For a long time now we’ve been told how Australia is a part of Asia. But let’s be honest: in our heads at least, we live in Europe. You can see this clearly in a walk along North Terrace. Stay cool beneath the European plane trees. Admire the grand public buildings that wouldn’t be out of place in London or Paris. Then outside the University of Adelaide be struck by the sheer number of Asian students. We may not be yet a part of Asia, but Asia is increasingly part of us.
Unfortunately, we don’t really understand that. We know China is what keeps our economy roaring along just as Japan once did; we also know that most stuff we buy has been made there. But that’s about it. Compare that to our knowledge of America. If you open any newspaper at the moment, you’ll likely find a story about the US presidential election – even though it’s not until November and the Republicans haven’t even chosen a candidate yet. But did you know the Chinese are also experiencing leadership tensions not seen so publicly since 1989 (the year of the Tiananmen Square massacre)? Or even the name of the man – Xi Jinping – widely tipped to take over the party leadership from President Hu Jintao in October?
If not, join the club. While we’ve embraced Asia in areas like food, we remain firmly Anglo-centric. And we’ve reinforced that with a migration program which for most of the last century has relied on Europe as its chief source. Yes we’ve diversified since the Vietnamese refugees began to arrive in the 1970s, but the UK has always been our number one source of migrants.
Until now. Last year most migrants came from China (29,000), with Britain second (24,000). Third was India (21,000). Seven of the top 10 source countries were Asian (excluding New Zealand which doesn’t feature in the program). Two million Australians were born in Asia. We may have failed to make the leap into Asia, but Asians haven’t had the same difficulty with us.
That much is obvious from a city stroll. Nearly 70 per cent of foreign students are Asian. Their numbers have stayed strong despite the global financial crisis. Yet it is one-way traffic: very few Australians study in Asia. The federal government is worried this will affect our future ability to understand the place.
So why not? In my opinion, two reasons: our head space is Europe and the US, and unless you’re Kevin Rudd, the Chinese language seems to be too dull or difficult. Very few Australian students of Anglo-saxon background seem capable of mastering it, or keen to pursue it as a career tool. In Year 12, the numbers are plummeting, down from 480 to 311 between 2008 and 2011, and most of those already have a background in Chinese.
It’s a terrible failure of the education system. I blame our school system’s career advice and especially the focus on perfect Year 12 scores to maximise a student’s options for university entrance. Chinese is tough, and no wonder students wanting the top mark would opt for something easier.
But we’ve got it wrong. We don’t need perfect speakers, just good ones who can help forge greater links and understanding between our countries. SACE should accommodate this.
China presents opportunities and threats. It is the world’s banker, Australia’s best customer, and a giant cauldron of social and economic change. Yet its workings are opaque. Some experts fear a growth of nationalism, others a drop-off in its GDP.
We need to understand it better. The best way to unlock the Chinese puzzle is to learn the language.