My twin sister and I were just more than a year old when our parents flew us from a small town in Gujarat to the bustling city of Sydney in Australia. We were two very clueless toddlers, unaware of the ‘new world’ we had just stepped into because for us, like all tiny humans, home was where Mumma was.
The dynamics of our world started changing in February 2009, when we entered school. We began absorbing the environment and a swarm of questions started buzzing as a result: Why does no one else bring rice for lunch? Why can’t the teacher pronounce our names correctly in the first go as she does for other students?
We did get the answers, but with time.
Slowly, but not effectively, I began to understand that we were different. The next year, I was placed in a special learning class, so when my classmates would be working on their sentence writing skills, I would be in a slower-paced and smaller ‘English as a Second Language’ (ESL) class. I knew something was wrong. English was not my second language – I had learnt to speak Gujarati and English simultaneously.
My sister did not attend the ESL class, so why me? It was not until later that I realised it was a rather impetuous decision of my teacher to send the only immigrant student in the class for special help – regardless of my well-above-average writing skills. What more adequate proof was required than my ‘certified nerd’ title in school?
When the cross-cultural divide came along, once again, I knew we were different. The year was 2012 and the hot topic of discussion was the sensational boy-band One Direction.
During lunchtimes and school concerts, when over-excited girls were jamming to ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and crushing on Harry Styles – all I knew was that I wanted to go home, groove to ‘Radha On The Dance Floor‘ and crush on Siddharth Malhotra. That was when I realised that Bollywood was my thing. But this was the unaddressed reality of the immigrant child, settled on the crossroad of a cultural bridge – with arms too short to reach either side.
By 2015, my last year in primary school (grade 6), I had become accustomed to wearing a fake woke mask. Pretending that I was too cool for the One Direction hype, or simply shrugging off any conversation that revolved around pop culture. So, when I had met my two best friends in primary school, I thought I was too cool for them.
They were also immigrants, who were in the initial stages of adjusting to Australia. Several years later, I wish I had placed them on a higher pedestal than my cool fake friends. I wish I realised earlier that I bonded with them naturally. I wish we talked more about our love for Bollywood or Alia Bhatt’s lehenga in Student of the Year. I wish we shared our love for pani puri and gulab jamun. Not that we didn’t do all of that, I just wish we had done it more.
It is an organic norm in our society that similarities are the foundations of friendship and it propels us to unconsciously accept others that match our wavelength. This norm consequentially became the underlying reason for me to ponder upon an unrealistic possibility, that had I been brought up in India around people who duplicate my cultural identity, life would have been easier.
Fortunately, I was proven wrong. In high school, I met a bunch of enthusiastic girls whose backstories were different from mine yet very similar. Over the years, our nerdy partnership and love for fancy highlighters managed to strengthen our bond. I realised the power of authenticity and finally understood that the quest to find ‘real friends’ is a façade. Though it is true that at times I really wanted to slam my head against a wall while answering their questions about my family’s ‘joint-family dynamic’.
I knew it was all worth it when my sister and I brought them home for the first time and sensed an aura of pure acceptance. As a result, I was able to comprehend that this ever-escalating issue of cultural difference in my life required sheer self-acceptance to eventually catalyse community-acceptance.
So now, at 16, the notion of cultural identity seems less confusing and rather intriguing to me. I want to proudly confess that I am an Australian-brought-up-confused-desi who is ready to face the upcoming social and cultural challenges in my life.
Featured image credit: @nci/Unsplash
Riya Patel is an Indian-Australian currently in Grade 11.