A Letter to the Editors: COVID, and the Importance of International Student Voices31 August 2020
Earlier this semester, I received some criticism for an op-ed I wrote against the PM’s suggestion that international students leave Australia in response to COVID-19 — including by students from my own country. They echoed what was implicit in the government’s comments: that since we were lucky to even be here, we should duck our heads, not antagonise the establishment, work, and soldier on. This is foreign soil, they reminded me. White soil — upon which most immigrants must claw twice as hard to get half as far. So, hush. Don’t make things harder for everyone else by lashing out.
I empathise deeply with these comments. I get it — that instinct for self-preservation, the awareness that as we have little- if any- power here, our success depends upon being good immigrants who are neither critical nor abrasive, that we must not drift too far from our designated, law-abiding worker/consumer role. We must, as international students, know our place. Though I once thought this cowardice, I know better now. It is a survival mechanism, and for many students, a necessary one.
But, though I empathise, I feel I must disagree. For what has struck me more than anything else during the pandemic is just how easy it is for international students to be othered. Just how slight a shift it requires for us to move from assets to liabilities, guests to burdens, from being coyly courted to being assaulted and told to go back home. This should have been unsurprising, for our position was always a precarious one. For many, the international student experience was one fraught with isolation, financial stress, and academic struggle. This is known. We are immigrants, hopefuls, it is the price we pay for the distant promise of a better future.
But this does not mean we must answer injustice with silence. COVID-19, which like some god-awful roving searchlight in the sky, illuminating one long-festering societal rot after another, has thrown into sharp relief the dangerous instability of the status occupied by many of Australia’s international students. It has shown how easily those who once welcomed can forsake and dehumanise us.
I don’t know what it’ll mean to be an international student in the world that emerges from the pandemic. What I do know, however, is that our voices will be desperately important going forwards. I think the pandemic has displayed why international students need to tell our stories, to spill our struggles in all their messiness, nuance, and occasional profanity across front pages. For by doing so, we confront those who would other us, who would reduce us to a silent monolith characterised only by some racist caricature, or worse yet, a state of permanent victimhood, ignoring the fullness of our humanity. In these times, telling our stories becomes in itself a radical act. One of protest.
Over the past few months, I have seen myself and my fellow international students represented in myriad degrading ways in the discourse surrounding COVID-19. A figure on a balance sheet, a statistic, a talking point in a politician’s speech. This discourse emerges from all those who do not bother to consult an international student for their experience, out of convenience, or idleness, or perhaps something darker. It is the ugly twin of the same discourse that painted us — in better times — as economic stalwarts of Australia’s educational industry. Regardless of its origins, I am tired. I am tired, and desperate to see more international students get to speak for themselves, to represent their communities in all their rich complexity. To see more of us carve out platforms where we can speak up, without fear and with radical, discomfiting honesty.
As an international student, I understand how difficult speaking out can be. How I wish things were different. If only it were easier for us to express ourselves with abandon, if only the potential consequences were not as terrifying.
As international students, we are often made to feel like trespassers whose voices do not matter because we bought our way into hallowed halls. In response, we tend to double down, to minimise ourselves in the face of unreasonable demands, and walk through the corridors set before us. Often, this desire to be a model minority silences us. Maybe, we think, if we study hard enough, and are obliging enough, we might just be rewarded with the white picket fence and the Australian Dream.
So, while I have nothing but respect for those who do not speak out because the stakes are just too high, I hope those of us with the privilege and capacity can do so. Ours are voices that reflect a multiplicity of struggles; voices that subvert our status as silent beneficiaries of Australia’s generosity. Voices that, now more than ever, must be heard.