By Christine Li
Image courtesy of The Conversation
It’s the ‘new’ reality that everyone’s talking about: Asia’s rising status on the world stage, and Australia’s determination to be its best friend. Most recently, the White Paper acknowledged the trends that will shift Australia ever closer to our Asian neighbours in coming decades. Its broadly optimistic tone aspires to usher in new attitudes about Asia: if we find the region important, hopefully they’ll like us too…
And there is no doubt that Asia is incredibly important to us. The first wave of demand for Australian mining exports that we are now experiencing is symptomatic of an Asian middle class in its infancy, as the need for energy matches the pace of rising incomes in population-dense economies such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. By 2030, there will be 3 billion middle class customers in Asia that our goods and services can cater to. A second wave may well be the growing pains of flourishing economies: greater demand for high protein food and more diverse diets that the middle classes are increasingly able to afford. As an indication of lifestyle and consumption habits changing with income growth, ‘the amount of meat consumed a year in Asia increased by a factor of 14 between 1961 and 2009.’ Australia’s agricultural sector must shape up to feed this demand.
In the meantime, Australia stands to gain much from shoring up its Asian skills and language résumé as goods and services exports are expected to expand in coming decades. Education and business services are our first and third largest services exports to the region respectively. For the next thirty years at least, Australia’s future is tied to the powerhouses of Asia.
Despite the good news, all signs indicate that we are not adequately prepared for the Asian century. To date, there exist significant shortfalls in language and cultural skills necessary to advance Australian interests in Asia. There are concerns that ‘the broader picture of Asia is still not as familiar to Australians overall as it should be.’ The White Paper notes that ‘fewer Year 12 students studied Indonesian in 2009 than in 1972. And, while Japanese remains the most widely taught language in Australian schools, student numbers fell by 16 per cent from 2000 to 2008.’
It is of no surprise then that amongst the Paper’s recommendations is an emphasis on training young Australians to be more Asia-literate. ‘Australians need to build ‘Asia-relevant’ capabilities – both broad-based and specialised. All students will have access to at least one priority Asian language: Mandarin, Hindi, Indonesian and Japanese. These strategies will be part of our national plan for school improvement,’ PM Julia Gillard promises. It is expected that early exposure to Asian language and culture in the classroom will mature into an open-minded appreciation for the continent’s importance in the future. The results may be showing already: the University of Melbourne breadth subject requirements since 2007 has seen a significant increase in the take up of Asian languages: a 79 per cent increase in Chinese, 64 per cent increase in Japanese and 33 per cent in Indonesian.
For young entrepreneur Hannah Skrzynski, after living in Beijing for four years, the decision to found her arts management consultancy for collaboration between Australian and Asian artists took a lot more than Mandarin skills. When asked whether working and living in Asia was merely good for business, Ms. Skrzynski laughs and counters: ‘if you’re not enjoying it, it can’t last. Everyone has bad China days, when little things get to you – it can be the traffic, it can be people crowding you – it’s too much. You have to have a passion for it. It’s just something you fall in love with – it’s the people.’
This is what the Government anticipates when it talks about building strong ‘people-to-people links’. Robust exchange between nations requires much more than mere recognition of the other’s needs and the ability to meet them. In this sense, Asia-literacy is less about simply negotiating compatibility than about building this compatibility, one young mind at a time. It is no use single-mindedly working on incorporating the ‘mechanics of a language’ into the Australian curriculum, when what we need is to teach our students to think in another culture. Lessons in Asian history and its diverse philosophies are hence essential. Total immersion in an Asian country would be even better – which is something the Gillard Government’s new $37 million AsiaBound Grants Program recognises, by offering 10,000 Australian students generous grants to study in Asia.
Another Mandarin student James Hutchinson hints at the cultural subtleties that many Australians might find surprising when in Asia. In and amongst the cultural gaffes of living abroad in a dynamically contrasting environment are formative experiences to be made. ‘The experience of being the minority teaches you empathy – it teaches you diplomacy. You can’t do the things you want done in the way you’re used to doing it. You have to do it their way, and learn how to appreciate it.’ But much of this talk of acquired perspectives overlooks our cultural wealth at home, and how it could be valuable to make use of local interaction with existing migrant communities.
Aside from formal education and travel, for young people today the arts, culture and creativity can also serve as a means to strengthen interpersonal connections with Asia. Creativity recognises no borders and markets itself to a globalised world. Hopefully one day this can serve as a driving force to ‘help to connect people, business, institutions and governments across the region’ (White Paper). It’s clear that we’ve got a long way to go before Australia’s relationship with Asia becomes fully formed, but the White Paper’s role will go a long way in changing popular attitudes.