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].

594 thoughts on “International Students in Australia

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