Bradley: First, what attracted you to International House, and what were you studying here?
Hannah: I came to International House in the last term of my honors degree in oriental studies. By then, having lived in Australia for four years, I was mostly spending time with Asian friends, living with my two brothers in the suburbs, and working at Grace Bros down the road. Then my brothers moved away, and I felt that this, my final year at university, was my last opportunity to experience something different. A friend who had lived at International House the year before introduced me to the place, and I found myself taking a forward leap and doing something neither my parents nor I would have ever considered acceptable. I’d be going to a co-ed residence, a place I don’t know much about, where the people and perhaps the context would be completely different to what I was used to. Back then I was a very a sensible 'to-do-list' person; I’d get high marks, I’d get good grades, and I’d further my career. But International House presented me with something totally different, so I thought that I would give it a go. It was life-changing.
Alex: With both parents having gone to International House, I had a healthy scepticism about following in their footsteps! There was an initial suspicion about what the place would be like, and whether it was the right place for me. I think I had very few expectations, but I was really drawn to this stylized idea of many countries sitting around the table. I didn’t really know how that would be lived-out in practice. It was definitely more chaotic and crazier than I expected it to be – in all the right ways. The friends we made and the experiences we had were not in line with the sensible mould that my parents had set up for me. That was for the best, I think.
Bradley: What about for you Greg? Was it chaotic or sensible?
Greg: I have to say that I knew nothing before I moved in. Then arriving here was really like an explosion of new kinds of experiences with different people, and an opening of my eyes to a bigger world. That’s kind of the way I look back at it now, with this realisation that the world is a huge place, but that the people in it, wherever they come from, are basically the same in many ways. They have the same kinds of motivations, and the same kinds of emotional reactions to things.
One of the things that strikes me now in retrospect is that what I learned in formal classes here at Sydney University was probably less important than what I learned at International House.
Bradley: Hannah, you mentioned that it was a life-changing experience. Did the house have any significant effect on your personal life?
Hannah: Personally, it was very significant because I met Greg – against strict parental instructions! The ensuing few years were full of conflicts, but the lifechanging aspects were not limited to the personal and romantic. More important was the sense that I could break away from the fairly utilitarian and functional parts of life that my parents, and my Asian, Chinese background, has prescribed for me. Until then, it was all about getting onto a career path: I applied to the public service, I went for interviews, I was going to work in Canberra, going to get good grades, and was going to start thinking about a house deposit and all that stuff. But International House exposed me to diversity and literally a world of difference – that there was a great deal more to life than just getting onto the property ladder or a career path. That there’s something called ‘life experience’, which included romance with a non-Chinese person, and which involved leaving Australia and its safety net to see the world. It was life-changing in the sense that I was no longer the same girl who had left Hong Kong in 1971.
Bradley: Alex, what effect did International House have on your world view?
Alex: I suppose there were some significant experiences that happened while I was living in the house, but I think the more substantial experiences have been after I left the house, with all the people I met there. In the last few years I’ve been to weddings in Pushkar of mates who met at International House. I remember traveling through Denmark and Berlin and Paris and back to England, at each stop catching up with someone with whom I had formed a bond while living at IH, and who is now doing something completely different. On that same trip, travelling back through Asia, I spent time living in Beijing and visiting Hong Kong and Shanghai. In every one of those cities, I was able to meet someone from IH and continue our relationship. I think that the period of time since I left IH has been as influential, if not more influential, than the years I was actually there.
Bradley: Greg, can you relate to Alex’s idea of the continuation of the IH experience?
Greg: I think so. One of the things that strikes me now in retrospect is that what I learned in formal classes here at Sydney University was probably less important than what I learned at International House. Living in a place like International House meant you learned how to communicate with people and how to share experiences with them. This has carried on for me. Even though I’ve stayed in the same scientific discipline, this perspective has remained in a way that’s quite natural. “One of the things that strikes me now in retrospect is that what I learned in formal classes here at Sydney University was probably less important than what I learned at International House.” Greg Houseman 11 It’s since been easy for me to engage in international scientific projects, and to lead them in places like Eastern Europe and Turkey. In that sense, the experience of International House was really formative for me.
Hannah: My experience after International House has been slightly different from both Greg’s and Alex’s. Alex’s friendships carried on immediately after they all left the house, whereas I didn’t continue with too many of them until only in the last few years, since we returned to Australia and picked-up friendships with people we met 35 years ago. The post-residential experience for me was directly related to my confidence in developing Asian food for a Western audience. You probably don’t know this, but in the 70s, when I first arrived in Sydney – and even through to the 80s – you couldn’t buy the kinds of groceries and foods that you grew up with at home. You used to have to go to dedicated stores in the back-alleys of places like Dixon Street, which was where you’d get all the things that you loved from home. Coles’ and Woolworths’ mainstream variations were totally unacceptable and different from what you’d have available for takeaway meals. My brothers and I were directly responsible for creating additional access to authentic Asian ingredients in Woolworths and Coles in the late 1980s. I then worked directly with Australian food writers, and later with the sponsorship of the Thai Government, to popularise the inclusion of Asian style cooking in Australia.
I suppose there were some significant experiences that happened while I was living in the house, but I think the more substantial experiences have been after I left the house, with all the people I met there.
Alex: Were you not responsible for seeding Mie Goreng into o-weeks?
Hannah: That’s right! For years, o-week and the Easter show would have bags of Mie Goreng. We had to persuade the manufacturer to give us some, and they subsidised it. That was my role: talking to them and persuading them to support us, if not in money, then at least in-kind, so we had products to give away.
Bradley: Since we’re talking food, what was your experience of food like at IH?
Greg: When I was chairman of IHMA, it was the most controversial topic in the house. It was the thing that got people excited. There was always about half the population that weren’t very happy with it. I get the impression that things have changed since then.
Alex: I think the general picture is that meal times were critical rather than the meal itself.
Greg: Exactly. What I remember about eating at International House is not the food. It’s the people I ate with.
Alex: It’s something you can’t quantify the value of. It’s just like saying, what’s the value of a conversation?
Greg: And it was such a diverse range of conversations. It wouldn’t be the same if you always ate with the same people every day, but if you’re eating with this large group of diverse people, the conversations took on all kinds of flavours that you didn’t expect.
Bradley: Did you feel that you could ask questions of other people that you might not ordinarily be able to ask?
Alex: Absolutely. You see these people every day. There’s this new level of intimacy that you would never have otherwise.
There was an unusual degree of intimacy and trust. We managed to know quite a bit about each other and develop rapport, which has carried through to our future relationships
Hannah: This is why it’s so important to actually have this meal time and meal plan. This is a huge campus. Even in my days when it wasn’t even half as big, you would just casually drop in for lectures and then you’d be off. IH, by contrast, is the place where you’d live and breathe, and most importantly have many events. You’d go to international nights, and there’d be Japanese visitors, so you’d have Japan night, China night, etc. You’d get friendly and then you’d work with each other. That creates an unusual degree of intimacy and trust. I don’t know whether it’s common to other colleges, but with International House, we managed to know quite a bit about each other, which helped us develop this sense of trust.
Bradley: Do you think the IH vision of fostering international understanding and friendship is relevant today?
Alex: Yes, more than ever.
Greg: I think it’s a neglected vision, and the world neglects it at its own risk. The idea of a narrow, nationalistic, conservative view is not just a bad idea, but it’s been shown to be wrong. You’ve only got to read history to see how wrong it is.
Hannah: That’s right. It was an inspired vision in 1960 and it has been carried on by the house today. If you look at the past two or three generations of residents – and you can actually see it in Alex’s generation – none of them have a ‘blinkered’ view of world: that this is one particular race, and that is another particular nation. To them everyone is all part of humanity. We are all humans, and we should have one world and one vision.