Growing up in Australia is interesting. Growing up with parents who were born in a completely different country, surrounded by a completely different set of moral standards and culture, makes it twice as interesting.
Any type of conversation with another person who isn’t of Asian decent, specifically South Asian in this circumstance, will reveal the truly blinding differences between the expectations we face, compared to the expectations set for them. Some of these differences are due to intricate details and ways of life that our parents may see as normal based on their experiences with their own culture, which is in turn, placed on us. Other differences stand out like a sore thumb, often making some conversations awkward and difficult to deal with.
Beginning with something that starts right at the moment we start encountering other individuals in our life, right when we start forming bonds and friendships that begin to extend outside of the schoolyard; sleepovers. Personally, I was lucky in the sense that my parents weren’t all that harsh with sleepovers. I definitely needed a good times notice, but it wasn’t crazy. But best believe I had to have the supervising parent on speed-dial for a detailed phone-call about every aspect that the overnight visit would entail. And you can bet that I was never rocking up to anyone’s house empty handed. However, I’ve had friends who unfortunately didn’t manage to get off as lightly as me. Friends who required at least two weeks notice, sometimes even a formal invitation prior to the event. Friends who were absolutely fine to go shopping, stay for dinner and watch movies, but the second sleeping bags and PJ’s were pulled out, were hustled out the door by their parents, with a over-zealous ‘thank-you’ thrown behind them.
Since growing a little bit older, you’d expect that this would be a distant memory, a thing of the past. Nah son.
Like many schools, my high school would partake in annual athletics and swimming carnivals, as well as whole school events and fundraisers. Fast forward to Year 12, where you’re entitled to dress up for said events. Blessed with a tight group of three best friends, it was expected we all dressed up together and absolutely smashed our group outfit. Which we did, but not without it’s difficulties. However, one fundraiser in particular was the root of all my slight hatred towards any of these events that occurred for the rest of the year.
It’s 8:00PM, the night before our annual school carnival/fundraiser and the group chat is popping. We’re finalising our outfits, discussing hairstyles, the important discussions that need to be had. And then it happens.
“Wait, guys. Come over, stay the night. We can get ready together in the morning and walk to school from mine.”
Say what now?
Friends. Pals. Girls. Gals. Surely you don’t expect me to confidently approach my mother and father and propose they drop me off at your house, bag packed and everything, ready for a sleep over, after the sun has well and truly set???
But of course I tried. And got turned down harder than any boy could ever turn me down. Enough said.
So sleepovers while being a brown kid are a touchy subject.
You know what else is a touchy subject? The clothes you put on your body. Which ultimately revolves around, no, not how incredible you feel in it. Not how damn good it genuinely looks, and not about whatever’s supposedly trending at the given moment. Nah.
You saw your favourite online shop on Instagram advertising a dress that’s within the budget, comes in your size, in a colour that will look perfect with your skin tone and free shipping?
What matters is whether or not your parents approve of it. And with it, the follow on question with that is what type of message will it send to the aunty who lives in India that you’ve met maybe three times, who somehow still managed to find your recent photo on FaceBook and let the rest of the family know that you’re probably an alcoholic and party every night cos your collarbones were just out there.
Growing up, dressing myself was a struggle. I have war flashbacks of my mum scrutinising every single article of clothing I tried on, while my dad legged it into the bedroom to avoid the path of the hurricane. Even now I’ve been conditioned to get my mum’s approval of an outfit, because if I leave my room and she gives a ‘look’, my confidence and self assurance is crushed for the night. I put a dress on hold and waited an hour and a half in a shopping centre for my mum to reply to my picture message, with her verdict on my possible outfit for a 25th wedding anniversary. Don’t even start me on finding a formal dress. Growing up in a predominantly white suburb, going to a predominantly white primary school and being one of the handful of brown kids at my all girl high school, I was always friends with Anglo-Saxon kids. Those who matter and those who are close enough to me understand the score. They don’t question why I’ve got a jacket on in the middle of summer only to ditch it the second I get out of the car and into their house for pre’s. They understand and share my joy when I find a top that I can wear clubbing, but pull up and adjust perfectly to appease my parents before I’m out the door. It’s become a skill. A well honed, carefully crafted skill.
Comparisons. Tell any white kid that you’re constantly compared to your cousins, immediate and far distant, and they’ll tell you that it’s unhealthy. It isn’t good for your mind or mental health, it hurts the soul. And to that, South Asian kids laugh. It doesn’t matter that you’ve literally just stepped foot into your house. You definitely should be aware that such and such’s daughter has a line of boys waiting for her and she can make roti’s. Round roti’s. You should also know it’s because she doesn’t dress like a ‘tart’. Honestly, someone create a seperate section in the Olympics for all the Indian athletes. No-one has time to worry about beating the USA or China, because these kids are having a hard enough time competing with each other.
But then, the best part. Remember such and such’s daughter? Such and such is bringing you up because you’re killing it at school and raking up the academic awards. It’s a vicious cycle of all these little brown kids being pitted against each other, when in actual fact we leave our homes at the young age of twenty-seven, and we’re learning that it’s us against the world and it’s the other little brown kids who are gonna truly understand us and have our backs.
Ahh, food. It’s a central part of South Asian culture. But somehow, it isn’t for everyone else?
Story time No.2.
So last Christmas my best friend and her family invited us all to their annual Christmas party. At the bottom of the text was the final sentence; ‘bring a small plate’. My best friend is white. I knew immediately. We needed to pop on over to Costco, find a really nice selection of cheeses and crackers, pretty up a nice cheese board, and we’d be set. Fast forward to my family ringing the doorbell with a huge Tupperware container of biriyani proudly nestled in my mothers arms. We walked into the room where the party was happening and what do we see on the tables? Dips. Celery and carrot sticks. Slices of cake. Chips. Sauces. Flat bread and hummus. A selection of meats. Cheese boards. I will never forget the moment my Dad leaned over and whispered in my ear, “So many snacks before dinner.” No, Dad. This is dinner. Dig in.
Privacy is a seemingly foreign concept to South Asian parents, or Asian parents in general. It’s non existent in my house. I may as well leave my door open because only five minutes will pass before someone swings it wide open. We have family congregations and catch-up’s in my bedroom. One of my brown best friend’s had her whole bedroom door removed from it’s hinges and put in the garage. I can spend the whole day and a whole night at one of my best friend’s house, and never see their parents outside of the family room and the kitchen. My friends come to my house and my parents spend half their day in my room trying to have a chat.
And don’t even try explaining that it’s your space. It’s not ‘your’ room. It’s a room in the house. The house that they own. It’s their room.
Surely I don’t need to talk about dating? You’re either too young to even think about the opposite gender as more than a friend, or, you’re too old and should have been married last year when such and such’s daughter had her engagement. We can talk about a boy all you like, but once we step foot inside my house, he ceases to exist. No-one utters his name, not even a pronoun.
The scenarios I mentioned above, are honestly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dealing with South Asian family dynamics and culture, while growing up in a country like Australia. The tip of the iceberg. This is the iceberg that hit the Titanic. And all of us are Jack. I would 100% recommend watching the stand-up comedy special ‘Homecoming King – Hasan Minhaj’ on Netflix. It’s about an hour and a bit, but Hasan sums up everything it is to be a brown kid growing up in a Western country, being the child of immigrants and the turmoil that comes with it. I love my parents. I do. But I despise being caught in the middle, as I know a lot of other South Asian kids do. But remember, this ain’t the Olympics. Brown kids get it, and brown kids get each other.