A Reflection Across Oceans

Daniel Kang is an international student from Singapore studying law and international relations and is the International Representative at Burgmann College. He hopes that other international students may truly appreciate and celebrate the sweetness Australia has to offer.

It’s been 10 months since I left Singapore and arrived in Canberra. Before stating my initial observations, I’d like to first acknowledge that my views are by no means representative of other international students. Residing at a college on campus has definitely granted me more intimate insights into local culture, and I hope that value may be found in these.

I had apprehensions about moving to a foreign land. I remember being already overwhelmed by an immense sense of loss and separation on my seven-hour flight here. In particular, I was incredibly worried that I would be an unwelcome addition, imposing myself upon Australian society. This became a particularly acute fear after I read a survey that found 30 per cent of Australians to be casual racists, which must mean that the other 70 per cent are full-time.

Jokes aside, I’ve had an incredibly positive experience here. While having first arrived in Canberra last semester forced me to jump deep into the Canberran cold, I still found immeasurable warmth in the winter chill.

I’ve found your openness incredibly positive and definitely welcoming, and amidst all the cultural nuances that have surprised me, one, in particular, stands out quite nicely. Almost all the people I’ve met have seasoned our conversations with ‘Australianisms’ – even though I’m clearly an outsider, an ‘other’ in your society.

In contrast, I’ve generally observed that Singaporeans code-switch from our pidgin and use standard English when we talk with an outsider, and the reason for this goes beyond seeking efficacy in our communication. I wouldn’t drop my colloquialisms simply because I recognise that you are an outsider, because it just seems inappropriate, or strange even, to invite you into my culture in such an intimate way.

I believe this stems from our differences in pride – the Australian is unabashedly proud, with this openness that translates into a celebration of culture through actions and speech. However, Singaporeans are eager to adapt instead of include. Any attempts to warmly weasel into our culture would be undoubtedly appreciated, yet still jarring. Perhaps this reflects a Singaporean obsession with competition, already inherent in our language. Two words in particular come to mind – kiasu (fear/afraid of losing) and chiong (to charge into, commonly used in a work/study context). These are words that we, strangely enough, use to celebrate values of pragmatism and diligence in our society. To be kiasu means opportunistic – jumping at any and every deal, to shine against every rival and against all odds. But herein lies the problem: this obsession costs us healthy introspection, our eagerness to be valued and respected translates into an occasional hesitation to assert our pride in self-celebration. We become so consumed in one-upping and meeting you beyond the halfway point that we forget to allow you to reciprocate.

Unfortunately, our emphasis on pragmatism, instilled into us by every facet of society, means most of us look at issues mathematically as puzzles to be solved, where the individual is omitted from the equation. Of course there definitely are exceptions, but the average Singaporean doesn’t trade ideas, simply because we insulate ourselves from them. Every child can vouch for a general dislike – or even hatred of current affairs – for issues beyond our island. My compatriots turn their backs on ‘non-compulsory reading’ with words like ‘boring’, ‘irrelevant’ and ‘no use’. The bulk of Singaporean children abhor extra-curricular knowledge with so much zeal that our education system has mandated newspaper readings, and current affair discussions – we’ve even had to push for mandatory reading periods to somehow stimulate interest in the chore.

Again, I feel that our hunger for success is unfortunate. Every Singaporean child is taught to always stay ahead in our rat races, every son and daughter expected to reach standards of excellence that rise by the day. In reaching incredible speeds, we’ve come to forget to watch the grass grow, to notice how blue the sky is, and to develop an interest beyond numbers and letters, the grades and salaries that define us.

I wish for Singaporeans to adopt the self-assured confidence, perhaps, that is a flame of strength kindled in every Australian that somehow empowers this society: most, if not every person I’ve met, has confidence in the future in a way that has evaded my own people. Australians have not been consumed by the worries and the problems an uncertain future holds. Instead, every person feels a master of their own. The immeasurable value you place on self-care, on a holistic personal development and the general thirst to enjoy the world as your oyster instead of just striving to be its pearl is undoubtedly refreshing.

Do not mistake this for pitiful lamentation; never would I wish for my upbringing to be any different, never would I denounce my culture for its flaws. My society and its culture is perhaps young jade, eager to shine, with time it is my hope that it mellows and matures and celebrates its hue — right now I certainly think we have much to glean from yours.

I am now a thousand miles from home, and while it is difficult for me to find it natural to say, I feel happy to be part of Canberra, and I am glad to think of it as my society – at least for now – in every sense and every way.