It appears I’m already late. Although I only left my flat five minutes ago, my phone flashes with a message from my classmate to let me know she’s already in the city with her friend.
We are at tramstop 🙂
I text my apologies, I’ll be at least another 20 minutes.
Don’t be worry. We arrived earlier than we appointed.
Mandy* and Amber* don’t see me approaching until I’m right in front of them; they chatter and giggle on a bench. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mandy quite so animated. She’s just returned from a trip to the Northern Territory and her face is uncharacteristically red from the sun. She’s regaling Amber with stories from her trip, and as she switches to English to include me, her speech suddenly becomes halted and hesitant. The rapid fluency with which she spoke to Amber all but disappears. I know her enthusiasm for her trip remains, but I also know she’s now not giving her story any justice, restricted as she is by a language barrier she cannot seem to overcome.
Mandy and Amber are two Masters students studying Global Media Communications at the University of Melbourne. Mandy is 23, Amber 22. They arrived almost a year ago last July, just two of the 88,000 Chinese international students who enrolled in an Australian university in 2014. They’re quickly approaching what will be their first year in Melbourne, and yet by their own admission they remain outsiders, mere visitors in a country they will call home for at least two years.
Being a foreigner, especially one without the local language, is hard. I’ve done it. Many of my friends have done it. The common denominator between us seems to be those awful first three months upon arriving, when the culture shock renders you at the mercy of those around you and the language barrier prevents any meaningful communication. You’re isolated, lonely and homesick like you’d never thought possible. And so it is with great reluctance that you drag yourself away from Skype and out into the world of the other, where the supermarket cashiers survey you with a smirk and bank tellers talk too quickly. Time and again you strike up conversations with strangers, something you never would have done at home, because you’re friendless, also something you’ve never truly experienced before. You go to the cinema alone to be surrounded by others. You latch on to those who show kindness and patience, and persist with those who don’t.
You busy yourself, because anything is better than being in your little apartment, pining for home. And then suddenly, seemingly overnight, it all comes together and you wonder what the problem was, if it was ever really as bad as you thought. Your language proficiency has soared almost to the point of fluency. You have a circle of friends. You understand and embrace the cultural differences, and you are irrevocably changed by your experience.
For Mandy and Amber, however, anytime they are outside the Chinese community they seem permanently suspended in those first three lonely months. Mandy’s been in Melbourne for almost a year, and yet she says she still speaks Mandarin more than English. In class she is “afraid of talking because [she thinks] people can’t understand.” She wrote her first essay in Mandarin and then translated it directly into English. Similarly, Amber’s life is very much contained within the Melbourne Chinese community: she works part-time in a Chinese restaurant and shares a small apartment with a Chinese roommate. They tell me that between the two of them, they have two local friends raised in Melbourne. One is the housemate of another Chinese friend and they are not close.
The large Chinese presence within both the University and the city of Melbourne has awarded Mandy and Amber the safety net of a shared cultural understanding. Who wouldn’t flock to that which is familiar when your environment is not? It’s all too understandable, but the consequences have left the two frustrated. “We want to experience Australian culture,” Amber insists, and yet neither Mandy nor Amber’s expectations of Melbourne have been met. Attracted to the University of Melbourne for its international reputation, the two are more than happy with their studies.
It is the more abstract, nuanced hopes they held for their life here that remain unfulfilled: Mandy and Amber wanted to experience a new culture, master their English, befriend their domestic classmates. “We are in Australia, [so] we should… behave more like [we’re in] a foreign country,” Amber insists, and yet neither her nor Mandy’s reality reflects this. She acknowledges that sometimes, she may as well simply be back at home in China. As if trying to prove how difficult it is to separate themselves from their Chinese identity, our waitress strikes up a conversation with them in Mandarin. It turns out she too is a student at the University, and by sheer coincidence, a semester ahead of Mandy and Amber in the same course.
What’s it like to pass your days here but never really fit in? To be marked as the other all the time: an outsider in class, a passing traveller within Melbourne’s Chinese community, an absent daughter within your family. To sit through a tutorial and not really understand what was discussed, to miss the cultural references so often taken for granted as common knowledge.
“It’s something like lonely,” Amber replies softly.
How then, to overcome the loneliness that comes with not fitting in? You find comfort in your friends, Amber replies while nudging Mandy affectionately. She is seemingly unaware that it is this comfort that is the very source of the outsider-loneliness she describes. A better solution is, of course, an easy one, intuitive. And yet it is one that no one will vocalise, for fears of being branded politically incorrect, ignorant, racist. Rachel Withers, President of the University of Melbourne’s Student Union, offers it haltingly and reluctantly, unable to find a way to soften its blow: “Mingle a little bit more. It would get easier.”
Aiding the transition of a large number of international students who share the same country of origin is a difficult task, Withers says, and she nominates a lack of English fluency as perhaps one of the biggest obstacles faced. Mandy and Amber acknowledge this problem too, and explain that Japanese and Korean students will speak to each other in English even if everyone present shares the same native language. Mandy is clearly impressed by this and it is not a practice either she or Amber have adopted. Throughout the night as we sip away at our coffee, one will translate for the other when I speak too quickly or use words with which they are not familiar, rather than asking me to rephrase what I’ve said or explain its meaning. It is “weird,” Mandy explains, to speak a second language in a group when there is a shared first. The greater problem, however, is the impatience and irritation that comes with a lack of fluency when trying to recount an anecdote to a friend, or make a quick joke, which sees any effort to speak English abandoned. I see it throughout the night, this frustration at being unable to adequately express yourself, this frustration of knowing you’re not presenting your real self because you simply cannot make a witty comeback or speak as eloquently as you’d like. For Mandy, it manifests in rapid blinking; Amber becomes more subdued.
When I ask the University Union’s Education (Public Affairs) Officer, Conor Serong, how to overcome the assimilation and isolation problems facing the Chinese international students, he’s stumped: it is perhaps the only time throughout our discussion that he cannot provide me with a confident answer. While the Union is aware of both the academic and social difficulties Chinese international students can face throughout their time in Melbourne, Serong concedes that overcoming them “is a real challenge”. The Union does offer a range of different support services to international students. Yet the problem is that for those arriving from an overseas institution that don’t have a strong student union presence, or indeed any union, “the idea of coming to the Student Union for help is just completely unknown to a lot of these students,” thus making it extremely difficult for the Union to then address their needs and concerns.
“Why do you go away?” English author Terry Pratchett once wrote. “So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too.”
For Mandy and Amber, their time in Melbourne represents a strange melange of emotions. Despite the aloneness she has described, Amber still thinks her time here will be “the best two years,” and, speaking with a wisdom I would typically associate only with the elderly, tells me, “We are young now and [it] is a very beautiful age.” They love Melbourne and are determined to make the most of their time in Australia, constantly jetting off on tours to explore the country at every chance they get.
Perhaps their international student experience has rendered the two, if not stronger, then more resilient. Certainly, they have experienced living independently and have battled a bureaucracy in a foreign language, but they have also known the ache of leaving a sister behind and felt the helplessness and isolation possible in a room full of others. Both are lonely experiences, but also ones which mark and shape a character. They may never transcend their outsider status, but they will return home with a greater appreciation for that which they left behind.
“Coming back to where you started,” Pratchett added, “Is not the same as never leaving.”
*Names changed to protect identities