An Indian, what becoming Australian means to me

By Indira Laisram
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More than 27,000 people will mark this Australia Day by becoming Australian citizens—the largest ever number to make the pledge today, January 26

I arrived in Australia in the December of 2009 adding to the sizeable population of growing Indian immigrants. But, unlike many others I did not come here as a student or as a permanent resident who got through the points system. I married an Australian and, therefore, was on spouse visa. Four years later, I became a citizen.

In my initial years, I instantly became a part of a nascent group of people from the northeast of India, the region I come from. As a libertarian, it was not my idea to create my own ‘northeast’ here. I find it problematic that we immigrate to a new country only to encourage or celebrate ghettoisation. I was, in fact, trying to find people I could immediately connect with as a means to get over that initial creeping feeling of loneliness in this big but less populated country.

Of course, people do celebrate creating Little India or Little Italy or Little China in cities across the world but the basic crux of it is so wrong—that you willingly move to another place, another culture, looking for a better life but you steadfastly hold on to your food, language, ideas, stereotypes. No wonder most Indians have only Indian friends.

Going to parties, I often bristled at how there were no non-Indian faces except for my husband who calls himself the “token white man” in such gatherings. It shocked me when a friend once said, “‘these’ people are not like us”. So what is the us versus them divide? How does one define an Australian? How does one get rid of cultural baggages or does one need to? These were questions that haunted me for a while.

I sort of settled in by year two. I joined yoga classes, met my neighbours and that expanded my network of friends. However, my experience of community and neighbourhood life was still a far cry from what I experienced back in India. You didn’t hear the neighbour’s pressure cooker whistle go off at noon or hear that cackle over tea. You still walked past few houses in the neighbourhood and wondered who lived in there.

I was determined to change my neighbourhood experience. It would result in my then 70-year-old neighbour Lin, who still remains my close friend, yen for lentils and rice for lunch. It would result in neighbour Darrel giving me the neighbourhood gossip of the week. It would result in neighbour Kate ending up going to India with me and me spending weekends with her parents in regional Victoria. It would make me think that friendships need more precision, and the deeper the relationship, irrespective of your colour, the less you thought about them versus us.

“Today is Australia Day and the country right now is loaded with conversations on shifting the National Day as it marks the beginning of the dispossession of Indigenous Australians”

And this, I realised, was what I started enjoying and excelling in because I already had an experience of survival and friendships. I grew up in the remote northeastern part of India, worked in Delhi for 17 years and moved to Australia. I had already engaged in the profound theatrics of racism living in Delhi. A lot of Indians even in Australia still ask me where I come from. Some are still unaware that there are more than 40 million Indians who look Asian. I haven’t experienced any racism so far in Australia but when it does, I will know how to handle it. No country is free of racism!

However, belonging and community are basic desires of any immigrant and it is a struggle that everyone gets into as he/she enters an anonymous life in a new country. Even after 15-plus years in this country, some of my friends say they will retire back in India. They are still reconciling with their Australian identity. The question is, can you have enough of either?

As I complete 11 years in Australia, I think of identity and belonging as permeable borders. I don’t carry the divided sensibility of India and Australia. Home has to be where the heart is. And if I have to examine my notions of what home means, it is also this sense of liberation that this country gives me.

I enjoy Australian summers, the barbecues and the general lifestyle. I do miss India, the country of my birth but I have also managed to navigate multiple trajectories. As a journalist, I find it liberating to listen to multiple stories and at the end of the day I come to the realisation that we are the authors of our lives.

Today is Australia Day and the country right now is loaded with conversations of shifting the National Day as it marks the beginning of the dispossession of Indigenous Australians who had lived on the continent for some 65,000 years prior to British colonisation. It is also the day when many immigrants take oath to become an Australian citizen.

As an Australian citizen, I am still grappling to learn what it means to be whole. I will carry a part of my identity that is Indian, as identity is not arbitrary. However, I am comfortable claiming that I have discovered my sense of place under the Australian sun, a place I proudly call home now.


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