International Students

Culture Shock

16 October 2017

Wing Kwong is proud of her black hair.

She’d never thought of colouring it until she arrived in Melbourne from Foshan, China, to study a Bachelor of Arts. Here, she noticed her Asian friends tinting their hair bright blondes and gingers. She decided to try it.

“But I told the hairdresser that I want a colour that’s very close to black,” she said. “So she gave me a colour that would stay black in a dark place, but would become brown when you’re outside in the sun.”

She associates her dark hair with her Chinese ethnicity.

“I chose a dark colour so that there’s only a small nuance between my previous and current appearances. My sense of self, including habits and interests, is still very Asian, and I feel a bit uncomfortable making a drastic change in my appearance. I feel that I will lose my own self if I do it.”

While studying in Australia, international students often encounter similar issues regarding their sense of self. They’ve moved out of their established social networks, leaving behind long time school friends and family, and stepped into an unfamiliar milieu. They often have to decide to what extent they’ll allow their experience abroad to change their identity.

When Indonesian student, Rebecca Orah, arrived last year to study Commerce, she found that there was a sense of freedom in Melbourne compared to her home city of Yogyakarta.

“I came from a very traditional country where I have to maintain my family reputation. If I did something wrong the whole city would know.”

But even free from Yogyakarta’s gossip, she still regulates her behaviour. Back home, she’s not allowed to have sleepovers, while here she can play PlayStation at her friend’s place and come home at 3am. Even so, she’ll skip the clubbing. Like Wing, she’s navigating a middle ground between acknowledging her new social context and respecting her old one.

“I’m being respectful of the freedom that my parents give to me,” she said.

For Marcelo Díaz, his time in Melbourne has pushed him to make radical changes. When he first arrived from Quito, Ecuador to study urban planning, he was shy.

“I was pretty introverted. I didn’t really like to hang out with people or talk to strangers,” he says.

Upon realising he knew no one in Melbourne, he tried to become more outgoing.

“At home, your circle of friends is really narrow. You see the same people over and over again. The main difference here is that you get friends from all different nationalities, from any socio-economic status. You really open your mind to other ideas, other ways of doing things.”

Rebecca says that even speaking in English lets her slip into a different persona.

“There’s a different personality speaking English,” she says.  “I become more expressive, and I become more confident.”

Wing, instead, takes on a more calm persona when speaking English. She puts this down to the vocabulary. “Most of the words that I know are related to academic work, or basic conversation where you don’t really need to show your emotion.” She prefers her outgoing, excitable Cantonese self over her more restrained English speaking one.

As academic at the Asia Institute, Dr Claire Maree, points out, “International students will often not be moving just geographically but also in terms of language, maybe using their second, third, or fourth language in their daily life.”

This can have unexpected ramifications.

“Language identity – what language you speak and how you express yourself – can be very much thought of as central to who you are,” she said. “So when you’re doing that in another language, you have to kind of find the customs, the social expectations, the stereotypes, and see how you can move through them in a way that is going to get you through your day.”

But it’s not just about survival. “For a lot of people when you start using a second language it actually gives you an avenue to explore a different sense of self.”

The opportunity to explore this has been transformative for Marcelo. “I thought I knew about the world until I came here,” he says. “You realise what you know, what you don’t know. You open your mind to other ideas, other ways of doing things.” And in being compelled to adapt to this challenging new environment, he believes he’s been fundamentally altered.

“I know I’ve grown so much,” he said. “To have this experience, it changes you at a really deep level that sometimes you don’t realise.”

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