“Why Should an Australian Read This Book?” – Musings from an Australian Perspective

Why should I read this book? What a good question, Barry Li.

This is the third part of my elongated discussion of Barry Li’s book The New Chinese: How They Are Changing Australia. The first part was about his parents, then next himself, and now me – yay! (I’m Australian, in case that point’s been missed). But please don’t feel excluded if you’re not an Aussie from DownUnder, because “if you feel you are surrounded by Chinese, or your life is impacted by the Chinese in some way, or you seek to profit from trading with China” then I imagine this book is also for you.

In this segment, Li talks about how, “without great financial pressures” as an international student funded by his parents, “life in Sydney as a student was relatively easy… [and I could] focus on study”. It’s over ten years ago now these times, so cost of living was different, but I bet that thought might rankle with Australian students today, especially those who live out of home. I knew Chinese international students at my university who lived on the other side of the road to our inner-city campus and could point during lectures to their apartment window. I wasn’t the only one being envious on our various hour trips home. What’s even crazier is that Li adds:

“While many of my generation of Chinese students had to take on part-time work to subsidise their tuition fees and living costs, the new generation of students are much wealthier. They work for fun and experience, rather than the money. It is they who have driven the development of new restaurants and rental markets around major campus areas.”

I can’t deny the sad acceptance I have when I read phrases about how the current-day international students “can buy big houses and apartments while they are still at school because their parents are happy to fund them”. But I suppose there are Ivy League kids, with long American family histories, that also have the same thing. These days I don’t even bother counting about how many smashed avo breakfasts I have to miss to pay off a house because skipping those is hardly going to sway the decision of the bank. But perhaps this isn’t the place for a Sydney millennial-renter rage; there’s a chapter later called “From the gold rush to the property rush” so I’ll save it for there.

Probably the main point Li is trying to make in this chapter – and even the whole purpose of the book! – is that Australians’ knowledge of China and its people, is outdated. Even his understanding became outdated within three years living in Australia, returning home in 2010 and nearly unable to recognise his own neighbourhood. In 2002, just before Li came to Australia for the first time, Beijing had two subway lines; just over a month ago, you could catch me almost everyday speeding my way through one of Beijing’s 19 lines currently open. (I’ve been told that light rail construction through George Street here in Sydney has been going for nearly two years?) The price of cars, luxury goods, apartment and the sheer number of them in China has changed and is changing at a significant rate. Li wants us to know that China of today is no longer the place we tend to imagine “from the 1970s, a strange and cruel communist country like North Korea, as depicted in the old Chinese books and movies”. If you’ve got that – then good. Now on to discovering China’s modern self.

Australian society, in my opinion, has been slow on the uptake for learning Asian languages (and through language, culture). Limited universities offer Chinese, even few Japanese, even fewer Korean. Good luck finding Vietnamese, Khmer, Thai, Indonesian at a school near you. The education system is not well designed for learning a foreign language continuously through primary school, high school and perhaps beyond. (I seriously hope it’s something that gets addressed by future parliamentarians.) Li says that “until recently, I didn’t feel Australians really needed to know much about my language and culture, because it was not really relevant to their lives”. Now, with the Free-Trade Agreement in 2015 signed between the two countries; the South China sea dilemma; this abstract puzzle to place Australia exclusively in the China-“sphere” or the US-“sphere”; and the increased concern over foreign property owners, certainly Chinese language and culture has now become relevant to our lives. One could of course start learning how to count and order fried noodles in Mandarin to stay current, but likely reading a book like this (or re-reading my thoughts about a book like this!) gets you to an understanding of China a bit faster. With resources out there, there’s increasingly little excuse for Australians to stay ignorant of our northern neighbour.

I don’t want to sound draconian, with a ‘call-to-arms’ for knowledge. I’m in no rush to learn the names of every single Chinese senior politician. The picture of the book above is my copy of The New Chinese, marked and bent. In true millennial style, I spilt avocado dip all over the pages upon opening it for the first time. Learning doesn’t have to be ‘precious’, in a building constructed hundreds of years ago with a dedicated ‘Reading Room’, a token take-away coffee, and a set of funky headphones. Take a quick moment, anywhere in your life, to search some recent news about China. As Australians, we can’t pretend China doesn’t exist or that it has no impact on us. This is the Asian Century so we’re reminded – those with the knowledge of what this new century demands undoubtably have the first step forward.