Why are we so unkind?


Two pieces on Indian-Australian Relations by Amrita Dasvarma and Angela Dewan

“Why Are We So Unkind?”
A Perspective on Indo-Australian Relations by an Indian-born Australian
By Amrita Dasvarma

The recent media-driven furore over international students, particularly Indian students, and the finger-pointing outcry of ‘Australia is a racist country!” by the Indian media, has raised our collective hackles.   How dare they, a country known for its on-going religious and ethnic conflict and violence, call Australia racist?  But what galls me about this debate isn’t that they are calling us racist, but that we, in Australia, have lost sight of ‘why’.

We aren’t dealing with the uncouth and disrespectful behaviour of arrogant cricketers here, but rather the infringement of the human rights of international students.  The issues highlighted in the media include exploitation of international students by unethical immigration agents; the collapse of private colleges after soliciting thousands of dollars from international students; tenancy scams where students pay an exorbitant weekly rent in exchange for a shared corner of a room with sometimes three or four others, and under-paid jobs with exploitative employers who threaten to ‘dob students in to immigration’ if they complain.  These are only some of the circumstances facing international students, including those from India.  As a student advisor working in one of Sydney’s metropolitan universities, I have heard such accounts first-hand, and long before this issue became a political tennis ball lobbed back and forth between the Indian and Australian media.

Let me be clear:  I am of Indian descent, but consider Australia home. I like vegemite; support the Balmain Tigers (although I prefer AFL) and have lived in four out of seven states (I still have Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia to go). And despite the fact that I love Australia, and do believe it is a ‘lucky country’, there is always room for improvement.

I first came to this country as an eleven-month old baby with my parents; my father had been awarded a doctoral scholarship as a postgraduate international student.  By today’s standards, his seventies’ monthly stipend wouldn’t even cover my current rent, but in those days it was more than enough.  My memories of childhood include running through piles of autumn leaves on my dad’s university campus, the five year olds of other international PhD students in pursuit, as we claimed the university’s concrete forum as our domain.  Australia seemed a safe haven: I never felt threatened, unwanted, or uninvited.  Thirty years later, not only has the cost of living increased ten-fold, but so has the number of students flocking to Australia from overseas.

Higher education is our second largest export.  It isn’t just the thousands of dollars in students’ fees netted by universities and private colleges, but the economic injection provided by international students boosting our local communities.  I’ve heard grumblings suggesting we shouldn’t allow so many to attend our universities, that international students ‘take up too much space’, that they should learn to adapt to Australia and if they can’t – they should ‘go home’.  The truth however, is that we need them. International students pay taxes, engage in retail therapy, use public transport, frequent restaurants and coffee-shops, just as we all do.    Could we really cope without them?

To be frank, I’m also a little bemused at our collective level of outrage at being called ‘racist’.  The policies of assimilation imposed upon the indigenous peoples, the White Australia Policy, and the Stolen Generation, are not figments of fantasy, but facts from recent history, still part of living memory.   Accepting that, and having the genuine desire for reparation, is what will change the external perception of Australia as a ‘racist’ country.  Saying ‘sorry’ was only the beginning.

Let’s not get side-tracked here.  International students, and their families ‘back home’, have reason to be distressed. With no other explanation as to why many are exploited (“Pay me this much, I’ll get you a visa”), or discriminated against (“You have no local experience, I cannot hire you,”), or victims of senseless violence (the police have been quoted as warning international students that they are ‘easy targets’ and advising them against speaking publicly in their own languages) labelling Australia ‘racist’ is the easy answer.

Those of us who live here know that is naive and unhelpful, but so is jumping up and down about it.  The issue isn’t whether or not we are ‘racist’, but whether or not international students are being given a ‘fair go’.  I wouldn’t put up with living three-to-a-room, being paid token wages, or being asked for prohibitive sums with the false promise of residency held out enticingly as bait.  We need to impose better regulatory requirements upon those of us within Australia who see international students as ‘easy prey’.  We need to treat our guests as we ourselves would like to be treated.

The fat kid, the stupid kid and the Indian kid

By Angela Dewan
Why are people so unkind? When I hear that phrase, I instantly think of the ’70s singing sensation Kamahl. For those of you who are too young to remember him, Kamahl is a singer of Sri Lankan heritage who found fame in Australia crooning Broadway tunes and standards. He also happens to be a good friend of my 82-year-old Indian grandmother.

Although Kamahl was a celebrated performer, I can’t help but think that Australians were laughing at him, rather than singing along with him. The phrase “Why are people so unkind?” — lyrics from one of his songs — immediately stuck to Kamahl’s persona. It is a phrase he was asked to repeat over and over again for Australia whenever he made appearances on television, particularly the hit variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday. It always roused a laugh. Even in 2004, when Kamahl’s unforeseen revival culminated at the Big Day Out festival, audience members donned Kamahl T-shirts bearing his famous slogan.

I wonder how far we’ve come since Kamahl’s day. It was only in 1973 that the White Australian policy was lifted and “non-white” immigrants were officially welcomed, well, legally at least, in the country. This is when my parents moved from New Delhi to Sydney, in search of a better life.

Despite the recent violence against Indian students (so eloquently called “curry bashings,” even by the media), racism is never really a problem for me as a 26-year-old Indian woman. That’s because I got it kicked into my head, quite literally, as a primary school student that I was to act more “Australian” — or else.

Now that I am a “real” Aussie — one who wears jeans, drinks beer, goes to the beach and partakes in conversations about white-based popular culture — other Australians generally don’t have a problem with me. That’s because Australia is truly a multiethnic nation.

But how multicultural is Australia? Culture is not only about race — you have beach culture, gay culture, goth culture and youth culture. Culture is about your way of life. Just about anything you do for a hobby or identify with could fit into a culture of some sort.

In a true multicultural nation, it should be no anomaly to see a woman in a Muslim headscarf sipping coffee with an Asian transgender and a white male corporate lawyer.

I’m sure things would be very different for me if I had a thick Indian accent, wore a sari down the street and smelled like the spices I use to cook my morning aloo parantha.

For a while, it looked as if that would be my destiny. I was born in Sydney, but as a young child I spoke more Hindi than English at home and I loved watching my father’s videos of ’70s Bollywood songs. I loved the bright colours of my mother’s saris and I used to delight in sticking her rainbow collection of bindis between my eyebrows. Everything seemed perfectly normal to me.

But then I got to primary school. I knew immediately I was different.

Some of the kids, usually the boys, would pick on me and call me a “curry-muncher”. I was the token Indian of my class — an easy target. But it’s not like I was the only one who got picked on. There was the fat kid, the skinny kid, the kid that couldn’t read and the kid that read too much. The Chinese kids got their fair share of bullying as well, usually over the contents of their lunch boxes. I wanted to fit in with the “real” Australians. They seemed to have all the clout.

I was embarrassed to have friends over because things were different in my home. We sang songs that sounded out of key to worship our many Hindu gods, who were monkeys or blue or half-human half-elephants. We didn’t eat meat on Tuesdays and
we were constantly made to study maths.

I decided one day that I would stop speaking Hindi with my parents, a language I have now lost. I began cooking for myself — pastas, steak, salads, anything Western I could think of. I got my eyebrows waxed as thin as I could and began straightening my unruly curly hair. Most sadly, I pretended I no longer liked Indian music, even though I was always singing along with it in my head. I just hated being Indian.

High school was smooth sailing. I studied French, art, music and literature, and rejected the usual maths-chemistry-physics combination that most Indians elect for their high-school certificate. I wasn’t going to be a doctor, an accountant or in IT. I was going to be a journalist. I was as Australian as could be. I fit in.

But by the age of 17, I started to realise what I had done. I became interested in my culture again, and a trip to India with my cousins rekindled something in me I forgot existed. I started talking about it with my friends, but when I’d refer to myself as Indian, someone would say, “You’re not Indian, you’re Australian”, meaning, “You’re one of us now”, as if it were a complement. At times I felt a subtle undertone of “We accept you, and you should be grateful.” And that always put me back in my place.

Now I’m living in Indonesia, and when people ask me where I’m from, I tell them I’m Australian. This is always followed by a puzzled look as they examine my dark hair, brown eyes and tan skin. “But my family is from India,” I explain. “Oh, I see,” they say, and it all make sense.

I can never run away from my Indian face and I now regret running from it in the first place.

If I could turn back time and return to primary school, I’d kick those boys in the shins for calling me a “curry-muncher” and go about my Indian-Australian way.

4 thoughts on “Why are we so unkind?”

  1. Hi,

    It is a great article and reflects today’s reality, I’m an international student from india as well

  2. Hi Amrita and Angela, thanks, I enjoyed reading your views and stories. Just like to add that vegemite, rugby league, pasta and steaks are NOT more “Australian” than dim sum, curry or unruly eyebrows. All food prepared and eaten in Australia is Australian food. Drinking beer, going to the beach and “white-based cultures” are enjoyed in lots of countries (including where I was born) and are NOT more “Australian” than a headscarf, a sari or liking Bollywood. If Hollywood films aren’t “un-Australian”, then neither are Bollywood films. Asia also has plenty of journalists, many of whom wear jeans! Please don’t sound apologetic for being a migrant and not being white! We are Australian and should NOT have to “remind” people (how much we love this country, etc.), especially not based on tired old cliches of what being Australian means. 30 years ago people said pizza was “un-Australian” and hardly anyone knew what capsicum was. CAPSICUM. O_o
    Anyway Cheers and Best Regards! xx

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