Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 27, No. 5. 1964.
Inscrutable Asians Haunt The Campus
Inscrutable Asians Haunt The Campus
To most New Zealand students, we Asians are not only an object of curiosity but also of an impenetrable myth. Our national costumes—the Malay songkok and sarong, the Vietnamese Ao Dai, the Chinese split cheongsam—give an esoteric charm that fascinates but means little. Our languages and dialects sound like Latin incantations of the Roman Catholic Church. Our curry makes your eyes water. And what's going on in our minds baffles all comprehension. At times, we are the centre of a seemingly fervent but momentary attraction; at other times we are looked askance at. Often we are looked upon with envy. Asian students carry high bursaries, receive red-carpet treatment, live on New Zealand charity and date New Zealand girls.
All these misunderstandings stem from two main facts. Firstly, the New Zealand students' failure to know the problems normally confronting the Asian students and, secondly, the Asian students' failure to take the initiative to make themselves more approachable to their New Zealand friends. Until both parties realize these two facts and show a sincere willingness to "break the ice", the barrier of misunderstanding that already exists between us will remain. One group of us may return to our respective countries, another group may yet arrive to "worry" you. The Asian Inscrutability will still continue to haunt the Campus.
The object of this article is to lay bare to the New Zealand students some of the typical problems that face the Asian students. An awareness of these problems may perhaps help our New Zealand friends to know us better, to approach us not with fear but with understanding.
I want therefore to divide the problems under four headings: academic, social, political and psychological.
Academic: it is generally recognized that the standard of our educational backgrounds is very much lower than that of the New Zealand students. Some of the countries which we come from have universities, but in many cases, the degrees conferred by these universities are not recognized in the Western countries nor are they recognized in this part of the world. Illiteracy is still a scourge that permeates practically every South-east Asian country. Most of us are sent overseas not because we are the "brightest" but mainly because there are no "brighter" ones! This may sound a bit paradoxical, but, such is the irony of life.
Against these lamentable educational backgrounds, we come to this country to compete with the New Zealand students in our academic pursuits. We receive the same lectures, have our essays or examination papers marked by the same tutors or examiners. The universities of course have their academic standards which cannot and must not be lowered in favour of the Asian students. It is a battle in which the fittest survives.
The Asian students must therefore work trebly hard in order to catch up with their New Zealand friends, let alone compete with them. Thus you find many of us bury ourselves in hooks, never turn up in any of the university recreational activities. So we are looked upon as typical Asian "hookworms," "unsociable creatures" and the like. Little does one know how much we want to share your social life, but the echoes of "you must study" keep haunting: our minds.
A great many of us do not know "how" to study, how to take lecture notes, or how to write essays. Thus however much we study, we make no headway, we get nowhere, and we are lost. The New Zealand students often wonder at this. Language difficulty, emotional upsets, environmental orientation are of course problems. But I think the main reason should be traced back to the teaching methods in the schools of our respective countries. There, as is often the case, the teacher writes out his notes on the blackboard, the students copy them down, learn them by heart and pass the examinations. In a nutshell, it is a parrot-like teaching method. There, we must take the teacher's words as unchallengeable gospel. Here, we can take them as heresies. There, uniformity is stressed; here, there is the tacit agreement to differ.
Thus in our first year at the university, many of us find it very puzzling why one lecturer should assert, for instance, that a certain book is a work of art, while another should condemn it as 'third-rate commercial sensationalism." Which view point should we take? Of course we are not obliged to take any. But if we are patient enough, we will eventually find that either the lecturers are often arguing at cross purposes, or as is more likely, they do not know what they are arguing about!
The number one problem that confronts most Asian students is English. In almost all the South East Asian countries, English is used only in a very limited circle. Where English is used, it is often the case of "have to" not "want to"; e.g. an Asian government officer talking to his superior European officer or a teacher in an English school addressing the class. Outside these departments of life, English is not normally used as a medium of communication. In countries where national feeling is strong and where there is an anticolonial sentiment, English conversations among Asians are looked upon with suspicion and in some cases, with contempt.
Thus social mores and public disapprobation discourage the use of English in our day to day communication. Another important element which discourages the use of English by students in Asian countries is the tendency to laugh at those who make some grammatical or pronunciation mistakes in their English. A painful experience which I had may perhaps help to illustrate this point. When I was at secondary school, I found it extremely hard to pronounce the "X" sound in words such as "six," "axe," "et cetera." One day, my teacher asked me to read out an algebraic equation 6x + 2y equals 10. With great difficulty, I said, "Sick egg plus two you . . . The teacher interrupted me at once. "What? Sick egg? I don't want sick egg. I want good egg!" The whole class of course roared with laughter. For one whole month, the teacher kept on calling me "Sick egg." This got badly on my nerves.
Thus with lack of practice and with the fear of being laughed at we Asian students belong to what Professor Quirk calls the "anxious group." "They live their lives in some degree of nervousness over their grammar, their pronunciation, and their choice of words; sensitive, and fearful of betraying themselves." If a man like T.S. Elliot who even after "20 years . . . trying to learn to use words," confessed that "every attempt is a wholly new start," which left him "still with the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings," how much more difficult do we find it to have to use English to write essays, to participate in tutorials, to take part in "intelligent" conversations?
If therefore our New Zealand friends find some of iis uncommunicative, please do not take us as being unsociable, hard to get along with. If you happen to find us talking in our own language instead of English, please do not take it that we are cursing you. Please give us a little hit more time.
To those of you who are interested in the interpretations of dreams, perhaps it may be helpful to know that it was not until six months after I arrived in New Zealand that I had my first dream with an English dialogue!
Social: Social mores of one type or another permeate every society, be it a small fishing village in Malaysia or an advanced society like New Zealand. These social mores still condition our thinking and attitude towards others even though we may be thousands of miles away from home. In some of our countries, polygamy is not only received with approval but also emulated by large sections of the community. In others, pre-marital sexual relations are often regarded as immoral. In most South East Asian countries, putting our grandfathers in an Old Men's Home and visiting them only at Christmas time is a moral crime of the first degree. It is therefore unavoidable that some of the Asian students' behaviour and attitudes should come into conflict with that of the New Zealanders.
A few words about Asian students dating New Zealand girls. Remarks such as "Look at those Colombo Plan students, they come here at our expense and they date our girls!" are not uncommon. Such remarks, however jovially made, imply some disapproval if not outright discrimination. Like a negro, whose teeth appear whiter than the whitest of a Whiteman's, the movements of the Asian students here become strikingly noticeable in a predominantly white population.
Thus nobody would take any notice of a male-kiwi kissing a female-kiwi in the corner of a street, provided that their action does not become so fiery that it constitutes a breach of public decency. On the other hand, if an Asian student and a New Zealand Kiri go to the pictures together, a great number of the audience would look at them as if they were members of the Royal Family, with perhaps one difference: a look of admiration for the Royal couple but a look of surprise for the white-and yellow combination.
In the former case (kissing in the street), it is a natural phenomenon which excites no reaction. In the latter (going to the pictures), it is an unnatural event which immediately invites the presence of Mrs. Grundy. Hence the Asian students are often placed in some sort of a quandary. If they group together, others might say that Asian students always keep to themselves, never like to mix with the Kiwis. If they go to parties, pictures or other social activities with Kiwi boys all the time, they are branded as "Homos." If they abstain from going out altogether, they are accused of leading a secluded and unbalanced life. Heavens, tell me if there is a way out!
Political: Before leaving their own countries, Asian students are warned not to take part in any political activities during their study overseas. "Thou shall not contribute articles of political content to any press;" "Thou shall not become a member of any political organization;" "Thou shall not take part in any political demonstration" etc. These warnings, whether explicitly or implicitly made, imply some sanction.
For instance, the government of a certain South East Asian country in October last year promulgated a decree awarding death penalty to those who "deviate from the State's official ideology, who listen to Radio Malaysia . . . Thus if the students from that country are found publicly deviating from the state's ideology or singing the national anthem of Malaysia or standing as a mark of respect when it is played (which is possible if they are invited to attend a Malaysian students' function), they could easily be asked to say their last farewell to New Zealand.
Those who are not aware of the Asian students' background, often wonder why Asian students are generally apathetic towards students' politics, e.g. criticising the government, protesting to the French Embassy against French nuclear tests, taking part in the Easter March, carrying placards to the airport to "welcome" the South African cricket team and so forth. Those who are aware of the above facts and wonder why Asian students do not protest to their governments should ponder this: You can protest, protest and protest in a democratic country but in a guided form of democracy, you had better keep your mouth shut.
Psychological: All the foregoing problems, academic, social, political, are inter-related and they all tend to produce emotional problems of one kind or another for the Asian students. Many of the Asian countries are suffering from economic or political instability. The present situations in South Vietnam. Indonesia. Malaysia and so on are political realities which constantly keep the overseas students biting their finger nails.
Separated from homes thousands of miles away, in a society where everything is so un-Asian, they escape the smell of ammunition that pollutes the atmosphere in their mother countries, but they are also unable at this critical moment to see their own folks even to attend the funerals of some dear ones who were killed by some unknown persons styled as "rebels" or "revolutionaries" (last year, three relatives of an Asian student studying in Wellington were grenaded by some terrorists). These students not only suffer from nostalgia and loneliness but also often from bitter frustration.
A New Zealander who had spent the past four years lecturing in an Asian university, recently came back to New Zealand. Addressing a students' congress not very long ago, he alleged and complained that Colombo Plan Students in New Zealand were being treated too well: they received high bursaries and attractive travelling allowances, they had special hostels provided for mem they insisted on having and were given Asian food, etc. Such "red-carpet treatment," he contended, was detrimental not only to the Asian students but also to the New Zealanders. He asserted that Asian students in New Zealand must be expected to lead the New Zealand way of life; only then would there be real understanding between them. Before we discuss the plausibility of his arguments, let us consider for a moment or two his allegations.
Bursaries: Are Colombo Plan students being paid too much? The sole test of any charitable or humanitarian organization is its Genuineness. It is not a question of "How much." It is not what one gives that matters, rather, it is the way one gives it. If one nags about the "too much" or the "too little" of one's aid, one not only makes oneself uncomfortable but one also makes the recipient feel that he is living on the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table.
Special Hostel: What is the purpose of having a Colombo Plan Students' hostel in Wellington? Realising the very different social backgrounds of the Asian students and considering it most undesirable and unwise for young Asian students away from home for the first time to start trying to look after themselves too soon in a new country, the New Zealand Government has made every effort to provide hostel accommodation for those below the age of 21 and for as many students as possible during their first year. The Colombo Plan Hostel in Wellington is intended mainly for the purpose of orientating the newcomers, not, as the gentleman suggested, to create a barrier between the Asian and New Zealand students.
As a matter of fact, there are many Asian students in the country who are staying in New Zealand homes or who are taking flats with New Zealand students. Aren't they making some efforts to assimilate themselves into the New Zealand way of life?
Food: While I must admit that I, for one, find it extremely difficult to have to take European food for seven days a week and 365 days a year, it is, however, certainly untrue that Asian students insist on having Asian food (even though what bread is to you, rice is to us). For instance, I am staying in a hostel which accommodates some 98 residents of whom only four are Asians (and we come from three different countries). We take the same food as the others do. While I must confess that I sometimes do get sick of the food. I have no cause to complain, because others feel the same too.
In conclusion, I hope that I have covered some of the most important and the most common problems that face the Asian students in New Zealand. If my article has helped towards a better understanding of the Asian students and their problems by our New Zealand friends, my time in wrestling with it and your time in reading it have not been wasted.