Brisbane, April 1, 2014 (Alochonaa): I flew into my home town of Perth from Melbourne yesterday. My parents had been away in Sri Lanka for two months and I had missed them. Ammi is so pleased to see me, giving me a huge hug. Then she notices that I’ve shaved the side of my head… and she is no longer pleased. For the rest of the afternoon I casually dismiss the complaints about my hair. It is ugly and people will tell me that it looks good to my face, but behind my back they will say I am crazy. How will it look that this mad woman is their daughter when they are so culturally upstanding? I should stop having my hair this way immediately. Bless her.
Living away from home has refreshingly removed these questions and possible judgements from my decision making process. They brought up the fact that they brought me into this world, and therefore I should do what they tell me.
The simple answer is no.
I understand my parents gave up a lot in 1987 when they decided to move here. Comfortable, respectable jobs, a simple life (albeit with the perils of civil war) were left to struggle in a still racist Australian society. The reward being able to provide a better education for their two daughters. With them they brought the value system of 1987 Sri Lanka, and they still have it today though Sri Lanka has moved on. They also have succeeded financially and socially. It would be fair to say that my parents are pillars of the community.
I respect their values and I am ever so grateful to have been brought up Buddhist. Every Sunday morning my mother would tear us away from Video Hitz for a sermon on Buddhism with the motivation of inculcating a Sinhalese identity. Values of respecting and subservience to elders, honesty and chastity were drilled into me. I was taught to believe that education was everything and that becoming a doctor, lawyer or engineer was how I would make a mark in this world. It was unseemly to have friends who were boys, let alone date them and I was to be virgin until I married – to a fellow Sri Lankan of course. I was always reminded of my heritage and to be proud of that. And yet I only visited Sri Lanka once at the age of eight. My recollections are vague, but happy. Yet, I always felt a disconnect.
How was it possible to assimilate into Australian culture when we were holding onto the past, onto a sense of separateness from the society we wanted to be accepted by? The resistance confused me to my core. Who was I?
I couldn’t bring myself to conform, causing pain to myself and my family. I found a calling in science in a profession I loved, I preferred to travel than be owned by things, and had a penchant for European men. What is so hard for first 1st generation and 1.5 generation immigrants like myself is the grasping of traditional values, the desperation to keep what was left behind. It was their choice to leave it behind for a better life, yet it remains on a pedestal in their hearts. There is no formula to what stays and what loses hold. And I’m sure it is as confusing for my parents as it was for me. I am grateful for their sacrifice 27 years ago.
Recently, I let all of the pressure go. It took 26 years to fully realise that I didn’t have to fit the mould and to be not ashamed but proud of the woman I was. Today is my 28th birthday. I’m strong of will, I express myself completely and I love with all of my heart. I have travelled extensively and have identified with every culture in some way. When it comes to culture, there is no right and wrong, no us and them, not one that is better than another, only different. And I love the diversity of Australia. Immigration has enriched this country.
There are still prejudices left over from generations before us. I definitely have them. Overcoming prejudices has never failed to reward me. Living in Melbourne, I spend a lot of time at a community based pay-as-you-feel, volunteer run restaurant called ‘Lentil as Anything‘. It attracts people from all walks of life. You sit alone at a table and you make friends with someone from the other side of the world. There are Tamil refugees working in the kitchen. One of whom, his name is Pradeep, makes an effort to speak Sinhalese with me everytime he sees me. He’s patient and refrains from laughing at my broken mother tongue.
I wonder what would have happened if when my parents had decided to come to Australia seeking asylum the way Pradeep had. If they came over oceans, selling all they had to pay for the journey, with no surety of what would be there for them at the other end. The fear they might have felt. What if when they had arrived, they were held for an indefinite period of time at somewhere like Manus Island, perhaps facing the possibility of being sent back to where they came from. What if for my parents, the place they came from was hostile to them?
Or worse still, the place they were kept was hostile, where their lives were in danger?
It is not illegal to seek asylum. These ‘illegal martime arrivals’ (as the coalition now calls them) are only offered temporary protection even if deemed to be refugees. The number of permanent protection visas have been capped, so those approved for refugee protection after the 2750 visas have been reached must wait until the next financial year. Australia is the only country that caps this way – Lebanon granted 676 729 refugee statuses in 2013. Australia’s reaction over relatively small numbers of refugees is overblown, when what we need is a fair response from a place of genorousity and integrity, where the human rights of asylum seekers are protected.
This cap seems ludicrous to me – refugees are going to become permanent residents anyway, yet they are kept in uncertainty. Having friends who work at these detention centres, I’m told that six months in detention there is a decline in mental health. Why are asylum seekers being punished? Why is Australia turning her back on those in need?
What is happening at Manus Island is disturbing – stories of violence, rape, self-harm and murder filter through the cloud of censorship. Asylum seekers, extremely vulnerable people are being physically and emotionally attacked, and Australia is responsible.
I am an immigrant and my family and I were given the opportunity to contribute to Australia. The current system breaks those who could otherwise be fostered to further enrich this country of ‘boundless plains to share’.
*Nishadee Liyanage is a scientist, yoga teacher, martial artist and wellness enthusiast, Nisha Liyanage lives her life with the intention of engaging and uplifting those around her. She has sacrificed the Australian dream to travel extensively around the world while expanding her own consciousness.
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