Chinese students sitting on grass

Interview with Jack Wang about Chinese international students in Australian universities

CW: Mention of suicide

Jack Wang is the vice-president of the Chinese Scholars and Students Association.

What’s it like for a Chinese student to come to Australia?

Well, to be honest, it’s quite difficult, especially for the first-year students – they just came from home, and they know nothing about Australian society. Also, the majority of families in China only have one child, so these students usually come from backgrounds where their parents cared for them extensively. So, they don’t know how to cook, their English isn’t that good, and they have difficulty making new friends, especially with Aussies because of the cultural backgrounds. In fact, there was one first-year Chinese student who passed away due to suicide, partly because this transition was so difficult.

First-year Chinese students, especially the girls, find it very difficult to enter Australian society. We tend to do a lot of stuff with the girls, but the boys usually take better care of themselves. Maybe it’s because they don’t really want to seek help, but the girls are more talkative, the CSSA has a lot of female members. The girls tend to talk amongst themselves a lot more.

There might be a little bit of racism. There’s more of a glass ceiling or stereotyping case. There was a lecturer this year, who wrote in Chinese ‘no cheating’; there was actually a big debate about this. It’s hard to say. I would say that racism does happen, but not to such a large degree.

And regarding the language barrier, it’s difficult for both sides. Chinese students are good at written English, but not spoken. It’s difficult for them to speak English, and comprehend spoken English. It’s also difficult for Aussies to understand what we’re saying.

Furthermore, many Chinese people aren’t very outgoing. They’re much more comfortable with Chinese-only events. So, the CSSA often holds basketball and soccer events catered towards Chinese people.

There is a divide between Chinese international students and others – why do you think it exists?

First of all – the language barrier. When I first came here, I had no idea what the Aussies were saying. We’re also more used to the American-English accent since that’s what we learn in school.

Secondly, there’s the cultural difference. For example. I went to a housewarming today, and they told us to ‘bring a plate’. One of the Chinese students just brought a plate, with no food in it! Another example of this cultural difference is that in China when I want to build a relationship with you, I’d ask you to dinner, so that we can talk. In Australia, people ask to grab a beer or coffee together, which Chinese students don’t really feel comfortable with.

Also, a lot of Chinese students who come to ANU are more focused on academics rather than socialising.

A few members of the Australian public have been very vocal on media, voicing their distaste in Chinese international students. Some have even accused them of spying on Australia for the Chinese government. Others accuse them of spreading the Chinese government’s propaganda in Australian universities and stifling free speech. What do you think about these claims?

People keep asking me this question – are you guys spying on us? Do you work for the embassy? Do you get funding from the embassy? I mean, come on. We are not. Maybe they’re saying this because CSSA is everywhere, around the world – but as long as there’s a Chinese student in a university, there will be a CSSA; like a brotherhood or sisterhood. We have more interesting things to do than spy on Australian students.

The CSSA has been a target of a lot of bad press. To clear up some misconceptions, the CSSA’s of all these different universities are not all connected to each other. The CSSA here, we – view ourselves as a cultural ambassador between Australia and China. Our priority is to make sure students understand the culture and don’t break the law. For example, one of the first-year students was conducting an online transaction, when the other guy just ran away with the money. Since they we not too good at English, we took them to the police station, to help with understanding the situation and culture.

Regarding free speech, there’s been a lot of controversy in the news about that map during a lecture that showed a part of China’s territory as India’s. I can’t comment on specific issues, but there is definitely a difference between the cultural backgrounds of the two countries. Australians are a bit hypocritical in terms of free speech; Australians firmly believe in it, but there are many things you can’t say; strongly contrary opinions to political issues like feminism, or marriage equality, to name a couple. In China, we can say whatever we want, but only in small social bubbles. It’s not something we do because of the government, but more because the Chinese people will disagree with you. We do have freedom of speech, but not in the Australian way. It’s not that doesn’t China doesn’t practise freedom of speech; it’s more that Australia and China practise it in very different ways.

It seems that the media is just picking on Chinese students because we don’t tend to get involved in the political side of things. Furthermore, I think this is a process of two cultures coming to terms with the inconsistencies within their cultures. There has been a recent boom in Chinese students and Chinese people in general coming to Australia, and this discussion in the media only shows that people want to talk about it and overcome cultural differences.

What can we do from now on?

This is what I do – I believe that when I meet a new person, they’re like a mirror. When you smile, they will smile back, and when you say ‘hello’ to them, they will say ‘hello’ back to you. We need more of an understanding and respect between the cultures. We aren’t evil; we aren’t crazy. We just need to understand each other.