Chinese people perceive violent Australian youth to pose a serious threat to the safety of Chinese students. Photo: Louise Kennerly
A gang of six teenagers were reported last month to have harassed passengers on a train in Sydney. When they confronted a female passenger, she pointed desperately at two Chinese men sitting opposite her and said "Rob them. They are Asian. They are rich.''
The men, who were international students, were taunted as "Asian dogs and pussies" and assaulted. They were left with broken bones and cigarette burns.
One student had his mouth stuffed with a used tampon, which an assailant had removed from her underpants. The gang was later charged with assault and robbery, but no one on the train at the time offered help.
At least, that is the account of events that sent shockwaves through Australia's international student community, particularly those of us from China.
An online posting by one of the victims, a 29-year-old master's student known as Xuan, was re-tweeted more than 10,000 times within a day on microblogging website Weibo, China's version of Twitter. Thousands more people expressed their disgust over the attack on the site, run by Chinese internet giant Sina.
It made headlines in China, with state broadcaster The China Central Television network warning that violent Australian youth pose a serious threat to the safety of Chinese students.
I learnt of the attack within hours. So did my mum back in Hefei, in the Anhui province of China, who saw it on the news.
She rang me worried she had sent her only child into danger in a foreign country. I imagine many of the more than 100,000 Chinese students studying here received similar calls.
The incident will only add to Australia's reputation for violence against international students, which is mostly because of attacks against Indians. Whether this is deserved or not doesn't alter the fact that every newly-arrived international student is quickly initiated into the terrifying folklore whispered from one graduating class to the next.
Stories are told and retold about racial assaults that the police do little about. When I arrived here in February last year, I was warned to "never, ever, travel at night". The power these stories have on the experience of international students cannot be underestimated. While I have never been subject to overt racism, I am nevertheless always cautious, even on edge.
Like many Chinese, I choose to live as close as I can to the CBD to avoid long trips on public transport. Only once have I left my apartment after 9pm. If I have to travel in the evening, I sit as close as I can to the door. I text my friends when I get on trams and tell them to ring the police if they don't receive a text to say that I have got off.
The reason the Sydney incident struck a chord with many of us wasn't just because it was our worst fear played out. It was the reference to Chinese students being rich. Many of us feel exploited because of our perceived wealth and sense an undercurrent of resentment against us. This latest attack confirmed it.
It is easy to see why Australian youth might perceive us as wealthy. Foreign students are the cash cows of a more than $16 billion international education industry, the third-largest export industry of Australia. We also serve as a significant source of domestic economic growth. Research by my own university last year found that every Australian undergraduate student is subsidised to the tune of $1200 by international student fees.
My annual tuition fee for a bachelor of arts degree is about $26,000. Books, rent, food and everything else is on top of that.
As international students we are not entitled to the student discount on myki fares that local students receive. A seven-day pass, single-zone for student concession card holders is $9.20. For us it's $18.40.
In the rental market we pay more too because we usually can't get access to mainstream housing. Student accommodation is usually above $200 a week.
It sometimes feels like we are "ripped off" every way we turn. But does paying more for everything necessarily mean that we are rich?
There are Asian students who come from wealthy families. But I also know many Asian students who work here in crappy jobs such as kitchen hands and supermarket shelf-stackers to support their study. Some of my friends don't return home for holidays until graduation to save money, even though most of us Chinese students are precious only children.
I am from a lower-middle-class family. My parents work in a hospital and spent half their life savings to educate me here. They don't take annual leave and mostly work six days a week to support me. While we are better off than previous generations of our family who came from villages in the countryside, we don't consider ourselves rich.
I, like all of my friends here, have come to Australia, not because we have money to burn, but because we don't have the same opportunities to pursue our ambitions back in our homeland. We come because our dedicated parents would sacrifice anything they could to help us to get a better, Western education. We come because we admire Australia's diverse culture and its lively academic atmosphere. We come to accept and try to fit into a society so wonderfully different to our own.
It is a shame that many of us don't feel that acceptance and respect returned. I would like to feel safe in Australia, at home even, but it is hard to relax enough to make real connections here with nightmare stories such as Xuan's circulating.
Shuting Dong is an international student at the University of Melbourne.
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