Joanne Knight

June 9, 2009

Australian Demons

In the 1990s I was introduced to postcolonial Indian literature at university. The extraordinary characters in R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi series appealed to my own sense of youthful disorientation in the world. In ‘The Maneater of Malgudi’, the bewildered Nataraj attempts to produce business cards for the mythical stranger, Vasu. Mistakes over colours and paper quality bedevil Nataraj producing an oddly Austenesque quality. The bullying tone of Vasu, who turns out be a demon, intimidates Nataraj but, unlike Indian students in Australia, we never get the sense that he is in any real danger. This is the charming country of India I carry around in my head.

As Mark Twain so eloquently wrote, ‘The land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, the country of hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of traditions…’

It is hard to reconcile this world with that of the neverending dispute with Pakistan, intercommunal violence, nuclear posturing, and cacophonous call centres. When I pick up the phone and an Indian accent responds at the end of the line, I want to ask them what is your life like, what did you have for lunch, what can you see out of your window? The world of call centres suddenly seems so much more romantic. The efforts of Indian students in particular seem heroic to me. They have a reputation for studying hard, for practicality, they dominate the business and economics courses. You see them late at night in the library and at Coles stocking shelves. This is the new generation of Indians, successfully taking their place in the world and tilting at the mighty US.

However, in Australia, the spectre of past racist policies will continue to haunt us, if we fail to respond to these attacks. The support of racism in this country is now reaping its rewards in the bashing of people who represent a lucrative industry to this country, that is overseas students.

A growing number of overseas students are studying in Australia. Australian Education International (AEI) data show that in the year to October 2007, enrolments of full-fee paying overseas students in Australia increased by 19% to 437,065. Today the education industry generates substantial income for the Australian economy. ABS data show that in 2006-07 education-related spending by overseas students was valued at more than $11 billion. While students from China made up the largest proportion of overseas students in 2006, accounting for 22%, the second largest proportion was from India (11%).The number of enrolments of students from India more than tripled from 11,370 in 2002 to 39,166 in 2006, and has continued to grow.

Australians have a racist history. People of all ethnic groups were treated badly but Australia presented an opportunity to them, a new start. As Farouk says in ‘The Castle’: ‘He say plane fly overhead, drop value. I don’t care. In Beirut, plane fly over, drop bomb. I like these planes.’ Australia has, while not always embraced, at least tolerated refugees from Europe, Vietnam and Africa. We learned to live with their strange food and customs. When we hear the stories of those in their forties and fifties, of being vilified at school for their food and language, we can hardly credit it. But this era was followed by a time where we attempted to put our racist roots to bed, to smooth the dying pillow of racism: reconciliation, Mabo, the Native Title Act; it seems like a golden age, a far flung time of prosperity and generosity. Where different was not a dirty word.

But after twenty years of rampant globalisation, security issues and terrorism have made us all more afraid, more suspicious of the guy wearing the turban on the train, of the woman in the Hijab. The threat they present in our minds was heightened as a deliberate government policy for seven years. Our fear of the different increases, as the world shrinks. But now it is time to learn to live together again. We need a new government ad campaign to make us proud of the quality of our education system which attracts students from the region and all around the world.

This is a cynical call to practicality. As the world continues to descend into economic turmoil, Australia cannot afford to cut off any sources of revenue. Let’s welcome these students, embrace them. They are members of a growing global middle class. These students are the future managers and entrepreneurs, alienating them now will only present difficulties for our trade and business relations later. Let’s not forget that India is one of the economic powerhouses of the future. The US is in decline, economically, they should be declared a disaster area. We need to turn our trading eyes to other places.

The time has come for Rudd to shuck off that grey flannel suit, and show us some flair. The man who wooed the Chinese with his knowledge of Mandarin needs to find a way into the Indian psyche. If Rudd wants to be seen as the great internationalist and Australia as at least a safe, if not actually welcoming, destination for overseas students, then we need to improve our image. Just as Nataraj’s demon eventually destroys himself, so we will be destroyed (and repeatedly injure our international reputation) if we fail to exorcise the demons of racism in this country.

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