This is an excerpt of a piece that was published in Vertigo: and those we’ve left behind, Issue 2 2015. Vertigo is a student-run magazine at the University of Technology, Sydney. The full version is free and available in hard copy around UTS, soon to be up online as an e-copy.
“Hi I’m Sam, nice to meet you” – was my opening line in my first year of university. Plenty of first years fall into the habit of being early for lectures so I used this time to talk and make friends. What’s your name, where are you from, oh I know your school isn’t it near that park in my suburb? Banal introductory questions ensued but it was during this time in the first week that I realised what a rookie mistake it was reveal my deepest darkest secret to people I hardly knew. Yes guys, I am an international student.
“Ching chong ling long ting tong” – is that video that went viral in 2011 which should’ve made me wiser to keeping my mouth shut. The truth is, being international was never really a secret to me because I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a visa-holder. I disclosed it often and usually with pride because I thought it made me special. Foreigners in Malaysia (the country I grew up in) are few and far between so they were always treated as people worthy of interest and attention. Malaysians are also an inherently curious bunch, we like to know what other people are doing in the outside world. So perhaps in some haphazard, crazy leap of irrational thought-processing, I assumed I would be warmly welcomed here, if not then at least accepted as one and the same.
“Wow you’re international? I couldn’t tell” – is the number one response I get. I hear it from peers, lecturers, colleagues and even managers. In many ways telling someone that I’m an international student made me feel like I was outing myself as part of a minority group that was not favourable to the greater part of society. One would think by looking at the expressions of shock and pity as I uttered the word “Malaysian”, that I had a chronic and terminal disease. And based on the speed of their sudden rapid disinterest in me, it’s probably contagious too.
“Err thanks, yours too” – is what I always want to say when someone tells me my English is so good. At this point in the conversation, you already know that I’m a final year law and business student at UTS, so why the sudden proclamation of my proficiency in a language that isn’t solely yours? Many countries in South East Asia incorporate English into their curriculum. We may not be able to expound on the intricacies of Shakespeare but I have spelled circles around Australians. And if you have any further doubts as to my level of English, I’m also writing this article you’re reading right now.
“I fucking hate group work with fobs” – is always within earshot wherever you are on campus. The term “fob” meaning “other”, meaning lumping Malaysia, Singapore, China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Thailand into one country called “Asia”. The irony is that Australians’ top tourist destinations are Bali and Singapore which are, pro-tip, not one and the same. And if I’ve learnt anything from five five years of group assignments at UTS it’s that commitment is the most important skill you can have, not fluency of English and certainly not duration you have been in Australia. Laziness after all, is a disorder that transcends nationalities –