By Kim Jirik
A competition for budding international student storytellers is providing a platform for them to reflect on the opportunities and challenges of finding a place in Australia.
When Huy Quoc Tran came to Australia from Vietnam in 2013, he hadn’t yet graduated from high school and didn’t feel confident speaking English.
Less than four years later, Huy has been shortlisted in Study Melbourne’s My Place in Melbourne storytelling competition at the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF).
His story is about an encounter with a stranger at the Easter Festival in Bendigo.
Huy studies Early Childhood Education at La Trobe University in the town, where the stranger encouraged him to overcome his social anxiety.
“When I was in school [in Vietnam], I was bullied quite severely,” Huy says.
“When I first came to Australia, I thought it would be no different from Vietnam and I would be judged, … but then it didn’t happen.
“People [in Australia] are very friendly. Even, like in the story I wrote, a total stranger could really help me with my anxiety.”
Huy’s experience of being bullied in Vietnam inspired him to volunteer with different community groups, which also gave him opportunities to practise speaking English.
“I do a lot of volunteer work with international students and local students, so I can have a chance to talk with them,” Huy says.
“I know how it feels to be feeling useless.
“So I always try to meet other people and try to understand them and help them.”
Huy keeps an online journal and sees writing as a way of dealing with his shyness.
“It’s easier for me to express myself in writing than speaking,” he says.
Established writer and editor Adolfo Aranjuez also reflects on his personal experiences in his writing. He will be speaking about those experiences as an international student at the MWF event.
Coming to Melbourne from the Philippines when he was 15, the move sparked an intensive period of self-discovery.
“Apart from the stresses of being an adolescent and puberty and all that … I’m also queer,” he says.
He began questioning his religious upbringing, and says his newfound independence in Australia contributed to that.
“I think that was definitely facilitated by … being an international student,” he says.
“That foreign context forces you to reconsider your values or confront things that you may decide not to hold on to anymore.”
One thing international students can confront is racism in Australia.
“I do know of other people’s experiences … of racism and verbal and physical abuse and aggression,” Adolfo says. “It’s definitely prevalent.”
“As much as Australia has given me, it’s still a country that’s very much based in dispossession, and the way it continues to treat its minorities is very troubling to me,” says Sonia Nair, another emerging writer.
Sonia will be hosting the event at MWF. She spent her early childhood in Australia before returning to Malaysia with her family.
“The education isn’t that great [in Malaysia],” Sonia says.
“It’s also quite expensive. Because I had my permanent residency [in Australia] already, … I think it was always the intention that I would come back here and further my studies.”
Sonia says she doesn’t take that privilege for granted.
“I am really happy to be here. I think it allows me to pursue my craft in a way that I wouldn’t be able to in Malaysia. Melbourne is very nurturing,” she says.
The Melbourne Writers Festival is on from August 25 – September 3.