commentary

E.T. Phone Home

9 August 2018

Alien. That’s the best way to describe it. Being an immigrant often feels like you’re between a rock and a hard place. But the rock is the place you are now, and the hard place is fitting in. Always in between, always not quite there, mentally or physically. Physically, missing out on schoolies for a family trip back to the home that is spoken of at least once every family meal. Mentally, always worlds away, wrapped up in stories from family about faraway lands, of sights, smells and people that exist on what seems like an entirely different planet.

When people ask me where I call home, I’m always stuck, and it leaves me looking like an idiot. After all, growing up in New Zealand for 18 years should logically tell me that it is my home. But I have no connection to the place. I have no one outside my immediate family there, apart from a scattering of high school friends. My hometown is filled with nostalgia, for days spent down at the beach, faces covered with 50c ice- cream cones. Perhaps I’m not a person who grows attached to places, or people. As any immigrant will tell you, our families often branch over miles, different postcodes, time zones and borders, forcing us to lose a sense of object permanence. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and if absence is the catalyst to heart growth, we immigrants have abnormal anatomy.

I was born in Singapore, but have never lived there. My connections there are through my extended family, and brief reprises from the harsh New Zealand winter. Singapore feels like an escape, surrounded in a cloud of tropical humidity, but not a home. It’s a place where I feel slightly more at home, among a predominantly Asian society, where running errands in a sari or a salwaar are met with less inquisitive stares. But it is still not where I fit in.

My ancestry is Indian. All my grandparents were born there, and their stories paint vivid pictures about a place filled to the brim with culture and history, life and colour. My imagination is filled with stories from the past, of how things used to be before corruption and colonialism snaked its way through the cracks. But trips back to my homeland have proven that I’m out of place here as well. Too awkward and too foreign to pass as a seasoned local, I stick out like a sore thumb in a pair of converse that are too white amongst the dusty roads.

Being an immigrant is being constantly restless. Cycling between the delicate see-saw of being too foreign for your new country, but too assimilated for your old. It’s getting pangs of guilt every-time you adopt a mannerism from your new, non-immigrant friends, as if somehow the more you feel fit in, the more you sever your ties with your heritage. It’s having to explain to your friends why your mum will be picking you up from the party at 10:30, even though you’re on school holidays. It’s not being able to explain exactly why telling your parents that “I’m 18 now I can do what I want” would trigger a cataclysmic breakdown.

Being an immigrant is being “too white” for the East, and “too brown” for the West. It’s being in between, the messy middle flavour in a tub of Neapolitan. It’s an exhausting experience, and quite often, a narrative that is left out. When everyone around you is busy figuring themselves out and their various levels of alcohol tolerance, and you’re still staring at a world map wondering where on earth you slot in, it doesn’t make for an easy journey into your 20s.

It’s only after talking to the handful of “third culture kids”, that commonalities in our journeys of fitting in become apparent. The struggles of fitting in that we experience are never something our parents could have anticipated, and something that, unless pulled out of our conscious through somewhat confronting conversations, isn’t something that ever gets talked about. It’s easy to see the relative benefits of being an immigrant, the food, the clothes and the culture, but very rarely do we, or our communities in general, unpack the different levels of emotional trauma we endure.

Among the social movements that we find ourselves in about decolonising fashion, history and food, we need to make more of an effort to create spaces in which we can have these conversations. Relocating our common ground and realising we have a lot more that ties us is maybe the only way we can navigate the xenophobic seas the last 10 years have brought in.

That’s not to say that every experience I’ve had in the last 21 years has been traumatic or has left me deeply troubled. But it’s easy to see immigrants of all backgrounds represented a certain way in the media, without any honesty about the actualities of our experiences. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change anything about myself, but I’m still wondering how many more years I’ll be orbiting earth in my UFO, feeling like E.T. on a planet where nowhere feels quite like home.


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