Vol. 3. No. 2 R-10 March 1998
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Bridging Cultures

Anne Campbell (1995)
Belconnen, Australia: Anne Campbell
ISBN 0-85889-459-9 (paper)
Pp. xiii + 229
Australia $19.95 plus postage:<ucan@mail.coop-bookshop.com.au >

Anne Campbell's Bridging Cultures is a work that defies neat categorization. It is not a piece of formal academic writing. It is not exactly fiction. The author herself describes the bulk of her material as "fictional stories" (p. viii), although one feels a number of them read more like "fictionalized stories."

At its best, the book puts the reader in the shoes of the outsider and gives insights to a familiar world viewed from an unfamiliar perspective. In its lesser moments, the book is a strange mix of elements that don't quite mesh. Essentially, the book deals with cultural issues associated with Asian students studying in Australia. The issue of Australians' interactions with Asians is growing in importance for a whole variety of reasons; it has been lowlighted in recent times by the anti-Asian sentiments expressed by the inimitable Pauline Hanson, independent member of the Australian Federal Parliament. As we are told in the foreword, the flow of foreign students has become as important to Australia's balance of payments as the export of wheat (p. i). However, we are also told that this "[cultural] bridge is used so much that I'm afraid it will break. . . . [I]t was designed for people, not for huge trucks carrying money into this country, which is what I hear is happening" (p. 222). Clearly, there are strains, tensions and challenges in Australia's relationship with Asia, and it is against this backdrop that the author explores issues of cultural interaction at the individual level.

The book consists of eight "fictional stories" which have interposed between them a variety of shorter sections: "Snapshots," one- to two-page summaries of the educational features of a number of Asian countries; "Stars," short biographies of successful overseas students; "Wishful Thinkings" and "Anecdotes," offered in the hope that they will "break up the text" and, at the end, a bibliography, "as a concession to those who would have preferred a deadly serious . . . publication" (p. viii). From my point of view, there were probably at least two bits too many here, since some of these intermediary sections become more of a distraction than a means of advancing the writer's cause.

This book has much to commend it, however. Each new section contains things different and surprising and, when the writing works well, it works very well. Three stories stand out for me: One tells of a [-1-] European migrant girl's experience at the hands of her merciless school mates. The story appeals because, as a primary school student, I remember being just as merciless to an Italian who had the misfortune of being in my class. There is a story of a Chinese post-graduate student who manages to get off-side with almost the entire staff of a university department through her efforts to obtain assistance without ever appreciating the subtleties of relationships in a large Western organization. Another story which succeeds tells of a Vietnamese homestay student who struggles to come to terms with what is expected of him and what he expects of his homestay family. Many niceties are highlighted, such as the "Great A.M. vs. P.M. Showering Debate," familiar to anyone who has spent time in Asia, and the apparent contradiction that while relationships in Australia may seem casual, in fact they follow quite clearly defined rules that are broken at the transgressor's peril.

The writing is adventurous, even experimental, and while some of it works very well, some of it does not. For instance, the colloquial stream of consciousness style in the fictional stories sometimes appears overdone. We in the Antipodes have long appreciated the way maestros like Harper Lee and Mark Twain made the Alabama accent and the Mississippi drawl ring like bells from the pages of a faraway world. Of course much of what Campbell writes about is not far away. It is about as distant from my environment as my kitchen. This tends to put the writing more in the realm of the everyday than the exotic for me, so I am not able to judge the appeal it might have for non-Australian readers.

The blurb on the back cover includes this question: "How do you explain to your mates down at the pub in Jerilderie that your daughter's living with a bloke from Botswana, who's as black as the ace of spades, and a muslim to boot?" This rings with authenticity for me, sitting at my computer in Taiwan, thousands of miles from home and very familiar with the small town in question. But I am less effectively transported by this "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner meets Crocodile Dundee" tale when the father says: "Ah! That went down better than a Bishop at a bucks party! Reckon she's been a real scorcher this season. It's been hot enough to boil a monkey's bum out there since the end of October. With that and the wind, the paddocks are as dry as a dingo's donger." Not only do I feel that this has crossed the line separating portrayal from caricature, but I find it surprising that the father is talking to an African at the time.

In another story, an Australian academic meets for the first time his new Japanese post-graduate student. He is wearing shorts and his bare knees shock the student. That works well. But when the academic speaks in exaggerated Australianese, I am less convinced. I find it difficult to suspend disbelief when faced with an academic who lacks the good sense to moderate his colloquialisms at his first meeting [-2-] with a newly-arrived overseas student. No doubt by putting so much idiom in the mouths of her characters, the writer is making a point for dramatic effect, but in making it, the effect is lost.

At other times, one is left wondering why a particular section is included and where it is heading. One story felt like an out-take from a creative writing class--a sort of film noire search for ostriches interrupted by improbable accounts of TOEFL and IELTS scores. Another produced nervous twinges of recognition when the heroine was removed from the scene with this devious plan: "Make her write a book about building bridges!" (p. 215).

This book was the product of a "very modest budget" (p. vii), which may be why some of the sections look as if they were produced on an Apple II-e. Nevertheless, I dare say this lack of visual gloss is a minor point and it would probably trouble less the baby-boomers amongst you than the Generation-X types.

There are no "bad guys" in this book and there are no real "victims," and from time to time there are pearls of distilled wisdom. An example that springs to mind is this quotation about the use of English: "His teachers said they should speak English all the time, but Harry didn't think they understood how it was impossible to relax if you were using a language that wasn't your own" (p. 190). This is simple enough, and it is what I have long wanted to say to well-intentioned people who think that spouses can also be their partners' language teachers. It speaks of the depth of Campbell's own experience. She was the child of a migrant family who "made good" through hard work and academic aptitude. She completed her university studies in the halcyon days of the Whitlam government, one of those Allende-style flowerings of liberalism which, for one glorious moment in history, allowed tertiary education in Australia to be "free." At the time Campbell was an external student, I was one of the undergraduates who "seemed incredibly casual (even ungrateful) about the opportunity . . . they'd been given" (p. v). I suppose we didn't know any better. And this is why Anne Campbell's book is so useful, because, despite some stylistic blemishes, it is clear that the author does know better. She has lived what she writes.

Chris Murphy
Deakin University

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