Minding the gaps

Notes from the soft-power coalface

Next Voices

At the house of the Chinese consulate-general in Melbourne, I made a strange reconnection. I was giving my thoughts to an official delegation on an app the Chinese government was developing; the focus group was being conducted in Mandarin. I noticed the man next to me, who struck me as familiar. Chad and I had last seen each other a decade ago, when we were taking extra Italian lessons in high school. Ten years later, I am a Chinese secondary school teacher, he is a Chinese medicine practitioner, and our first words to each other are in Mandarin, a language neither of us knew back then. Australia has changed.

Surely we of all people exemplify a global extension of Xi Jinping’s China Dream. After all, why shouldn’t two Australian white guys be speaking the language of the regional hegemon? Beijing is twice as close to Melbourne as London is. But the jarring nature of my reconnection with Chad belies the easy claim that we are living in the Asian Century. In our day-to-day experience Australians do not live in Asia yet, nor anymore in Europe. More than any country I have been in, Australia feels comfortably adrift in the twenty-first century. Only history will judge where these tides take us.

I have one foot in Asia, but this makes me more of an oddity than a typical Australian. Living as I do near the University of Melbourne, Mandarin makes up a perhaps a fifth of the voices in my street, and the shops that have sprung up provide excellent versions of the food one would find in a mall catering to the middle class in Chengdu, Xiamen or Chongqing – cities that few Melbournians would have heard of, despite the direct flights there. How correct are Australians in detecting a sense of self-imposed isolationism among these students, when they are, at best, ignored by the locals? And what happens when these same students start copying the argy-bargy of politics on campus, with Chinese characteristics?

This tension seems like a lose-lose proposition for the Chinese who arrive in Australia. If they overcome perceptions of cloistering, excessive involvement in Australian life sets off alarm bells of interference. There is an inherent contradiction when students exercising their free speech support pro-authoritarian causes. This perplexes the well-meaning members of the post-lecture Aperol spritz circuit, who seem brutally unprepared, intellectually and analytically, for an Asian power that prosecutes its interests without heeding the invisible tripwires of postcolonial and human rights language. Surely the Chinese Communist Party couldn’t mean what it says?

I felt this tug of disbelief travelling through the western minority regions during the seventieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. When you have been raised in a postmodern culture of pastiche and self-reference, seeing billboards of rosy-cheeked soldiers extolling citizens to “unite valiantly around Xi Jinping Thought” makes you feel as though you are in some tacky historical theme park. Those of us born (born!) after the Berlin Wall came down find it difficult to truly feel the lash of authoritarianism and censorship. When I would land on sensitive topics with Tibetan taxi drivers, the way they would grip the steering wheel and look away struck me as excessively paranoid, despite everything I knew about the situation on the ground. There was a chasm in what was possible in each of our lives, made incongruous by the ease of an eight-hour flight.

A larger gap is found between my understanding of Xi’s New China and the understanding of some of my students’ parents. Many parents are still in a “lemon chicken” mindset, with China and the Chinese equalling trips to tailors in Singapore and hearing Cantonese spoken in Hong Kong restaurants. These are the older Australians who ask, “Do you speak Cantonese or Mandarin?” (but of course don’t ask “Catalan or Spanish?”). They are the generation for whom the rise of China is entirely opaque, who encourage their kids to learn Chinese so that they can “work in footy in China”. This contrasts with parents who already work in China – they tend to be extremely driven to support their children in learning Mandarin, having already lived these economic changes.

Working with these children are my language assistants, fresh from the mainland each year. Our assumptions, cultural references and bodies of knowledge are different, periodically overlapping. Mao would be spinning in his glass coffin if he knew that our strongest bond is an understanding of globalised consumerism, of new-model iPhones and noodle franchise openings. These assistants are not politically naive, or homogenous. They, like me, exemplify the shrug-shoulder attitude of Australian and Chinese citizens, not the hot-and-cold rhetoric of our governments. Perhaps this idea of cultural clash is overblown. But that twinge arises again when I discover that few know that Xi Jinping is president for life, or have heard of the 1989 Tiananmen “incident”.

If these language assistants are to be educated on recent political history, perhaps the worst place in the country would be a secondary school Chinese classroom. While the official study design of the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority could implore students to explore concepts such as “imperialism”, “resistance” and “disruptive ideas”, in fact students in Year 12 Chinese subjects are exposed only to a bland diet of “leisure”, “entertainment” and “youth issues”. But as most teachers in my field come from China, I am sceptical that there is an appetite for a less anodyne curriculum. Many did not dream of teaching Mandarin to high-schoolers who need to be convinced to learn the language, who to traditional Chinese educational sensibilities are unable to handle the complexity of Chinese tones and characters (which, as an aside, is pure nonsense based on objectively awful teaching practice). I feel sympathy for these teachers who are thrust into a raucous Australian classroom with very different assumptions about behaviour, homework, work ethics and learning methods.

Because of these factors, a PRC-friendly narrative is entrenched in the materials used to educate Australian students. Having taught multiple languages at VCE level, I can assert that Chinese is unique in its avoidance of political issues in the classroom. There is no reference in the curriculum to specific events in China’s history, such as the Xinhai Revolution, the Cultural Revolution or the Reform and Opening period of China’s economy. Instead, we are transported to an atemporal land of festivals, rituals and Confucius, presented without discussion of Mao’s concerted campaign to eradicate these, which occurred within the lifetime of most Chinese teachers in Australia. We would not present eighteenth-century France without la Terreur, or twentieth-century Cambodia without the Khmer Rouge, and yet our seventeen-year-olds are meant to appreciate this appealing cultural heritage without understanding the recent desire for its complete destruction.

The only textbook available for the new VCE Culture, Language and Society subject uses the PRC-mandated map of China, showing all of the South China Sea, its strategic islands and Taiwan as belonging to China, presented without discussion. This book was written and published in Australia this year. To me, it seems unlikely that a similar map would be published in a VCE Geography or History textbook, as the writers of these texts operate within a tradition of critical analysis of sources, and are less cautious about the red lines of foreign governments.

The monocultural nature of Chinese-language teaching makes change difficult. My former thesis supervisor, Professor Jane Orton, estimates that there are only 130 proficient non-Chinese Mandarin speakers in Australia. The same research estimates that there are around 400 students of non-Chinese background in Australia studying Chinese at Year 12 level. Unfortunately, there is a depressing pattern of students from Chinese backgrounds learning the language of their parents with no real passion, for “easy marks”, with many schools running anaemic senior classes in Chinese, if they are run at all. We need more students from all backgrounds at this level, to reflect the multicultural reality of schools in metropolitan Australia.

Currently, Australia is unable to write its own story about our relationship with China, veering wildly between fear and greed. Our future mutual misunderstandings will arise from an inadvertent narrowing of the minds of Australia’s children, and may threaten the successful Australian experience of more than 170 years of Chinese migration. I worry about the forces of unthinking xenophobia unleashed on migrants with no connection to the Chinese Communist Party, as I worry about a paralysis in discussing thoughtfully our discomfort with foreign influence in publishing, academia, politics and the media.

In an episode of Nanjing television show The Country Is Strong When the Youth Are Strong (国强则少年强), Harvard graduate Xu Jiru recounts her experience of meeting with a Syrian refugee, who seems to be a curiously avid consumer of the patriotic billboards scattered beside Chinese freeways. According to Xu, this refugee was effusive about China because “I am a Syrian refugee, but YOU are a Chinese citizen,” and mused that Xu “will be treated with respect because you have a stable country behind you, which the world is in awe of”. 

Even in my short lifetime, I have observed a growing sense of cautious awe towards this extraordinary power, its speed of change and its reference to unfamiliar values and language of nationhood. At the moment, Australians are playing on China’s terms, unwilling to craft our own narrative, relying on translators and other people’s interpretations of the events unfolding in our neighbourhood. For better or worse, we are rushing headfirst into the twenty-first century, content so far to play the eternal guest.

Hugh Aliprandi has taught languages at secondary and tertiary level in Melbourne. Read our interview with Hugh here.