Over the past two years, it has been difficult to watch Chinese and Australians of Chinese descent in Australia feeling uncomfortable and marginalized.
Last year, during Senate hearings, Chinese Australians were challenged over their loyalty to Australia and inquiries were made of Confucius Institutes that support Chinese learning in Australia.
The pandemic has accelerated a major break in diplomatic and trade relations between Australia and China. Our current defense alliances confirm that our privileged relations are in the Anglosphere.
I have already met a model of Australian school leaders who have withdrawn from engagement with schools in China. They often give awkward explanations that they don’t really know what to do. It would not be surprising to see a drop in the number of Australian children studying Mandarin in school given the negativity and anxiety that has been generated.
The politics of nations have reverberated in the mindsets of educators, which can only lead to a breakdown in relationships that benefits all of us, especially our next generation of Australians.
Education has an important role to play in addressing this.
Education should provide opportunities for intercultural learning to get through these difficult times. It requires educators to use a combination of curriculum, context, and communication. However, the challenges run deeper, with issues raised last year highlighting the “politicization of Chinese language teaching in Australian classrooms today”.
Australia is not changing its geography – we seem to constantly forget that we are in Asia Pacific. As Parag Khanna said so well in his book The future is Asian, “The more Asian Australia becomes, the less it can see itself – and the less we should see it – as a detached outpost from the West in Asia.”
Australia’s place in the Asia-Pacific region is reflected in the faces of our society and our students. In schools in Victoria and New South Wales, Mandarin is one of the most widely spoken languages other than English at home.
Chinese migrants first arrived in Australia over 200 years ago. Additionally, it has been disputed that Chinese exploration of Australia began in the 15th century. Yet the history taught in our schools often relegates Sino-Australian studies to the gold rush of the 1850s.
The New York Times put this perfectly into context with its 2018 article “200 Years Later, Chinese Australians Still Prove They Belong”.
History allows us to challenge cross-cultural assumptions, such as reminding learners that there were Chinese ANZACs or highlighting the Asians-Australians who shaped our nation.
The contemporary history of China is becoming increasingly complex for many outside China to understand. There are concerns over Chinese land claims in the South China Sea, pressure on Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), and questions over China’s compliance with World Trade Organization rules. The deployment of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is reshaping infrastructure and relationships around the world.
This should be an important part of our education to better understand the trillion dollar BRI, including how it relates to large national infrastructure plans like the old Silk Roads or to establish similarities with the Marshall Plan of post-war period for the reconstruction of Europe.
This is where schools come in.
I recently ran an online workshop with 50 educators from Yinhu Academy in Hangzhou on intercultural understanding. They have shown impressive effort and willingness to develop greater overall competence, critical thinking and communication.
They described their students’ engagement in debates on world affairs, ways to foster harmony, and the importance of teaching a bilingual curriculum. The enthusiasm for collaboration and two-way engagement is certainly present in Chinese schools.
Stanley Wang, Principal of Abbotsford Primary School in Melbourne, was recently a winner in the Education category of the prestigious 2021 40 Under 40 Asian-Australian Leaders.
As the head of a bilingual Chinese school, Stanley recognized this; “We actually took the opportunity (of COVID-19) to do a lot more small-scale but frequent online interactions between students at our school and other Chinese-speaking areas.
“It has been very powerful for the students because they are not only preparing for this one-time explosion of excitement, but actually seeing that it is about building relationships as well.”
The Australian curriculum is designed to encourage critical thinking and ethical understanding. The aim is to further develop respect, empathy and reflection through intercultural understanding. Helping learners understand that the world is complex helps to challenge the most extreme stereotypes and prejudices.
Improving our literacy in China requires at least three things: knowledge, skills and attitude. Through intercultural learning within the programs of the Asia Education Foundation (AEF), learners recognize the cultural lenses of their own mindset and the emphasis we each place on notions such as status and relationships.
At AEF, we want to develop skills through sustained reciprocal engagement with countries like China, using respect and empathy to reach common resolutions for education.
Australian school education needs to focus more on the things that connect us than on the differences that separate us, and even more work on the role of cultural sensitivity. These would greatly help educators and students to examine the assumptions around China and develop empathy for the Chinese people.
I am convinced that education is in the best position to help us overcome misunderstandings and suspicions about China and the Chinese people. The need for knowledge and understanding is more important today than ever.
Learning to understand yourself through others is at the heart of intercultural learning.