The Asian Century has been hotly debated in Australia, especially since the release of the government’s white paper on the issue. Recent funding increases to asian languages and other promotional events have also generated discussion. While various levels of government, business, and academia are already dealing with the opportunities and challenges of embracing asia, for the rest of the populace, the issue of embracing Australia’s Asian century still seems to be a little abstract and removed. Here is a personal response to this discussion, which while written almost 5 years ago, still seems equally relevant today.
By Stuart Hill
From my small cubicle at a software company in the steamy city of Taipei, I enjoyed listening to bits of this podcast (Preparing for the Asian Century, broadcast on ABC Radio National) throughout my long (Taiwanese-style) work day.
Listening to the program and hearing the panel discuss what should be done about teaching language and cultural skills made me reflect on the life I have experienced and am currently living.
Now 37, I was originally inspired by the Keating years of embracing Asia—not for the Far East as I sometimes still hear it called, but the “near north”—and began looking for opportunities to make my way there (here) while at university.
I visited Beijing 1 year after the Tiananmen Square incident, part of a team of guinea pig student teachers, invited by my university to test the waters and help maintain our “great relationship” with our Chinese education ministry hosts.
What a huge mistake that was. I came back with my suspicions confirmed: there is a big world out there and Australia seems very remote from it.
That summer back in Australia, I began a Mandarin Chinese course during my holiday break. I didn’t learn much, but it gave me the confidence for my next excursion; 4 weeks wandering around the streets of Beijing living at a pen pal’s house (until the local warden kicked me out), then slumming it at a friend’s friend’s unused apartment. I was the only foreigner in the building, so the police were extremely relieved to see my visa and return ticket to Sydney.
Them were the days when foreigners couldn’t be expected to live a simple life at a local hotel; only the Great Wall Sheraton would do! After weeks of negotiations over bananas, yoghurt, and kebabs—and anything else to keep me from McDonalds—I returned home with more great memories and an even bigger decision: study Chinese for real; through immersion.
Throw in several years of inaction, all the while building friendships with Taiwanese students at university. Jump past the distractions of work and life and all, and finally in 1998 I arrived in Taiwan to study 6 months of Mandarin: speaking, reading and writing. Traditional Chinese characters, not simplified ones, thank you.
Six months turned into a year, with a Taiwan government scholarship helping to pay some of the bills once my own money started running out. I made few English-speaking friends as my school and classes had very few westerners. With Chinese as our only common language, I spoke poorly to classmates and teachers for over 4 hours every day in and out of classes. Nights I spent memorizing characters and how to write them. I made local friends through language exchanges.
14 months was enough. I was going crazy. But was it time to return to my world? I made my next fateful decision: a job at a computer hardware company in Taipei in their marketing department. I spent the first 6 months with a headache, trying to keep up with meetings conducted in Chinese. Over the years the headaches gradually got better.
I have no doubts that the way things are expressed contain at least 70% of the meaning of what is expressed. And this is how I survived: by guessing! This form of cultural immersion taught another good lesson in communication—so much of what we say is irrelevant to carrying any useful meaning. It is a real art to reduce your intended meaning to the vocab of an 8-year-old, and still get your point across. It is also very humiliating. It is easier to cling onto the safety of your language and culture, and I think the best language students learn to let go. By stripping this protection away you question the value of the process, but it provides new perspectives. Such as the plight of so many Australian immigrants who must go through much worse to adapt to their adopted country; because they need to.
Well that was over 7 years ago. I switched jobs. I am now a manager in the software company I mentioned earlier. I’m a permanent resident of Taiwan too, and yes, Mandarin is my second tongue which I speak at work and home.
But back to your discussion topic.
I’m sure my journey is not unique. Though I admit I haven’t met too many in Taiwan, I doubt I am the only Australian of my generation to have been inspired by the Go North idea.
Having lived very real lessons in language and culture, I strongly recommend in-country study and interaction. Cultures aren’t static, and being part of the evolving dynamic is a less theoretical form of study. It is both fun and frustrating. It is also contemporary, practical and immediate. It is a stream, and you have to jump in at some time to get anywhere.
I hope many more Australians have the same opportunity to learn about and experience another culture first hand. But it requires many personal qualities—not the least a basic interest to learn—and inspiration from others, to really maintain the energy needed to develop deeper understandings.
If I can comment on the national level, Australia needs people who are able to lead us through some major cultural challenges ahead. We need to face our fear of Asians, reassess some of the assumptions we have about our place in the world, historically and geographically. This means understanding where we fit into other peoples’ histories too.
So far Australia has been lucky. For the past 60 years Asia has been dealing with its own local problems of inequality and development. But they now have a growing buying power and changing priorities. Australia will face even more pressure to engage. The question is whether we have some say in the terms of that engagement.
Your discussion made mention of the fact that Australia has always been important to others as an abundant source of resources. And will continue to be. But without the language and cultural expertise we need, we weaken our negotiation position to get the best deal. I think your panel said it right that it is an issue of national strategic importance.
The starting point is a change in perception. I agree with addressing the issue “Where are we?”. It is fundamental to prioritizing our education resources. I strongly suggest every Australian take a look at the map. I don’t mean any of the ones drafted during the Empire and brought over 200 years ago from Europe (or today’s variation). I mean a Chinese map, with China at its center. What’s interesting is that it shifts perception. Seeing it for the first time was a revelation. As you can imagine, the Chinese map clearly defines the area that represents the “Middle Kingdom”.
But today’s modern Chinese maps also tell a different story. What they can tell Australians is that there is another middle kingdom. This kingdom is far easier to define, surrounded by water, and much better located between the future empires of South and North America, Africa, and Asia.
If you’ve seen the map, you’ll know what I mean. It’s why the Asia-Pacific century is Australia’s century too. Let’s get one of those maps in front of every 5-year old. Then ask them, where do you want to go?