Self Preservation in an Age of Amalgamation

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In days gone by, the world was conceived as a giant jigsaw puzzle. Each piece represented a country. Although all the pieces could be placed together to form the one picture, the final image remained fractured, with each segment isolated within its own boundaries.

While countries may be still separated by geographical and political barriers, in a way the world’s population behaves as a singular organism in which invisible products in the form of information, ideas and commentary flow fluidly around the globe.  Within this interconnected environment, ‘media capitals’ have emerged as centres of media activity, locations where complex information paths and products interact, and where cultural boundaries dissolve. Today, the frontrunners of the media landscape are cities that act as hubs for finance, production, and the distribution of media, including Bombay, Cairo, Hollywood and Hong Kong (Curtin, 2003).

However within this unified media ecology, it has become clear that the concept of “cultural essentialism” holds true, the idea that certain cultural traits and characteristics do not change over time. In particular, this concept can be embodied in the orientalist opposition between the east and the west.

The Australian reporting of a number of attacks on Indian students in Australia in 2009 caused international controversy, representing to many the begrudging acceptance of the west to shifts in media power to those media capitals in the east (Khorana, 2012). Australian newspapers, such as the Age, responded to the attacks by blaming Indian TV as creating ‘hysteria’, lacking in balance and reporting sensational and exaggerated facts. This scenario followed a string of controversial interactions between the two countries, including an alleged racist comment made by an Indian cricketer to an Australian player in 2008. Following on from the attacks, India proclaimed that Australia was an inherently racist country.

Such an incident reveals that, despite the cultural flows facilitated through media capitals and by globalisation, countries remain firm in defending their self-interests and cultural characteristics against external challengers.

Another clear example of countries asserting their cultural independence over the world stage is the controversy surrounding supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In 2003, the UN and the Bush government of the US declared that Saddam Hussein was in the possession of large stockpiles of WMD. The media itself became a weapon of “mass hysteria that created tremendous fear in the population”, before it was exposed in 2008 by the Senate Intellgience Committee that the Bush administration had misrepresented the intelligence in an attempt to justify the war. In this scenario, the paranoia of the US post 9/11 saw America take all possible measures to protect itself and its self-interests against international threats at the same time ignoring the facts.

As can be seen, while it is true in many respects that the world has become one entity through which products, ideas and cultures flow, it is clear that the concept of “cultural essentialism” holds true. Embodied in cultural differences and expressions of countries’ self-interests, perhaps the world really is still a giant jigsaw puzzle.

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Chasing the Roos From the Backyard

From the sunburnt centre scarred by the walk of time to pristine beaches that embrace the coastal fringes, Australia seems like a ‘bloody’ great place to live. While our country may lack documented relics of ancient civilisations, the unique and varied natural beauty of Australia is consistently employed by tourism campaigns in a beckoning call to foreigners.

Such stereotypical advertisements demonstrate how we identify ourselves on an international front. And not just as a country, but also as a people. From an outsider’s perspective, this ad suggests that the typical ‘Ostrayan’ is a surfing, beer drinking, camel-riding, laid back larrikin, unfazed by the casual kangaroo in the backyard or a sneaky shark in the pool. We are an open, friendly and accepting people. It is little wonder that many international students are attracted by the idea of an education in Australia in exchange for the promise of permanent residency in the land of the fair dinkum.

And yet, a recent SBS documentary, A Convenient Education, reveals that life in Australia for international students is a “far cry from the perceived wonderland” promoted in tourism campaigns. Exploitation in the workplace and housing sectors, safety and security concerns and visa issues are highlighted as common difficulties faced by foreign students. As if the language barrier wasn’t enough. Furthermore, findings from a transnational project designed to enhance the Australian experience for international students demonstrated that despite “images of the bushman and Crocodile Dundee…dominating impressions of who Australians are”, many students felt as if Australians did not want to know them and made little effort to understand their culture and countries of origin (Kell, Vogl 2007).

Exacerbated by the racial controversy following a series of attacks on Indian students in 2009, the image of Australia as the ‘lucky country’ is no longer in sync with reality, at least not in relation to international education. Resounding consequences of such crises continue to affect tourism, education and trade, and have cost Australia billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, according to the Beyond the Lost Decade report.

For a country which endeavours to present a picturesque view of diversity and multiculturalism coupled with a relaxed lifestyle, it seems as if the way in which we are perceived by the rest of the world has strayed from the true ‘Straya. In a world of interconnectedness and interdependence promoted by globalisation, we need to seriously consider how we both identify and present ourselves as a country and a people. We are, after all, pitching to a global audience. We need to ensure that our promises align with reality, and that international students and in fact any foreigners, feel as if they are getting a fair shake of the sauce bottle.