The Australian National Archives has a lot of pictures from the 1950s-1970s of students from Southeast Asia. This was a time when the Australian government provided a lot of scholarships to students from that region as part of the Colombo Plan.
Malaysian student Mr. Yoong Phoo Pin was undoubtedly one of the many recipients of these scholarships. Here he is in 1959 showing his magazine to students Olga Anskey and Rosemary Chain.
Then there was “outstanding Vietnamese student Mr. Hung” who we see here seated with a colleague studying an engineering textbook in 1965.
These images all show people who are successful. “Tao Hai Sin, 20, from Singapore, topped his class in all subjects in his mechanical engineering course examinations at the Footscray Technical College in Melbourne. Mr Tao, who is in the fourth and final year of his course is one of 100 students from South and South-East Asia at the college” (1962).
And pursuing cutting-edge knowledge: “Joseph Yong Kung Fatt from Sandakan, a third year student at the University of Sydney, is one of the few South or South-East Asian students studying Chemical Engineering in Australia. The comparatively new, four year course, deals with among other things the methods of utilizing by-products and waste materials and includes practical work in the third and final years – Joseph Yong Kung Fatt in the Chemical Engineering laboratory in the University of Sydney” (1963).
They can balance all aspects of their lives. “Albert Chong from Singapore, who is doing a five-year course for the fellowship Diploma in electrical Engineering at the Royal Melbourne Technical College, shares a Melbourne house with three other students from South-East Asia. They do their own housework and cook their own meals. In addition to his studies Albert has found the time to become captain of two tennis clubs and treasurer of three Asian Students’ Association” (1957).
They live in comfortable homes with “lounge rooms.” “Albert Chong (seated) discusses his studies with a friend, Alex Young, in the lounge room of their home in Melbourne.
Adapting to a new environment is also easy. “Students arriving in Melbourne from South and South-East Asia and West Africa, to study at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, first attend a 2½ week transition course which aims at acquainting the students with Australian customs and ways of living which might at first be confusing” (1963).
Indeed, how could adapting be difficult when one has the assistance of an “Australian Mum”? “Students from South and South East Asia, especially nursing students, who study in Melbourne have an ‘Australian Mum’ whose office is a kind of home away from home where there is always a friendly cup of tea and sympathetic ear. ‘Australian Mum’ is the name students have given to Miss Jane Muntz, Nursing Adviser to the Minister of Health in the Australian State of Victoria and President of the Royal Victorian College of Nursing. In a ladies’ hairdressing salon in Melbourne, Miss Muntz advises Thai and Singapore nurses on hair styles. The girls are doing a 12 month post graduate course under the Colombo Plan” (1956).
They live the life of the mind. “Thai student P Chattalada in his study at International House, Melbourne” (1957).
And fulfill their creativity. “Top honors for Thai art student in Australia – working on a poster for a new car” (1966).
And they make it look oh so easy. “Vietnamese student Phan Luong Quang at home, Brisbane” (1958).
And finally, they always look so damn good! “The Colombo Plan Students Association [CPSA] of Western Australia held its last formal function for 1963 at the Refectory at the University of Western Australia. A dinner dance, organized by the CPSA President, Lim Teong Poh, was attended by more than 80 couples, among whom were students from many parts of South-East Asia, India, Pakistan and Africa – Mary Chew eating supper with Ung Tea Kruy, from Cambodia.
I realize that these pictures all represent a form of propaganda, but looking at them made me realize that this is really the only way that the experience of studying abroad is represented. And yet the actual experiences of many students has not been like this.
We know that Jose Rizal and his fellow Filipinos did other things in Spain. They got involved in politics, they drank, and they experienced racism.
And I wonder what Pol Pot’s experience studying in France was like. As far as I know, he failed in his official studies, but he certainly learned other things at the time.
How would we represent that experience of studying abroad?
And on a personal level I can remember witnessing the total diversity of academic abilities in Moscow in the 1980s. There were some foreigners with impeccable Russian and others who struggled to say simple expressions like “oчень хорошо” (and countless rumors about who wrote the dissertations of the people who had bad language skills).
There was a Vietnamese mafia that sent bicycles, refrigerators and cookery back to Vietnam.
There were Cubans who had parties every night. And then there was my beloved North Korean nuclear-physicist roommate who was drunk out of his mind 24 hours a day.
Their experiences don’t fit what is represented in the pictures above, and yet such experiences have probably always been a big part of the experience of studying overseas. The experience is imagined in a monolithic way, but the reality is extremely diverse, and not always as easy or pleasant or serious as the images above suggest.
However, it always seems to be transformative in one way or another.