Welcome to our Migrant Tales series – first hand accounts of the migrant experience of New Zealand.
Today’s tale was sent in by a migrant of Indian descent. They tell of facets of racism and cultural isolation, and not being permitted to belong.
Here’s their story…
Everyone wants to belong. Everyone.
I wasn’t born here, but I moved here with my parents when I was 18 months old. In truth, New Zealand is the only ‘home’ I feel like I’ve known: I’ve spent maybe 3 years in total of my whole life over various trips in India (mostly in 2 week-1month bursts), the other 19 were here. And yet I’ve found it really, really hard to call this place my home.
I had 5 years of relative sanctuary in Hamilton while I did my high schooling. Although it wasn’t entirely free of racism, it’s the closest I’ve felt to belonging.
How did I feel all the years before, and all the years after? Everytime I went ‘back where I came from’ – I didn’t fit in. And though my heart feels a connection to this beautiful land, it also grieves for the wounds in that connection.
I’m not ‘Indian enough’ to do all the Indian things that some lucky kids from my culture are able to grow up with now: we didn’t have access to classes teaching us about the language and culture and Indian dance etc. We were lucky if we had a handful of people in the same region that spoke our language and were from the same place (no, not all Indians speak ‘Indian’ and come from exactly the same slum village). And yet for the most part I didn’t feel ‘Kiwi enough’ to do ‘Kiwi things’ like camping, BBQs, bushwalks on a regular basis: we almost feel like impostors, like we were trying to be ‘grown up Kiwis’ in a group of people that could make sure we knew that they knew we were pretending, we were trying too hard and they could do it better.
There are many, many anecdotes that I could use to illustrate facets of racism and cultural isolation I feel here. And before I even go near those, let me make this one thing clear: to those who are so convinced that we have nothing to complain about, stop belittling our experiences with racism by saying things like ‘it’s not as bad as (insert country with tyrannical racism rates here-at least)’ or even better, ‘New Zealand isn’t a racist country at all’ ‘I think you should be grateful’. Okay? Just because it’s ‘not as bad as X’ does not mean it is fair. And if it isn’t fair, and we as a nation have the power to do something about it (which we do) then we should.
It isn’t fair to be repeatedly ignored when you walk into stores in the mall, regardless of how long you’ve been standing there, only to have the store assistant waltz right past you over to and welcome the white customers who just walked in with the most genuine of smiles and a plethora of cutesy small-talk. It’s clear you think you’re not wasting your time on someone who is unlikely to be able to buy whatever it is you’re selling (i.e. us). It is not fair to have someone, off the bat, who doesn’t even know you, remark that your ‘enunciation is very good for someone who has learned English as a Second Language’. To that lady -if you heard me speak my mother tongue, you’d know English is practically my only functional language- and if it was my ‘second language’, it was only so by a slim margin: I stopped speaking it after I started kindergarten- KINDERGARTEN- because I apparently I came home on the first day and told my mother “Mummy, [my mother tongue] is a dirty language. Everyone here only speaks English.” I can assure you, it wasn’t my parents who gave 4 year old me that phrase ‘a dirty language’.
It isn’t fair that even from the age of 5, no one had to tell me that I was being discriminated against by my teacher: I cannot actually remember her ever smiling at me, she made me feel left out, and labelled me ‘distracted’ during reading time (thankfully, my mother set her straight by asking her whether she’d considered that I might be bored due to a lack of stimulation in class and suggested I attended the reading class of a year above: I’d like to have seen her face when she realised that a brown kid was reading at a higher level than the rest of my white ‘English as a first language’ classmates) (The higher level reading class, by the way, was the highlight of my day. I can still remember running over to the big kids’ class in the afternoon to take part).
It isn’t fair to hear white people bemoan the ‘lack of jobs’ ‘lack of property’ ‘lack of spaces for (insert competitive degree here) for New Zealanders (read: Pakeha)’ ‘special treatment’ and then implore me to ‘be grateful’ that I’m not being physically shouted at/beaten up over my race. It isn’t fair that no matter how perfect my Kiwi accent, how impeccable my dressing, how qualified I may be: some people choose to see the colour of my skin as a barrier to relation, as a marker of inferiority. They don’t know the hurt they cause.
Those who think they can’t be racist because they are not being openly hostile to people who don’t ‘look like a Kiwi’ (why do I not look like a Kiwi to you, sir? What is a Kiwi meant to look like?), withholding the kindness that you normally show to others when you see me- before you even know me, before I’ve had a chance to offend you- is just as bad. We’re not stupid, see, we’re humans too and we can sense how you feel about us without words.
Sure this post could be more positive, and there is more I’d like to say, but the wound is raw today thanks to the ignorance of some so that might explain the negative slant of this piece.
Even thinking about things like relationships; I can’t help but worry, what if the one I fall in love with is a white person? Will his family ever, truly accept me? Will me trying to assert my own culture (whatever that is) as well as embrace his be seen as annoying, superior? What about our kids? What sort of reality will they live in, how much would that change depending on how much of my features they inherit?
I don’t know, my heart is a bit of a mess time to time regarding this topic, and this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. But if I can give one piece of advice (specifically to those people who DON’T yet do this: I have many friends who do and they are the ones that have given me hope) – is when someone trusts you enough to share their experience of racism with you, don’t draw back: don’t be frightened, don’t try to defend yourself and your unseen camaraderie with your fellow Pakeha brothers or sisters. Don’t make this about you at all. Just validate their experience. Consider the possibility that it might be true, that some of us who are, technically, by all means Kiwi (last time I checked, a Citizenship certificate sealed the deal) do not feel entirely safe, physically or emotionally, to consider themselves one. And even those who aren’t citizens have a right to be able to live in a society free of xenophobic attitudes. Yes, maybe you might feel their burden a bit heavier than you might have if you just flung back their ’emotions’ and ‘over-sensitivity’ in protest. But you’ll be more in touch with the reality of what it means to be a human in this country. And that’s something we could all use.
I know change is slow, and change takes time, but we’re all only droplets in the ocean, made of the same stuff, and it is our collective movement that has the power to turn the tide. It’s just that some of us are closer to the rocks than others: but the droplet far away from the rocks has no right to tell the droplets being smashed against the rocks that the rocks don’t exist, or aren’t as bad as the rocks elsewhere. Not that I would know how a water droplet ‘feels’ being smashed against a rock (and my English teacher would roll her eyes at this cringe-worthy use of anthropomorphism) but an analogy is an analogy.
Everyone wants to belong. Everyone.