Ethnic and cultural diversities are important to society, just like how biodiversity is essential to the natural ecosystem. Biodiversity allows the ecosystem to be more productive and resilient to disturbances because there are many niches. It is the same in our society: ethnic and cultural diversities promote social development by facilitating knowledge sharing and introducing novel ideas that challenge the existing norm.
I spent my childhood in Hong Kong, a place where eastern and western cultures meet due to its colonial history that only ended 20 years ago. Multiculturalism, to me, is a norm. My family celebrates both Lunar New Year and Christmas. The music, movies and TV shows that we consume come from all around the world. I had to learn three languages at school. I guess that is the reason why when I started studying as an international student in Australia, the only cultural shock I had was about how friendly Australians are.
The environment that I grew up in was rather hostile in my opinion. Elitism and competitiveness destroyed the trust between people in the society. Within our culture, it is normal to be cynical. In fact, I was even judged by my relatives for being too nice. They believed that niceness is a disadvantage; in other words, only selfishness would lead to success. I feel like I have made the correct decision to study in Australia, where selfishness is less prevalent. All the friendly phrases that Australians use make me feel included in a welcoming environment. I enjoy living in Canberra because I can finally be who I am, knowing that no one will judge me for that. Back home, I felt like I was judged for the values I hold. For example, no one back at home knows about my sexuality because of the potential judgements. But here, living in Canberra, I finally feel comfortable to expose myself.
As an international student, I had to assimilate into the Australian culture. Interestingly, I did not find it a matter of conflict. My thought process was that, if I live in a country with different culture, I should respect their country and adapt to their way of life. Celebrating local holidays, being informed about Australian politics, learning the history of the landscape and cracking open a cold one with friends, these are a few examples of adaption, in my opinion. It is all about immersion. That does not mean that I should conform to the Western culture completely and change my identity because I believe multiculturalism is beneficial to social development. I have seen people who are not willing to adapt to a different culture, people who are ready to change but find it difficult and people who adapt completely and lose their original identity. Speaking from an international student’s perspective, one of the advantages of studying abroad is that we can broaden our horizons and become more open-minded through immersion of different cultures. If I do not at least try to adapt, I would ask myself, ‘why do you even study overseas?’
It is understandable that why sometimes international students are not welcomed by some students in the universities, if they refuse to assimilate to Australia’s way of life, even to a minute extent. Assimilation is a tricky issue because, on the one hand, I want to accept the cultural perspectives of other people, but on the contrary, I need to preserve my own cultural identity. Striking a balance is often quite challenging.
But, there’s one thing that I’m sure about, which is mutual respect. I think that racism stems from a lack of respect. It’s okay if you disagree with other people’s way of life or values, but always remember to be respectful. We should respect and be grateful to whatever country we go to. We should also be respectful of individuals from other cultures because assimilation is not as easy as we may think.
Although I consider assimilation important, I understand that everyone has a unique set of values and attitudes, so we cannot force other people to adapt. But, I do believe an appropriate level of assimilation is beneficial to personal development. I understand that assimilation can be hard because English might not be our native language, or we are just too shy or scared. But, the ANU is such a supportive and friendly environment; we do not need to be afraid to step out of our comfort zone. Stepping out of my comfort zone has changed my life personally. Being able to openly talk about mental health, sexuality, political orientation and religion; the process of assimilation has truly inspired me. I hope for a day when words like assimilation and multiculturalism are no longer buzzwords, but the social norms. But until that day arrives, there is still a long way to go.