It is no accident that my “What’s new” picture for the last few days has been this:
There am I, third from the left, with a Japanese Christian and Mr Kim from Korea on my right, a couple of Indonesian Muslims, Rui from Tianjin China, two more Indonesians, a Korean, and another Indonesian on my left. It’s a long time ago now, and I have always been better with faces than names. This is just one group from the hundreds of students I came to know in 1990 to early 1991 when I ventured into the overseas student world. Most were those Chinese who had left their country in the wake of Tiananmen. Rui, for example, was a scientist.
Some of them did experience racism or at least xenophobia, often of the petty kind: finding people would not sit next to them in the train, for example. (On the other hand, I read of a black American in Korea who found an entire swimming pool suddenly empty of people when he dived in.) Some of them, like the thirteen Nepalese mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald today, found themselves conned or ripped off, though the perpetrators were quite often of the same ethnicity as the fleeced. Some overseas student agencies were ethical and indeed excellent, as is still the case, but some were shysters. Some private colleges were shonky, very shonky, and some were not. Some were owned by Indonesians or Chinese, some were not.
One Korean student reported racism to me once: taxis would not stop for him. I investigated by asking him what he did to hail a cab. He demonstrated with a hand movement which would work in Korea, but in Sydney would be interpreted as “I don’t want a cab.” Correct hand movement taught, the problem was solved.
I am not wanting to trivialise the degree to which racism is involved in some of the attacks on Indian students and others in recent days, but to embrace that as the only cause is a sure way to miss the fine detail and thus to act ineffectually. The idea that Australians are racist has some validity, but as a generalisation is no better than others such as “Chinese eat cats” or “Australians are lazy” or “Muslims are terrorists” or “Lebanese are criminal drug lords”. The word “some” should figure in all the above.
Very emotive thing, racism. I am firmly anti-racist, but regret some of the excesses this has led me into. Ask the Rabbit, whose indiscretion on one occasion (in the name of humour in his case, a bit Chaser-like and misplaced perhaps) I over-reacted to quite shamefully, forgetting the obvious point that in his actual life as I well knew there was very little evidence of real racism.
It is also true that overseas students are quite often vulnerable. I would baulk at travelling by train at night in some parts of Sydney; they have to, and are conspicuous. They may also be perceived as rich, though that too is a false generalisation. Jim Belshaw today canvasses more possibilities.
The desire to profit from overseas students sometimes runs ahead of ability (or even willingness) to consider their welfare. This is especially true of the worst private colleges.
On the other hand undoubted racists are making a meal of this situation, and the usual white supremacist minority would probably have been behind those leaflets distributed around the University of NSW.
See also my English/ESL blog.