Three brown suitcases

Julia finds herself spending a lot of time in Monash’s library
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A mother migrates with her two children from Vietnam to Australia for a better education, but they soon find it isn’t that easy, writes Alex Chapman.  

As Julia Tung unpacks her bag after a 40-hour week at Monash University, Tame Impala’s The Less I Know the Better plays through the thin walls from her brother’s room.

His Dolby speakers shudder at every beat, shaking the pale blue walls as he rushes in and out of his drawers, “have I got my ID, am I going to be late?”

As Ben hurries to get to work on time and Julia settles in for a night of study, they are experiencing one of the largest struggles that an international student can face; finding a balance between working and studying.

Born in Hai Phong, Vietnam, the siblings moved to Australia with their mother, Fei, in 2009.

With Ben translating, Fei reflected on her decision to move to Australia.

Fei wanted for her kids what every mother wants, a chance for a better life, and she decided the best way to achieve this was to leave their home of 33 years.

With father Dûk refusing to leave his job as a surgeon, anticipating a promotion with the building of the Hai Phong International Hospital, Fei packed three ripped brown suitcases with handles bound by electrical tape, and boarded a plane for Melbourne.

“I wanted for them what I never had,” Fei said in Cantonese.

“I never got to go to a good school, I left and started to work too early.”

Ben says that his parents influenced him in very different ways, but got his work ethic from his father.

“It’s just one of those things I grew up thinking I had to do,” Ben says.

“There was never another choice.”

As Ben leaves for Crown Melbourne where he works as a dealer, Julia stays home to study for an upcoming economics exam.

Almost two-thirds of 160 international students from Swinburne, RMIT and Monash University indicated in an online survey conducted for this report believe their grades would improve if they weren’t working part time as well.

In her room, where her One Direction posters are lit up by a desk lamp, Julia says, “I just figure that if I do the hard work in school now, I can do the easy work later on.”

Julia says she can spend up to 60 hours every week studying between school and her home in East Moorabbin.

“It can be really hard.

“But I have to think about my future and a family and all the cool things I’m going to do, and that makes it a little bit easier to cope.”

While finishing their final year of high school in 2012, Ben and Julia both worked weekends in a café where Fei does the bookkeeping.

Ben and Julia agree this was a turning point in their working lives, but for very different reasons.

Ben decided that he could manage a working schedule alongside his class timetable while Julia did not.

Ben now works three overnight shifts a week, as well as three days at Melbourne University, where he studies commerce.

“Everything has a great way of slotting into place,” Ben says.

“Going to work isn’t like a chore for me, it’s a social thing and I get a bit of money to spend on the side.”

However, Ben wasn’t always as fortunate, as he found out in his brief stint with Deliveroo, a food delivery service, earlier in 2016.

The 7-Eleven pay scandal in which international workers, particularly students, were paid half the minimum wage and threatened with deportation if they complained, has been heavily scrutinised since its emergence to the public in 2015.

Because of this, companies have to be cautious when hiring international students, but there are still issues according to Ben.

Catching the train to Richmond and riding his bike around, delivering food to offices and apartments for Deliveroo, Ben was hoping to make enough to save up and move into his own apartment.

He was disappointed when the wages were mostly based on numbers of deliveries since wasn’t able to drive.

“I think a lot of people from overseas would struggle to earn a decent wage doing that, they’re too cautious to drive and that really cuts down the number of deliveries you can do.”

Ben thought he was getting a good deal when he was told he’d get paid to exercise, saying it was “too good to be true.”

Ben left Deliveroo a week after starting when he was hit by a speeding driver at 11 p.m. on a Thursday night.

He likes showing off the sling he wore for nine weeks, and says it reminds him to be thankful that he’s “better cared for” now.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he says.

“A lot of the friends I made in high school are getting ripped off in fast food and places, but I guess I just got lucky and stayed away from that.”

Olivia Doyle, one of Swinburne’s International Student Advisers, specialises in employability and says she tends to agree with Ben’s perspective.

“If they’re working part-time and studying, whether it’s McDonalds or Coles or whatever, that’s great.

“Clearly, there is the burden of financial stress, but there’s a great network of support of teachers and counsellors.
“It’s about developing employability skills for employers, working in a team, communicating with the public, even just showing up on time.”

And so, returning to Fei, I asked if she regretted anything.

She looked to her son for a translation and smiled when she got it, saying in English,

“No.”

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