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Understanding Asian immigrants/students

  • June 21st, 2009

Taihape College to Weir House, Victoria University was heaven-sent for a curious 18 year old in 1969.  We lived with scores of Colombo Plan students from  Malaysia, Afghanistan, Vietnam and elsewhere.  Mealtimes were exposure to aliens. For those who bothered, getting to know these polite strangers we were living with could be mind-opening. 

I took some (not enough) of those opportunities. I believe my Afghan acquaintance died in the early stages of the Soviet occupation, but I remain in touch with others, especially several who accepted invitations to Taihape. Their hospitality in Malaysia has more than repaid mine.

My children now have an amazing array of exchange opportunities for semesters or half years or more at overseas universities. Perhaps we got as much from being in Weir House as they now get out of those exchanges in hostels full of other ‘exchange’ students in places like Prague, Lyon, Amsterdam, and Stockholm.

Yet few of my children’s generation seem to have much contact with their fellow student visitors now all around them in New Zealand. They are so many, perhaps the strangers feel no need to reach out to the big nosed noisy people they’ve come to learn English among. And perhaps they are such a familiar sight to our kids, that it does not occur to them to be curious enough to want to get to know the strangers.

But I’m curious. I wonder what these blank foreign faces are thinking. Do they find here as much to admire as to deplore? I look at the many Chinese language newspapers in local shops and wonder what kind of intellectual world is created here for the thousands of kids during their sponge age, the time of maximum absorption. A local Chinese friend tells me how much she detests mainland Chinese "because they look down on me". A week in Karachi for work a couple of years ago revives my interest in the reactions of Auckland Moslem taxi drivers to the immorality their children face at school.

I was lucky to have hours with Chinese supporters in the Wellington Central election campaign. But the need to be "the candidate" limited the frankness of that kind of interaction.

So I’m fascinated by the contemporary novels and films that are now flooding in.

Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger, and of course Slumdog Millionaire echo with each news story from India.

Auckland writer Mo Zhi Hong’s The Year of the Shanghai Shark, has been reviewed in the Listener, and here. At the start of my main OE I went to Mao Tse Tung’s China. The Year of the Shanghai Shark channels the echoes of those years despite its world being overtly an epoch apart. It seems to me to be self-consciously a bridge for foreigners. Frequent references to the teenage Dalian view of Bush, of Americana, to our Mike Moore, to English language teachers on OE and to how English sounds to young Chinese suggest to me that as well as describing his ilk, Mo Zhi Hong was writing for people like me – those wondering what these strangers think of us.

Murong Xuecun’s Leave me Alone – A Novel of Chengdu is tougher going. It is perhaps more revealing, but normally I leave others to read books about alienation, self indulgence and decline. Life is too short to waste on despair. But this book too is fascinating. According to brief internet research ((Allen and Unwin’s back cover summary does not tell much) the book emerged in episodes on the intranet of the writer’s employer. It developed a cult following then exploded as an internet sensation in China.

It depicts a world and consequences eerily close to what I would have predicted looking from the outside. My puritan side deplores the time consumed by young people out late at night drinking, eating, in bars and night clubs, and texting and phoning. Ubiquitious lighting up cigarettes is the only jarringly unfamiliar element in the Chengdu descriptions.  I wonder how far the rest is from the world of many of our kids of the same generation. 

Will the experience of Chen Zhong, Leave Me Alone’s protagonist, resonate for all that generation? 

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