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Learning to fend in a foreign city

By Rhonda Dredge

The pandemic has meant a swift growing-up for many international students stranded in Melbourne.

When 22-year-old Sim Xiu Hui first arrived here she had never cut up a vegetable.

A scar on her finger attests to her first experience with a kitchen knife.

“My mother looked after me. There was no need for me to use my hands. I was a spoiled kid. My family only had me,” she said.

Now the pastry chef student at the Victorian Institute of Technology is paying her own rent, cooking meals, living with her boyfriend and cracking jokes about herself.

“I want to use my hands,” she said, showing a picture of a Japanese soft layer cake she has managed. “It’s different to a sponge. If you squeeze it, it won’t jump back.”

Her reflections on what she calls the PR (permanent resident) city of Melbourne are astute and show a different side to the large international student population still remaining here during lockdown.

Hui lives on the eighth floor of a high-rise building on Harbour Esplanade in Docklands with three others.

The rent is $2824 a month. She lost her job in March but they haven’t received any rent relief.

They have a balcony and life is safe, she said. There have been no flights back to Malaysia which is in Stage 3 lockdown.

So, like the other 400-plus students in the regular Sunday food queue in Swanston Street, she has been forced to fend for herself in a society she says is much braver that the one she’s used to.

“I grew up in Kuching. It’s like Tasmania. In Kuala Lumpur young people’s life begins at 10pm. In Kuching 10pm is sleep time already.”

Her mother came home one day with the ticket to Melbourne where her boyfriend was already living. “My mother threw me out,” she said.

Hui doesn’t mean that literally but her mother knew that she had been protected. It was time to test out her Asian mindset on a different culture.

“They [Asian parents] teach kids if they don’t eat well they will get sick. Here if you don’t want to eat you can eat later. In Asia they force you to do something you don’t want. It’s good because when you grow up you already have [that in] the mind and you don’t do dangerous things.”

Since being in Melbourne, Hui has saved money, doesn’t go out, wants to repay her parents, considers herself a Melbourne person and even has a pet.

“I’ve been here two years,” she said. “I worked as a cashier at the Lucky Chan restaurant. The pay was good.”

Now she’s standing in a food queue for hours to get free groceries for her flat mates while keeping safe.

“Thanks for the chat,” she said •

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