreating her to read Graeme Davison and Lionel Frost went unnoticed); still another claims that Australian cities are ‘close-knit’ and that this is the reason Shapelle Corby is a cause celebre in Australia in a way that would never happen in the USA.
In this kind of environment, what does one hope that students come away with? Hopefully, some of their preconceptions have been challenged; more commonly, they express disappointment that the subject was largely about non-indigenous Australia’s politics and culture rather than Aboriginal issues, which they naturally see as the unique to this country.
Additionally, they have used the subject to express some of the frustrations they’ve felt during their time in Australia. This is not, strictly speaking, part of the syllabus but in the context of discussion about their Australian experiences it seems relevant. Their complaints might be about the way the University itself lured them – neglecting to mention its distance from the city and lack of decent public transport, for instance – or has treated them since their arrival. Some students are paying $200 a week for accommodation run by private interests near, and recommended by, the University. Perhaps this is the most important lesson they can teach us in the tertiary sector: the little (?) things matter a lot for the international students who provide so much income for the nation’s universities.