'My rich harvest of first-hand materials and unique journey of study at the University of Melbourne'

August 16 / 185

Liwei Cao exploring the Australian landscape.
Liwei Cao exploring the Australian landscape.

Liwei Cao, a masters student from Inner Mongolia University was a guest of the Australia-China Council’s Australian Studies Competitive Project, which funded a three month visit to the University of Melbourne. She shares her first impressions of Australia.

It was nearing the end my glorious and inspiring three-month stint in Australia, and I had ventured to Sydney’s Lyric Theatre to see the excellent show “We Will Rock You.” My Aussie friend had asked whether the show could ever tour China. Never, I replied, “too much sexy dancing.” His opinion was the same, but for a more prosaic reason…the theme of revolution against a central authority, would surely be unacceptable?

And that in a nutshell was really why I was here in Australia.  No, not for sexy dancing … but to form my own opinions of another society and how it relates to one of your country’s internationally recognised writers.

I was in Melbourne to round off my masters studies into the authorship of Patrick White. Of course, information about White was easy to access online or in my university library, but here I could study the nuances of Australian culture, and try to understand the Australian character. Here I indulged in a rich harvest of first-hand sources – people who personally knew my nemesis, original manuscripts and early scribbling. I found material and a great deal of literature and data I couldn’t source in China.

Perhaps you’re wondering why I chose to study Patrick White? In China he is respected as Australia’s only Nobel Laureate and author of many cutting-edge novels. Part of my research is to differentiate his much-studied novels from those less popular works, especially those that reference gay culture and the rights of Australia’s Indigenous peoples. Of course some are translated in Chinese, others are not. Reading a Patrick White novel in English is a task of true devotion to my studies.

I’d come with many pre-conceptions of life outside China. 

My home is Huhhot, Inner Mongolia, and I had perceptions gained from mainly American television and my love of Australian film and literature. Certainly, I’d also run across more than an a few Australian academics – as my university has an Australian studies centre. But to study here in Australia would strengthen my studies with a local perspective.

In Melbourne, I discovered, the friendliness of Australians, and a culture of equanimity and openness. Academics were ever helpful, and their guidance and contribution to my studies and life in Australia will be well remembered. I want to particularly thank Professor Denise Varney, Professor Ken Gelder and Amanda Morris of the School of Culture and Communication.

An insightful moment, one of many in fabulous Melbourne, was my ability to communicate as an equal with my faculty professors. They respected my opinions and thoughts as an equal. In Canberra, at one memorable dinner party, I sat at a table with four elder professors. We talked freely about culture, literature and history both in Australia and China while enjoying delicious homemade dumplings and perfect pavlova. It was not only a feast of our national foods, but also an enjoyable cross-cultural exchange of different ideas in academia.

I also took the opportunity to be dazzled by the magnificent Sydney Harbour and ponder the mysteries of the dreamtime of the Northern Territory. Standing beside the amazing and sacred Aboriginal landmark Uluru, I could sense its importance to Aboriginal culture. It was a unique personal experience that helped me better understand some of White’s references to Aboriginal culture, which I had until then only studied in libraries.

From the distance of Mongolia, I was also unaware of how different the culture of Sydney was in the 50s and 60s from the rest of Australia at the time. Could Patrick White have written his books in the conservative Melbourne of the time? Something an Australian academic might ponder, but perhaps impossible for me.

Now that I’m back home at Inner Mongolia University, my mind is still a turmoil of the colour and smells of autumn in Melbourne. The classic buildings of the Carlton uni precinct, the wide range of international foods, and the friendliness and wisdom of the many Aussies who were part of my brief sojourn. I arrived in Carlton another Chinese student nerd, but was radicalised to the coffee culture of Lygon Street and taking time out on weekends for some fun. A little part of Australia will be in my DNA forever!


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