Being Foreign, a concept too well known to me.
When we migrated to Australia I was 11 years old. My Dad a smart man in many ways sensed the coming of the civil war in Sri Lanka, after his near miss in the 1983 Colombo riots.
He knew the future for his family was bleak but even he could not have predicted the war lasting nearly 30 years.
My maternal aunt was in Australia and she sponsored us. “Going abroad,” a term commonly used in my community to say “moving overseas”, was a highly regarded social status. My parents had already spent many years working overseas and in 1980 finally returned to Sri Lanka to settle down with their extended family.
For my father wanting to leave Sri Lanka this time was purely for us children and was a heart breaking decision because he was leaving his father.
As a child with my vivid imagination, I had my own pictures of how life will be in Australia that was influenced by movies and TV shows.
Sadly, the first few years were a rude surprise because nothing or no one prepared me for how the colour of my skin would impact how I was viewed and treated.
Though I knew I looked different, the innocence of a child didn’t understand why that would mean I will be treated differently.
Also, my parents had 5 mouths to feed on low wages. Not being able to devote their time to study and be reinstated in their original professions, they settled for the first decent jobs.
So the beginning years of our new life wasn’t glamorous as I had seen on TV. Life was tough but we weren’t starving and those years taught me some great life lessons. Most importantly, we were safe and together as a family.
I still vividly remember my first day at school in Australia. A not so smart decision by my Dad, was to send me straight to high school. I hadn’t even finished my last year of primary in Sri Lanka and my English was limited.
My first daunting feeling of not belonging happened during my first ever science class. The teacher having a strong Australian accent also did not help. I sat through the whole class bewildered as I understood nothing, having my class mates staring not because I looked frazzled, but because they never had a brown-skinned kid in their school.
There were some kind hearted teachers and kids who were nice to me and I finally became friends with one of them. That was really nice but after a month or so she was reluctant to play with me. She had a close friend who not due to her ignorance, but her parents’, was told she was not allowed to play with me because her grandfather in WWII fought against people like me.
I didn’t know History then and so accepted what my friend had said. So I was on my own during recess and lunch. Thankfully, my elder brother went to that school, so to some extent I was not alone.
Coming back to the supposed historical claim that took away my only friend in a foreign land. Just like Australia, Sri Lanka was part of the British Empire during WWII and so the Sri Lankan army fought alongside the British.
Thankfully life got better when we moved states after a year. There were more migrants and I went to a high school where there were other “brown” kids and so I didn’t stand out.
But it was not until I got to university, I felt a better acceptance of my difference. And, I think by then I became comfortable again in the skin I was born in.
Then only did I begin to feel less foreign and partly Australian, Though by then I had been a citizen for over a decade. In Uni people saw me, more for the person I am, and not always by the colour of my skin. That was not just a reflection of the type of people in Uni but also a general reflection of how far Australia had come.
Now over 30 years since I came to this land, it is no longer foreign but My Home. I consider myself as an Australian with a Srilankan background.
But even now, I just have to travel to some remote or touristy part of Australia, and often I am mistaken as a tourist/foreignor till they ask me where I am from? That’s okay, it doesn’t upset me, I just smile within because I know I am different 😊