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How the other third live: experiences of Chinese women studying in Australia

I never got to know Angel*. She would appear in my journalism class sporadically, and when she did, always sat by herself. She never spoke in class, unless spoken to by the lecturer. Then, she would reply in broken English, always seemingly confronted and confused by his questions.

Why did she come here? And how had she changed as a result of it? Fran Martin is seeking these kinds of answers, and has found many. The Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne is roughly halfway through a five-year study into the experiences of 50 Chinese women studying in five Victorian universities.

“I’m seeing more and more of these young people in my classes,” the specialist in contemporary Chinese youth cultures said. “I began to wonder what their lives are like when they are in Australia.”

Fran Martin

Foreign students are arriving in Australia in record-breaking numbers. By far the biggest proportion – a third – are from China, and the majority of them are women. While data-rich areas, like their academic results, have been studied, the substance of their day-to-day lives is often, like Angel’s, unknown.

Martin notes gender can be a driving factor for female Chinese students coming here. Younger women often do so, and then stay afterwards, to avoid workplace discrimination. In China, there is a sense that employers don’t want to hire young women, fearing they will fall pregnant and require paid maternity leave. Some older students leave China to avoid societal expectations of early marriage and pregnancy, from their early twenties onward. Martin provided some of her interviewees’ responses on this point:

[Study abroad] has been a dream since I was an undergraduate. I just felt like going and giving it a try. Because otherwise, you know, for girls in China – the traditional view is that girls, when they get to this age, should settle down. Work, get married, whatever. But I felt that if I don’t make this decision right now, […] I might never be able to do it. (Xiaofen, 24)

I’m 21 now, and I know there are some girls around my age [whose families are] like, you should consider getting married. […] And their parents are already really worried that they won’t find a boyfriend and what they will do then. If they don’t have a boyfriend, they worry about what that entails for the future. So, I don’t want to be judged like that. (Pingping, 21)

Once they’re here, however, how do they feel – about escaping the ‘marriage trap’ or otherwise? Martin can’t make any sweeping conclusions yet (her study only finishes in 2020) though she has some insights. They include these students wanting to make local friends but finding this hard, and therefore, disappointing; being knowingly but helplessly exploited by employers and landlords; and perhaps not being as patriotic as you may think.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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