Culture shock and the Chinese student in Australia today
Source: AFP/Peter Parks

Culture shock takes on a different meaning in Lowy Institute’s latest analysis of Chinese students at Australian universities.

What often refers to a feeling of disorientation and other negative feelings about arriving in a foreign land – and usually coming from a mindset that one’s home country is inferior to the host country – doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to the Chinese citizens interviewed by the institute.

Instead, the “culture shock” these students felt is one of surprise. Specifically, a bewilderment over being proved that Australia, world-famous for its “diversity and multiculturalism”, is actually not very diverse or multicultural after all.

It’s a refreshing take from the usual depiction of Asian country bumpkins struggling to adapt to the more modern foreign land they’ve been given the opportunity to study in.

Culture shock can set in at the airport itself. Source: Shutterstock

One student response to the recent media reports depicting Chinese students as “brainwashed” Communist Party agents shows us just how wrong this stale stereotype is.

There is no confusion and the responses reveal a deeper layer than is usually reported. Rei Wong, who is studying Law/Sociology at the University of Sydney, is described as “unflustered” by the controversy.

Rather, he calls for more student organisations to “focus on what we do, be the best, and aim to accomplish our goals”.

Show people we are not doing what they claim.

Culture shock is a usual challenge international students face when first arriving in their foreign study destination. It’s described as a response to a “series of events and experiences which are so different from their own and some of which are so ‘shocking’ to them”. It can wreak havoc on the person for a time frame that can range from days to even years.

Arriving in Australia, Chinese students typically have to adjust to two new scenarios: living in Australia and studying in Australia. What this means is they are transitioning from a more regimented, rote-based education system in China to a freer academic space in Australian universities.

Off-campus, this means they are shifting from what was formerly a predominantly Mandarin-speaking environment to one that uses English solely. Politically, they’re moving from a communist regime under the chokehold of the Communist Party to a democratic one.

The last part is the center of the controversy they’ve recently been in the spotlight for.

Last year, a spate of reports surfaced showing Chinese students disagreeing with university lecturers in a few Australian universities. The BBC reported there were four prominent cases where Chinese students have alleged their lecturers or teaching materials are incorrect or insulting to China.

In one example, a student had openly disagreed with his lecturer at the University of Newscastle for describing Taiwan and Hong Kong as ‘countries’. In another, a Chinese student at the University of Sydney called an IT lecturer’s use of an outdated map listing a contested border area as part of India’s territory as “absolutely intolerable”.

The lecturer at the University of Sydney issued a public apology for using a map showing Chinese claimed territory as part of India. Source: Shutterstock

This later led to intensive coverage by the Australian press, which often negatively painted Chinese students as nationalists brainwashed or controlled by Chinese Communist Party agents.

This clash of cultures is not unique to Australia alone. In many major study destinations in the world, there is deep anxiety by some locals who feel they are being disadvantaged as a result of an influx of Chinese students on their shores. They may feel their culture, housing, way of life, etc are at risk to a group of students who appear to not want to assimilate to local culture.

On the other hand, Chinese students are often unable to break out of their initial culture shock, adapting to a different way of life and end up sticking to their own kind. As a result, we have two groups of people failing to integrate with each other, increasing the feelings of the ‘other’ that make negative reports like those in Australian media regularly crop up.

This is a complex issue that would need major effort from all stakeholders – it’s not something that can be fixed overnight, especially in an increasingly inward-looking world.

But the upside is the Chinese students’ response in Lowy Institute’s report reveals a level of depth, maturity and information contrary to how we have traditionally understood the ways in which international students experience culture shock.

It calls for a calm, strategic way to dispel the negative stereotypes. Call this an optimistic reading, but I’ll take that any day over any more international students isolating themselves in fear from their host communities.

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