Understanding Difference: the Activist Role of Friendship

 

Annemari de SilvaWhen I was 9 years old, my parents decided it was time to move back to Sri Lanka. I was born there but my only recollections of it were the cockroach infested house we visited every summer and the blast of humid heat that hits you when descending the aeroplane. Australia was my home, with friends and teachers and books and bicycles and McDonald’s hash brown brekkies. Sri Lanka was alien.

Then, after 8 years of growing up there, Sri Lanka became my inalienable home. Of course by that time, I was then supposed to return to Australia for tertiary education. It was supposed to be my second home so I only expected mild culture shock. Within a few months of university, I had a large group of friends. Yet, there was always something slightly amiss in these friendships but I could never put my finger on what exactly it was.

Five long years of university later I began work as a social worker in Sri Lanka. Through this time, exposure to socially sensitive thinking and ideas, the half-baked nature of my friendships in Australia began to make sense to me. I started to see that there was a mixture of obliviousness and willful blindness towards difference and disprivilege among the circles I moved in, meaning that I could never be my whole self with people (since that self is both ‘different’ and passionate about dialogue on social justice). The latent, constant sense of discomfort I felt began to make sense: the funny looks when something I said sounded amiss (e.g. ‘Did you buy those shoes new?’). I would fumble not knowing how to express myself differently, or I could not understand people’s priorities (spending hours designing an escape plan during a zombie apocalypse but not having time to talk to a petitioner against intervention in Iraq), or I felt ashamed explaining why I didn’t want to spend ten dollars every Sunday for dinner among friends. In retrospect, I see this discomfort comes from my friends not understanding that I did not come from the same background as they did. In a moment, I would like to share a few examples.

It feels uncomfortable in a way to write this article because no matter what, my friends were lovely. They were caring individuals, passionate, incredibly interesting, fun-loving, and well-meaning. In a way it is not their fault that they caused me discomfort: they are as much a product of their environment as I am of mine. Moreover, I know I played a part in the discomfort they caused me because, at the end of the day, I was too cowardly and misguided to speak out. I cannot critique others without understanding my own part played in all this. I chose to believe something was wrong with me, that I should stay quiet, that I need to re-evaluate my own worldview, vocabulary, interests, priorities. For those among them that were open to alternative views on culture, race, privilege, etc., if there is no one around to talk reasonably about it and offer them an alternative perspective, then where can change ever happen for them? Systems are such that we are bound in bubbles unquestioningly. All it takes is that one puncture to open the world, but someone has to be vulnerable enough to enter another’s bubble.

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 (1) The burden of knowledge

A few weeks into my first year, I saw my friends were huddled around a computer looking at something. They were getting animated about something Dr. Karl had said. Wanting to be part of the conversation, or at least have some context for it, I asked who Dr. Karl was. Six heads turned simultaneously and stared at me. One said, ‘You don’t know who Dr. Karl is? What’s wrong with you?’ No one ended up answering me. I think they showed me a picture of him and later down the line I found out he was a popular science communicator. I ended up doing work for him, so I guess Australia succeeded in teaching me the greatness that is Dr. Karl.

I contrast that incident with another that happened much later on. In my second year of university, I went to one of my friends’ holiday homes with about 10 friends. Gathered around eating our dinner, I spoke at length about something concerning Sri Lanka. When I was done, one friend asked me where Sri Lanka was. I was gobsmacked. A full year into our friendship, where for months on end we would see each other practically every day, and no one in that circle could say geographically where I came from. For me, that moment cut deep. Over that year of friendship, they had listened to me recount memories, pain, tastes, and sounds of Sri Lanka without once taking it upon themselves to find out where it was. I was outraged and said so. The friend who asked told me to ‘calm down, why can’t you just tell us now that we’re asking you, we kinda know where it is but not exactly so just tell us’. Yet I was the freak that did not know who Dr. Karl was within the first few weeks of re-arriving in Australia.

(2) Performing vs. being socially conscious

My friends’ interest in social issues ranged from concerned and active to completely disinterested, apathetic. Many of them were very supportive when it came to causes I happened to be involved in, which was really nice of them, but there was still a gap between understanding injustice happening *elsewhere* to seeing our own participation in it in daily life.

(a)

During a playful cookie bake-off between two friends, one realised he had mixed up the order of steps and began to throw away a bowl of a dozen eggs and a pound of sugar. I saw, was horrified, and shouted for him to stop it, they were perfectly good eggs and surely we could use it for something else. He insisted he could not and since it was a ‘competition’ he had to do his best. Here was my friend, who had previously listened to my spiels on a variety of social issues – including food insecurity – seeing his wastage as unproblematic ‘given the circumstances’. Food insecurity to me was so real, so every day. To him, there was no connection between that and what he was about to do. While I sat, upset, enraged and powerless, he threw the eggs away. I felt so sick. I spent the rest of the day making snide remarks about ‘oh perhaps we should toss this out too since we accidentally put a gram too much’.

I am not the most dignified when I get angry.

(b)

A friend complained vehemently about Centrelink denying her application on the grounds that her parents earned above the threshold amount. Perhaps what my friend said seems unproblematic to most and yes, the Centrelink evaluation system is not perfect. Yet I wonder whether my friend truly understood her social positioning in comparison to the demographic of Centrelink beneficiaries? I compare this to when another friend commented on the unfairness of a lower Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) for people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) backgrounds at university entrance. When I tried to explain how affirmative action acts as the bare minimal effort to counterbalance complex systems of injustice, she just said it’s not fair that hardworking people like her have to forego their place for people who get low scores because they are drunk all the time.

That bare-faced racism is easy for anyone to call out. Yet it is still the same problem as my other friend with her comment on Centrelink payments. They both felt entitled, neither acknowledged that they had plenty of alternative support and opportunities, and neither understood that these opportunities meant more for the intended beneficiaries than for the relatively privileged people from whom these benefits had been supposedly ‘denied’. We all work hard and have our struggles, no doubt. Yet the ability to feel entitled to some of these social welfare measures demonstrates a disconnect, a lack of understanding about the real plight of individuals within our own society, at the very same time that we exoticise or romanticise our ability to save those in trouble *elsewhere*.

(3) Cultural intolerance

For a society burdened with the legacy of Enlightenment and rationality, tolerance for alternative understandings of universe, being and society can be difficult. For me, this meant that at points of cultural difference, I suddenly had the burden of explaining a totally different system of knowledge or social norms to my friends. Even when I tried, my explanations were redundant to an interlocutor whose mind could not accept alternate modes of knowledge or life.

A close friend of mine was having a persistent cold that was intolerable on top of her allergies and sinus problems. She was constantly on flu pills that managed symptoms but did not cure. Ayurveda, unlike Western medicine, has remedies for viruses. The remedy for a cold is in such common usage that it’s now packaged and sold as a commercial product. I offered to give her some of my stock and her first reaction was a skeptical frown, as though she was already convinced 99% from her presuppositions that I was offering her quack medicine. She asked doubtfully, ‘Err… has it been clinically trialled?’. I thought that the most absurd question to ask when it comes to Ayurveda. Everyone seeks Ayurvedic medicine nowadays. That’s like asking whether Panadol has been proven to soothe headaches. It’s something I took for granted and had no idea how to explain to her apart from blurting out in honesty, ‘I don’t know’ and then adding ‘but it’s medicine that’s been around, tried and tested for millennia’. Her smug retort was that homeopathy was also a quack medicine that had been around for ages too. How was I to explain to her the ancient Vedic origins of Ayurveda, a knowledge derived from a completely different understanding of life, when all she understood were textual citations and clinical trials? Exasperated, I gave up on offering to help her and continued walking.

When I housed my close friend, I made her some food I generally had for breakfast: coconut roti and dhal curry. She ate some but only after exclaiming her surprise at how I eat ‘curry for breakfast’. I felt snubbed, as I shared my life with her, but swallowed my discomfort and dhal. Another night soon after, I stayed over with her and her housemate. In the morning, while watching television, my friend brought up how I ate curry for breakfast. Her housemate, who studies and has lived in Indonesia, responded, ‘Ok. And?’

My friend said, ‘But that’s weird!’

Her housemate replied again, ‘No it’s not. That’s what a lot of people do, all over Asia and plenty of other countries. That’s how it was in Indonesia too. Why is that difficult to accept?’

My friend responded by saying that she “accepted” it but she couldn’t understand how people could do that. ‘But that’s exactly not accepting it!’ said her housemate, laughing, at which my friend conceded saying ‘Ok, ok’ and turned back to watching television.

Of course, I was in the room all this while but this conversation did not include me. Knowing my own inability to communicate difference to my friend, I hoped her white Australian housemate could validate my way of life. To my own friend. I still feel disheartened by my cowardice in this exchange and my need for others to speak for me.

*

I suppose I conflate the issue of disprivilege and difference because centrally, it means that the burden of assimilation is on the one assimilating in, not on the society being assimilated into. Hence one’s difference, whether cultural or socioeconomic, is one’s disprivilege. It was on me to revise and reproduce social mores of the society, whether it was eating cereal instead of flavourful dhal in the morning, or popping flu tablets to stop sneezing instead of addressing the cause of illness through Ayurvedic medicine, or referencing the same popular culture bank instead of exchanging knowledge of each other’s pop cultures. My friends, in their outright denial of my difference, refused to step out of their bubble, expecting me to behave as though I came from the same bubble. In a similar way, hardship was understood by many of my peers to be long hours of studying, or voluntarily moving away from family to live independently: hardship was not battling with illiteracy or a lack of formal education in your family to become the only family member with a degree, or being forced to move from your rural home because of city-centric education planning, or being able to depend on literally no one but the government to support you through education. Or any of the myriad things that are still outside of my own bubble of understanding.

A sole moment in my university days completely captures this feeling of separation. On May 18th 2009, the thirty-year long civil war in Sri Lanka ended with a brutal military offensive. It was on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald and when I saw it I felt like the world around me stopped. My heart beat irregularly and I could not breathe properly. I stared at the page in silence and my two friends asked if anything was wrong. I said the newspaper said the war was over. They said, ‘oh that’s brilliant’, and continued talking to each other over coffee. Mute and numb, I stood up and walked out. It was the most isolating experience I have ever felt. Life as I knew it fundamentally changed. The possibilities, the fears, anger, every feeling drowned me at that moment and I had no one to share them with. It left me listless on the steps of my university, clutching the paper. To my friends, war was a thing whose end could be congratulated, like finishing an essay. To me, war was how I understood the world. The revelation of the war ending happened in the space between our bubbles, on that coffee table, and all that happened was that we continued to live two completely separate realities.

For the readers of AADC, perhaps it is trite to say that the key to a plural society is not homogenous assimilation but rather, acknowledgement, mutual tolerance of and curiosity toward difference. Yet in the life that I led for five long years, somehow this was not such a hackneyed idea. Now that I’m gone from it and all I have left is a magazine to share this with like-minded people, I feel as though I failed. Perhaps the burden of explaining should not have been on me through those years. Yet rather than explaining, I should not have let the force of assimilatory culture crush my spirit. In many ways, I am glad I got away from it and remembered ‘who I am’, so to speak, but that is my own privilege – I could step away. What role can I play for those around me, similar to and perhaps more silenced than me?

My refusal to make myself more vulnerable did no good. Often, more than the lack of understanding of my struggles, it was my silence that frustrated me the most. Now though, years gone by and ages matured, I can speak directly to my old friends – some of whom have approached me actively about it – and it feels like we are finally really friends. I no longer have to hide myself and I can laugh at them when they say ‘weird’ things as they do with me, teasing each other and learning from each other. It feels like we have stepped into a different world.  As we continue to grow up together, it feels like we’ve entered a different bubble altogether, our worlds seeping into one another’s, with all of us on a journey to break down the barriers in our minds.

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The Asian Australian Democracy Caucus (AADC) is a non-partisan organisation. One of our ongoing commitments is to contribute a monthly blog in collaboration with Peril magazine. To find out more about this collaboration read here. If you want more information or would like to write for us, get in touch with us, Jen Tsen Kwok or Shinen Wong at aadc@peril.com.au

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Author: Annemari de Silva

Annemari de Silva is a Chevening Scholar to SOAS, University of London, studying for an MA South Asian Area Studies. Her focus is on the Politics of Culture, particularly the use of creative expression by activist groups, and the relationship of activists with state and society. Her poetry, comic prose, and commentaries are available at annemariwrites.wordpress.com ... and her academic work is available at independent.academia.edu/AnnemarideSilva

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