Student survival in a foreign land

Words by Jane Rusli
Art by Laura Aitken

The standard Asian-Australian childhood.

I had an obsession with Steve Irwin, bought packs over packs of Scoobies at the local warehouse, read all of the Total Girl issues behind mum’s back, and felt the epitome of boss when I wore that paper crown in one of my many long-forgotten, Hungry Jack’s birthday parties.

Come third  grade, my parents informed me that the family was to relocate to Indonesia. As a nine-year-old who has yet to develop her sense of self, the process was easy. I attended an international school that was highly Americanised and integrated into the Indonesian culture with ease. Aside from the stereotypical high school drama, humidity and four-hour long traffic jams? Growing up in Indonesia was pretty mint.

Then came high school graduation, and my family relocated back to Melbourne. Safe to say I wouldn’t be re-living my Aussie memories during my uni years. It was a silver-lining between eager enthusiasm and restless anxiety. Though I hold an Australian passport, I was more Indonesianised than I was ever Australianised.

Heck, it’s been 2 years and I still feel like a tourist. Being nearly 150CM tall, with a whole lot of neurosis, the thought of relocating back to a foreign country populated with tall, white humans? I mean, pretty nerve-wracking. Hazy memories of primary school playgrounds and birthday girl crowns were long gone.  Beyond the excitement of starting university, moving to a new country, and living that coffee-filled, brunch-aesthetic Melburnian life, questions regarding fitting-in, adapting, acceptance, and finding friends surfaced.


Socio-Cultural Adjustment

For a period of three months, the only people I knew were my family, family friends, and a handful of mates from Indonesia. As a means of finding friends, I started my first job in McDonalds, quickly realising that I couldn’t relate to any of my workmates. My mindset and theirs were too different and I couldn’t fit in. It also didn’t help that I was the only Asian in the chain. My motivation for university plummeted as I began feeling lonely and isolated. I was homesick and longed for the way life was back in Indonesia.

Public transport, working, and the concept of individual accountability were foreign to me. However, as time passed, I made friends through university and work. The process was slow, but learning about, and adopting the practices and culture was a vital factor in adapting to the Australian culture.

Most of my close mates are international students, and it is evident that they face more issues than just socio-cultural adjustment



“I recently obtained my master’s degree in management and accounting and received a full-time job offer from ANZ. The issue was I needed a Temporary Student Visa to take the job. After spending $1600 on a visa fee that was non-refundable, my application was rejected since my degree was not a ‘two years program.’ I had to pack my bags and leave Australia within a month”. Siga (26) is one of the many international students who struggle with visas.

To continue living in Australia, he has taken a total of three masters degree courses, and is now enrolling into an immigration major in IT. “It’s the only way I could apply for a job in Australia,” he said. Visa problems plague foreign students. Students who spend years studying with the intention to work in Australia, are faced with volatile visa laws, and strict rules such that the 485 Temporary Graduate Visa, which is only applicable to those who entered the country before November 2011. “It’s not fair. I paid the fees applicable for international students and dedicated six years of studying in Australia. Suddenly I’m expected to leave the country?”


Work Rights

Aside from having to compete with local students, many international students are discriminated against due to their lack of English knowledge. “It’s normal to be told to go back to my country,” said Jacqui (30). Most international students are not familiar with work rights as there is no formal education about fair work, and they are vulnerable to exploitation in the labour market. Many businesses take advantage of this, resulting in students being underpaid, or working beyond legal working hours.


Living Costs & Accommodation

Upon arriving in Australia, many international students are shocked by the high living costs. They do not get discounts on public transport, Youth Allowance, and health insurance like local students. Accommodation and daily living becomes a challenge and many international students look for casual work to make ends meet.

That being said, finding and securing accommodation is difficult. Coco, a Monash graduate has moved a total of ten times in the seven years she has lived in Melbourne. “There was always an issue with the rent, the lease, the contractor, or the tenant. I’m always living with the fear of going homeless. Moving houses is tiring. I just want a place to call home,” said Coco (26). Securing accommodation before landing in Australia is difficult, as Australian universities provide students with little or no housing options.

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