Bridging the student and local divide

A performance of "She'll Be Right".

A performance of “She’ll Be Right”.

By David Schout

A theatre group of international students that aims to bridge the cultural gap between themselves and everyday Melburnians has been recognised for its community innovation.

The Act of Translation workshops were established to give students the confidence to understand and build relationships with locals – something most overseas students desire but are often too afraid to initiate. 

And on September 12, the initiative won the Victorian Multicultural Commission’s Community Innovation award.

The award recognised projects that use outside-the-box thinking to promote multiculturalism.

It was the view of the judges that Act of Translation best addressed a particular problem facing diverse communities to an outside audience, thereby contributing to social cohesion.

Launching in 2017, the initiative involves students from many countries – including China, Indonesia, Brazil, India and Iraq – attending an 18-week workshop under the guidance of artistic director Catherine Simmonds. 

It aims to take students out of their comfort zone and instil an understanding of cultural norms and nuances in Australia that differ from their own.

It also hopes to challenge, through performance, the stereotypes about Melbourne’s international student community. 

This year’s workshop culminated in sell-out theatre performances of She’ll Be Right, a presentation that both poked fun at cultural differences but also addressed serious issues faced by international students. 

The project aimed to depict the daily life of the average international student in Melbourne, including confusing cultural norms and sayings such as “she’ll be right”.

“Students want to step out of their culture,” Ms Simmonds explains in a 26-minute documentary made about Act of Translation, which screened in the Immigration Museum.

“They didn’t leave their country and their family to come and get that exact same experience and to close themselves up into their cultural groups. It wasn’t the dream they had.”

In the documentary, students explained why many chose to socialise with fellow countrymen and women at university.

Several stressed that this wasn’t because they had insular personalities, or were disinterested in local people and culture in Melbourne. Rather, it was almost always due to fear and confusion.

“In the first year of my studies, I only mingled with Chinese students,” one student says.

“And I would try to make friends with the local people but I don’t know how. We are forced to be silent sometimes, and why we are silent can be explained in the play.”

The documentary was praised for challenging Melburnians to think differently about international students.

It also emboldens students in similar situations in that they are not alone in their plight.

Act of Translation: The Documentary can be viewed on the City of Melbourne’s Youtube channel.

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