1996: Returning to Melbourne and a chance encounter
Reverse culture shock
In November 1995, we left our new friends from Bangkok University, where we had been on exchange for a semester, and following a short holiday in Phuket, made our way reluctantly home. Returning to Melbourne after living in a city of 10 million people was more overwhelming than we ever could have anticipated. We had enjoyed the most amazing experience, and gathered a multitude of stories of challenges and adventures. We had changed in ways we were yet to understand, and had hundreds of photos and rolls of film yet to be processed and compiled into albums, that only our Mothers, and closest friends, would endure. We wanted to share every minute of the experience, yet few people cared to listen. Some friends and family were very excited at our return, expecting us to slot back into our former lives. But we no longer fit in that space. We had grown emotionally and mentally, and it was difficult to comprehend for family and friends – nothing had changed in the 5 months we were absent. Everything had remained the same – of course – but for us the change was immense, and it was no longer possible to squeeze back into the box we had opened upon making the decision to undertake the experience. I remember feeling exasperated at how the lives of others had (understandably) remained the same the entire time we were gone – it was as though time had stood still. The photos that evoked memories and stories for us were not appreciated we felt – something was lost in translation once home. Even our meals seemed bland and uninteresting and it was difficult to find the spices and sauces we had become accustomed to. I was driving down Nepean Highway one evening with my then 9 year old, who turned to me and said “where is everybody?” The unclogged roads, the empty buses, the footpaths devoid of any human life – we felt extremely lonely in our old life.
I was depressed. Really. It was as though this amazing experience had no relevance to my life in Australia. I was facing a long summer break with no escape from the mundane suburban existence, except for the memories of the months where I had been free to discover a new culture and myself along the way. I often wonder if it was worse as a mature age student whose life had been turned upside down in ways a twenty something’s might not have been…
I received a phone call from Deakin International – would I be interested in helping a group of impending international students with their adjustment to Australia? Rosemary Livingstone, another angel sent to guide my mobility path, suggested my recent experience would allow me to understand what the students were going through, and assist them to adjust. And so began my casual employment as a Peer Support Coordinator and Reception Officer, with the responsibility for the arrival and settling in of the new international students from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Hong Kong for the 1996 Academic year.
I had found an outlet for my frustration. My experience was relevant after all. I was able to channel my energy and my familiarity with Asian cultural values into providing a welcoming experience for new students through airport reception services, opening bank accounts and first shopping experiences, assisting them to source familiar foods in Box Hill and Clayton where the two Asian groceries were located. From my own experience I could understand the bewildering number of decisions and choices one had to make on a one’s hosts. For the following 12 months while completing my degree, I supported the students at the Rusden Campus of Deakin as they worked through the initial culture shock and loneliness grew accustomed to the unfamiliar food, weather and educational experience, and along the way developed some lifelong friends. I also learned so much from these students in terms of understanding the diversity of cultures that is “Asia”, the specific individual cultures and values, the different ethnicities and religions, and slowly came to the understanding that my own culture was more monocultural than I had realised, and couldn’t understand how happy many Australians were in their ignorance of the amazing worlds beyond our shores.
Upon the completion of my degree, and at the start of 1997, I was employed by Deakin international as one of two International Student Advisors (ISA). Gone was the vision of lazy school holidays with my daughter. Gone was the idea of teaching English, Media Studies and ESL to suburban high school kids. I had my dream job – my time in Bangkok had really served a purpose. Now I had responsibility not only for supporting the students through their study experiences, I had the opportunity to educate the university as to the needs of this increasingly growing and ethnically diverse cohort. Through my experience of engaging with and supporting the students the previous year, I had come to understand that the university systems and processes were not designed for those who differed from the dominant culture.
Firstly, from my own experience as an exchange student and as a student teacher, I was able to develop a training program for the peer support students who volunteered to support the new students which comprised both Aussies and other international students. It was one thing to offer to help, but it became apparent that the helpers needed more guidance given the diversity of the cohort. One size did not fit all, and there was a need to educate students to ensure the needs of ALL newly arrived students were met.
I was also able to contribute to changing the culture of the university administration. One example was that the university database was incapable of recognizing that Indonesians often had only one name, and that the Malaysian Chinese had usually three, and that the family name came first. Terms such as “Christian” name made no sense to a Muslim, and surname was a completely unfamiliar term. These were changed to Given name and Family name. Staff were also trained in data entry to ensure students could more easily be identified in the system through correct data entry of unfamiliar Asian names. Another example was the “show cause” letters, which were four pages of “legalise” that even I couldn’t understand. I discovered international students were disposing of them instead of seeking the support required to appeal. Once the letters were revised down to 2 pages of easy to understand English, not only did the international students face this issue head on, but an unexpected rise in the number of domestic students seeking support was reported.
For four years numbers of international students grew year on year, and it was immensely satisfying to watch the diversification of the student cohort. Through their involvement in campus life, the international students were making a difference in terms of the kinds of food served in the cafeteria, the dynamics of the clubs and societies, and the increase in the kinds of support services provided, that also benefited domestic NESB students who had previously been largely invisible. In the local community, Asian groceries have sprung up, and new food outlets offering more Asian style food had sprouted. I was enjoying my role, particularly the efforts to increase engagement between the domestic and international students, but something was missing. I wanted – needed – more students to go abroad and have an experience similar to mine, because that was what was needed to further breakdown barriers! Surely they would then understand the advantage of understanding our Asian neighbours? I wanted more involvement in outbound mobility. And as usual, an opportunity presented itself within a faculty, leading to the next step in the evolution of The Global Student.