To truly discern a foreign culture you must absorb it in every sense; watch the metropolitan buzz, eat from wayside stalls, smell incense wafting from temples, share stories with locals in their language, tread ground that’s borne the weight of centuries.
This isn’t always possible for university students, but some tutors are able to convey their experiences of cross-cultural engagement in a way that makes you feel like you’re really there. Andrew Scrimgeour, of UniSA’s School of Education, is able to do exactly that with his uniquely captivating teaching style. His insatiable curiosity for our neighbouring region, which began decades ago in his early-twenties, has taken him to remarkable places. He’s hopped across some of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands, rode bullet trains between China’s ballooning megacities, and traversed the Pamir Plateau; one of the world’s most remote and geographically-significant locations. More often than not he chooses the less-beaten paths, backpack in tow, without any fixed preconceptions.
Although being a keen traveller myself I often overlooked Asia, until I took his Australia in the Asian Century class last year. Each week he’d introduce a new country with a combination of media, academic articles and statistics, whilst deftly embedding his own stories in a broader political context. For example, Andrew highlighted the prevalence of Chinese surveillance with a recount of his brief detainment after simply exploring a small village in a sensitive border region. Through his effusive recounts of meeting Iranians, I discovered that many young Iranian women are outgoing and well-educated, despite the cloak of conservative Islam they must wear. After Andrew’s analysis of Australian media on our closest neighbour, I learnt of Indonesia’s rich diversity and turbulent history that’s far more important than the predominant ‘beef, boats and Bali’ narrative.
Not only does he teach content relevant to Australia’s engagement with Asia in a challenging era of strained international relations, in which our near neighbours are rapidly gaining influence, Andrew takes his students on compelling adventures that stretch well beyond the classroom walls. He encourages his students to question the (mis)representations of Asia we see in everyday life, and rethink our perceptions of its myriad of cultures.
‘I try to create an understanding and appreciation that people in Asian societies have different historical experiences and cultural values and practices, and therefore see the world and respond to it in ways that differ from the average Australian’.
With a successful career and an impressive list of academic publications behind him, Andrew’s passion has materialised in Chinese language teaching and language teacher education. Although, his knowledge and insight across the whole continent can spark students’ interest in any of its locations. As I write this, I’m sitting in my ‘kos’ in Jakarta, on a two-month journalism placement. After just three weeks I’m utterly obsessed with Indonesia and all its intricacies, and if it weren’t for Andrew I doubt I’d be here.
In 2019 he will teach courses in Languages Education, as well as two university-wide electives: Chinese for Social Interaction and Australia in the Asian Century.
Words by Annabel Bowles.