Interview for Young Australians in International Affairs

This interview originally appeared on the Young Australians in International Affairs’ Careers Blog.

1. To start, many of our readers are university students and I’m sure they would be interested to hear about your background. What did you study at university and were you involved in any clubs or societies there? What fostered your interest in international affairs?

I studied a Bachelor of Arts (Languages) at the University of Sydney, majoring in Chinese and Arabic. I also hold a Master of Diplomacy from Peking University in China.

In Sydney, I was a member of the Chinese cultural appreciation society and was involved in the student Arts journal, ARNA, as both a contributor and editor. In Beijing, I was active in the international student community, and pursued my interests in calligraphy and Uighur language through various societies at Peking University.

I was a keen student of history at school, and I think this played an important role in fostering my interest in international affairs. This interest further developed over the course of my undergraduate studies, as I realised the importance of linguistic skills and cultural knowledge in understanding international relations.

2. We recently published a set of articles that centred around the question of choosing to pursue post-graduate studies in international affairs. What made you decide to complete a Master’s degree and to study overseas?

During my undergraduate studies, I undertook a yearlong exchange at Peking University, where I completed an intensive Chinese language course, and some Arabic classes. It was definitely a culture shock. It was difficult to adjust at first because I did not yet have a firm grasp of the language.

Within a few months, however, my Chinese improved immensely, and I was able to appreciate the unique opportunity to immerse myself in the cultural and linguistic environment. I was experiencing the challenges and excitement of living in the world’s most populated and fastest-growing economy.

I enjoyed it so much that I went back to Peking University for my Master’s degree. Although English-taught programs were available, I decided to complete my postgraduate studies in Chinese, as it would allow me to simultaneously enhance my knowledge of international relations and develop an academic level of Chinese.

My advice to students considering studying overseas: go for it! The best way to understand a particular country, region, language or culture is by living there yourself. You will learn much more than reading about it or studying it from afar.

3. I note that you speak both Chinese and Arabic – quite an achievement – why did you choose to pursue languages and how do you think your knowledge of additional languages has shaped your career?

I started learning Chinese when I was quite young. I took it up for my own personal interest – I just wanted to be able to read and understand the writing that looked so different to English!

When it came to choosing my subjects, my degree gave me flexibility to pursue two language majors, so I chose Arabic, for several reasons. Firstly, Arabic is a very important language, but not many non-background speakers in Australia learn it. Secondly, I felt that Arabic and Islamic cultures are poorly understood in general, and I wanted to understand them for myself. Thirdly, I knew from my study of Chinese that I would really enjoy the challenge of taking up a language that is very different to English.

Without my Chinese language skills, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today in my career. I use it on a daily basis; to communicate with colleagues in China, proofread important documents, and keep up-to-date with the latest news.

For research, it is essential to be able to read primary sources; English translations of Chinese texts are often poor and inaccurate, and for more obscure topics, unavailable. Furthermore, the ability to communicate comfortably with others in their native language is a strong foundation for long-term friendships and business relationships. It saves a lot of time, stress and reduces the opportunity for misunderstanding.

4. You have co-written a book! Congratulations! How did that come about? What have been the challenges and rewards so far?

Last year, I started working on the book by completing some background research and analysis of Chinese sources for Kerry Brown, then Director of the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre, who had been commissioned to write the book. A few months later, Kerry said that as I had already done so much work, why not write a few chapters and become a co-author?

This was unexpected; usually research assistants are barely acknowledged in publications, if at all. I feel very fortunate, and grateful that Kerry recognised my talent and potential, and gave me this very rare opportunity to demonstrate my ability as an author!

It was challenging to manage my time between writing and doing my day job. It meant a lot of work in evenings, on the weekend, and during the Christmas holiday period. Also, before writing the book, I had very little understanding about the editorial process. The manuscript had to be finalised about six months prior to the publication date. Therefore, unfortunately I couldn’t write about any new developments in the book at a later stage. Another challenge I am facing is that, in certain circles, I am perhaps not taken as seriously as deserved because I am not an academic in the traditional sense.

Of course, it has been extremely rewarding to see my efforts come to fruition. Being co-author of a book with a prominent China scholar will undoubtedly have a huge benefit to my career, regardless of the direction it takes.

I haven’t received my copies yet, but I am very much looking forward to seeing my name in print!

5. Lastly, we couldn’t let you go without asking you what you think will be the main issues that will shape Australia’s role in international affairs in the years to come.

In my opinion, Australia hasn’t had to work very hard so far to achieve a reasonably high status in the international community. Therefore there doesn’t seem to be much incentive to learn about or engage with our region, or other parts of the world for that matter. This will have to change if Australia is to keep up with the pace of globalisation.

More about Simone’s book, China and the New Maoists:

In China and the New Maoists, Simone and her co-author seek to closely examine the vocal figures in China today who claim to be the true ideological heirs to Mao, from academics to activists. They also explore efforts by the state to draw on Mao’s image as a source of legitimacy even as the state attempts to control and sanitise his influence. China and the New Maoists provides an insightful, on-the-ground look at the current social and ideological pulse of China.

Her book can be purchased here.

Policy paper: China’s potential role in international mediation

I have published a policy paper with the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. The executive summary is as follows:

Since the concurrent visits of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in May 2013, there has been speculation in both Chinese and international media that China is poised to play a mediation role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This also reflects expectations by the international community and China’s academic community that as its economy continues to grow and its international interests expand, Chinawill becomea more active diplomatic player.

This policy paper assesses China’s potential role as a mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of the ‘supply-demand’ model of mediation as a framework of foreign policy behaviour. According to this, as a mediation is a voluntary process, its occurrence depends on both the disputants’ and third party’s willingness to undertake it. Currently, China does not meet the conditions necessary for mediation; that is, there is neither sufficient demand from the Israeli and Palestinian sides, nor sufficient motivation for China to supply mediation. This makes the possibility of China acting as a mediator of this conflict very low. However, as mediation does not contradict China’s diplomatic principles, it is possible that these conditions may be met in the future.

K and J’s wedding

On 22 March, I had the privilege and honour of being the interpreter at K and J’s wedding. K is from a Taiwanese background, and her mother, brothers, sister and niece had all travelled to Sydney to celebrate. J is originally from France, and his family and close friends had also made long journeys from Paris and New York to be there. For some, it was their first time in Australia. For others, they were returning to a place that had given them many fond memories. For everyone, it was an opportunity to meet members of their new family and learn more about their respective backgrounds and cultures.

It was my first time interpreting at a wedding, and it was a valuable chance to put my skills to good use, while having the opportunity to meet and talk with some great people. At the ceremony, I sat with K’s family and translated the celebrant’s and couple’s words.

Following the ceremony and at the reception, I helped K’s family converse with J’s family and other guests. I was happy to be able to help them feel more included on this important day. While there were not many speeches at the reception, there was an unexpected poetry reading: a humorous poem was read in French, then translated into English, and I was asked to translate it into Chinese for the guests. I did my best, although I do think some of the humour was lost in translation! After the reading, I explained some of the poem’s nuances at the guest table, and we discussed some of the cultural differences they represented.

For me, the experience was as much about cross-cultural communication as it was about linguistic interpretation. I was able to offer some insights into wedding culture in Australia, while expanding my own understanding of the differences between French, Taiwanese and Australian customs and traditions. Knowledge of Chinese (or any other foreign language) is not simply a communication tool, but a gift that often offers unexpected learning opportunities.