International Students in Australia

“Wow, your English is really good for an Asian!”

“Such a bad driver… Must be Asian…”

“You’re Asian, you’re good at maths right?”

If you’ve ever encountered any phrases like these, unfortunately you aren’t alone. Because in the four years that I live in Australia as an international student those phrases have become quite familiar to me.

While Australian humour is notoriously self deprecating, for -us- international students who’ve been on the receiving end of remarks such as these, we’re often often left to wonder why these have to be made at our expense.

In the multicultural landscape of modern Australia, racism still lurks.

Between 2008 and 2010, violence against international students in Australia became an issue of major public controversy, primarily focused on violence directed against Indian students and India-born persons who had settled in Australia. Acts of violence were depicted in sections of the Indian media as a direct result of entrenched racism in Australia.

Indicative of extremist reporting, in February 2010 the magazine Outlook India featured a photograph of a battered young Indian man under the headline ‘Why the Aussies hate us’. A series of articles sought to provide answers. The magazine provided an account of students ‘trembling every time they step out on the streets of Melbourne late at night’ and concluded that ‘the poor Indian student largely depends on luck for her or his survival’ (Sharma cited in Markus 2011).

The problem of violence directed against overseas students did not involve only Indian students. In August 2008, the Chinese Consul in Sydney drew attention to attacks, reporting that he had surveyed 100 Chinese students and found that more than one in four had been a victim of crime: the homes of 20 had been burgled and six had been robbed, several at knife point (Levett cited in Markus 2011).

In 2012, a gang of six teenagers were reported last month to have harassed passengers on a train in Sydney. The attack came just days after two safety warnings from the Chinese embassy in Canberra for citizens travelling in Australia. Many Chinese students studying in Australia have expressed their fear over growing violence directed against them.

One of the victims of the attack, known as Xuan, suffered from a fractured nose and burns from a lit cigarette. The international student from China, seeking a master’s degree at the University of Technology, Sydney, was travelling with a friend from Central to Rockdale when the attack happened. A translation from Xuan’s blog on the Chinese social media site Weibo reads: “I really wish all of this is just a nightmare. However, the smell of blood in my mouth and body pains reminds me that this city is so dangerous.

“A gang of hooligans attacked us. Our noses are fractured and our bodies are covered in blood. My friend’s cheekbone was crushed. They attacked us with glass and burnt us with lit cigarettes. My face is burnt and totally disfigured! Worst of all, I really hated their racist comments. They were calling us Asian dogs and pussies while they were beating us. When my friend tried to wipe blood from his nose, a teenaged girl stuffed my friend’s mouth with her tampon removed from her pants.” Another woman passenger, who was also targeted by the thieves, allegedly told the attackers to “rob them, they are Asian and they have got money”. The account of events that sent shockwaves through Australia’s international student community, particularly those from China.

Other than outright violence, racism can also come in the form of passing comments or seemingly harmless self-belittling jokes in everyday situations. This is known as casual racism, which involves behaviour related to negative stereotypes or prejudices about people on the basis of ethnicity.

Casual racism is not about the superiority of one race over another, but rather, the perpetuation of negative stereotypes. With regards to Asian students in particular, these stereotypes can include being math nerds, bad drivers, prudes, bad at English or assuming they all look the same.

Casual racism can make a person feel extremely isolated, humiliated and unwelcome in the society. The person on the receiving end will feel as though the unique, multifaceted and talented individual they are is reduced to a single stereotype by these racial slurs. This can have a severe harmful effect on mental health and may even lead to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.



Cai, P 2012, ”This city is so dangerous’: Outrage in China over Sydney train assault’, The Age, 24 April. Available from: [21 May 2016].

Markus, A 2011, ‘Racism and international students in Australia’ in A home away from home? Internationals students in Australian and South African Higher Education, eds I Snyder & J Nieuwenhuysen, Monash University Publishing, Melbourne. Available from:

Trinity College Foundation Studies 2015, ‘Understanding casual racism and how international students should respond to it’, Meld Magazine, 27 November. Available from: [21 May 2016].

33 thoughts on “International Students in Australia

  1. Hi Ari,
    Thanks for writing this great and topical article…

    Wow! Xuan’s story is terrifying. I feel embarrassed of the human race when reading it.

    However, while these violent people are throwing racist comments, I wonder if this really is a racist act or just the act of (let’s just call them) “psychologically unhealthy people”?

    I ask this question because my Australian friends (males) have experienced similar incidents. Especially after a night out – “psychologically unhealthy Australians” AND alcohol is just a really bad combination.

    My Australian friends have been beaten up, robbed and shouted at (called all sorts of things) just because they happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

    Especially one of my friends seem to always be the victim. It’s almost certain that if he goes out he will come back home with something broken. (And the funny thing is that he is probably the most calm guy of the bunch). But he stands out. He’s tall, got fair skin and is red-haired.

    It seems like these “psychologically unhealthy people” just like to target people that stand out from the crowd. I’m not sure whether they do it particularly because they hate a certain stereotype (Asians, redheads, women etc.). I think these kind of people would be just as violent to anyone, not only Asians, but also other people, and they would surely find a reason to justify their violence (e.g. calling someone stupid redhead or a slut). I think they just do these terrible things because of their own fear, and because of self-hate, insecurity and being in an unhealthy environment.

    I wanted to make this comment because I think that this issue goes far beyond the stereotypes.

    It’s not an us versus them. It’s a cry out for help. A someone who is desperately trying to degrade another person to make themself feel worth more…

    Adding to that, I just want to clarify that this certainly doesn’t make it any more acceptable to degrade another person (regardless of that being by race, nationality, wealth, gender, personal style etc.).

    In regards to the Asian stereotype (math nerds, bad drivers, prudes, bad at English or assuming they all look the same). Do you think this is necessarily a bad thing?
    Or can it be a fun conversation starter?

    Personally, I can come across many stereotypes I fit under. In Denmark blondes are said to be less intelligent (which is odd because half of the country has blonde hair). And outside of Denmark, Danish women have been known to be sexually very liberal and Denmark has been famous for its p0rn industry (not something I would want to be known for).

    Have I had some less pleasant incidents where I have been judged as a stereotype? Yes – I particularly recall an incident in Argentina where I was working at a hotel. I was serving this older man (famous and powerful, but not very well-liked by the public) and he put two stereotypes down on me (submissive girl + from p0rn land aka. Denmark). He had been throwing sexist comments at me the whole time serving him, but when he started including my sister in his monolog I had to ask one of the other waitresses to take over for me.

    However, in my opinion it’s not the “stereotype” that it the bad guy here. It’s the behaviour of the person who is using the stereotype as an excuse to do whatever they do…

    When talking to normal people, I actually find that stereotypes can be a great conversation starter. You can “surprise” the person you’re talking to.. “No, actually – I’m different…..”

    I think we all judge books by their cover – it only becomes a problem when we refuse to read what’s inside. 🙂

  2. This is an interesting topic. As an international student myself, I am very lucky that I have never been through any racism violence and I believe Xuan’s story is an individual case. Instead of worrying about the racism violence threat, I’m more concerned about the other effects of stereotyping to both Australian and international students.

    The recent ABC Four Corners Episode and associated comments over social media put international students into the spotlight. While it identified real problems of collusion, plagiarism and fraudulent overseas agents. It presented overused stereotypes of international students only interested in gaining permanent residence rather than pursuing an education in a country they highly respect.

    Permanent Residency might be a consideration for some of us seeking to study in Australia. However, it is not always the primary motivation nor the sole desire for international students. If these stereotypes underpin pedagogic work, educators might easily see international students as simply not interested in learning or as ‘problems’ to be remedied and ignore the benefits of positioning them as potential useful constructors of knowledge. In the end, we will stop finding effective ways to draw on the different cultural and professional knowledge, experiences, backgrounds and interests that international students bring into the classroom which could enhance learning for all.

    Personally, I never thought about staying in Australia for too long. But the stereotype makes me concern about when an employer sees an Asian with an Australian degree, should they be considering whether the person falls into the cheating category or the victim category?

    Not to mention we experienced additional pressures that local students never imaged. During our time in school, international students must adjust to a new culture, using second language in everyday exchanges and learn about new social situations and interaction styles. International students also often face financial pressures due to lacking of financial aid available to non-citizens, and they are often prohibited from working outside of the school they attend. The pressures can contribute to depression or thoughts of suicide.

    Conclusion, I miss my home :”(

  3. You’ve touched a true and sad issue in Australia. The worst thing is that this involves Australian universities that recruit aggressively students from Asian countries but don’t seem to guarantee their safety. Perhaps if more people spoke openly about their experience, as you did, things would slowly become more normal? Your team’s blog is already making a difference.

  4. Great topic Ari! I have some thoughts to share as well!

    As an international student studying for almost two and a half year in Perth, apart from the major cities in East Australia where most violence cases are reported, I would also say that most of my international friends studying in Perth have encountered at least once or twice threatening experiences, lucky that none of them were seriously injured or assaulted.
    In my opinion, violence towards international students is not to be explained simply in terms of Australian racism. It is more complicated than that and is a multifaceted issue. If I were asked in general “do you feel safe in Australia”, I would still say yes!

    It is also of relevance to note that survey data indicate that over 80 per cent of overseas students feel safe in Australia.

    I would wanna raise two points. First, there are substantial problems of assault and robbery in major Australian cities. The impact is felt across the community, not just by students; that is, males aged in their twenties, living in areas of low socio-economic status and high immigrant concentration, and working in some relatively high-risk occupations/part time jobs and reliant on the use of public transport at late hours. Concerns over levels of safety at night in public places and on public transport are widely held. I believe this alarming issue does affect, not limited to international students, instead whoever is exposed in such a vulnerable position, especially during night time when the streets are empty and with more drunk people lingers around. As a result, my friends and I have learnt how to avoid putting ourselves in risk of danger.

    Second, I reckon that levels of intolerance and bigotry, while not particularly high in Australian society, are of sufficient importance to be one in the range of explanatory factors required to account for the level of assault and robbery perpetrated on Indian and other international students. Bigotry acts as a channeling mechanism, directing the attention of the socially alienated towards those culturally distinct and vulnerable, legitimizing the targeting of minorities. It can also impact on allocation of priorities within police forces struggling to cope with levels of criminality. It is to be said that, I would say the lack of understanding and the ingrained cultural biases remain a hidden factor contributing to the violent incidents happen towards international students, and people with distinctive cultural differences.


  5. The interest of students in education depends upon the surroundings. I am glad to know that international students in Australia are well behaved. This post remind me the days when I go for study in Australia and used to visit australian source for getting my work completed on time.

  6. As a world student finding out for nearly 2 and a half year in Perth, except the foremost cities in East Australia wherever most violence cases ar according, i might conjointly say that almost all of my international friends finding out in Perth have encountered a minimum of once or doubly threatening experiences, lucky that none of them were seriously dislocated or molested. Thanks for sharing.

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  8. Thank you very much and appreciate what you share. We must condemn these actions. Respect human rights. The method of educating your country is great. Try more research on herbs. You can see more here!

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