I Wish Everyone Were A Migrant For A Week

The great Maya Angelou once said that if she had the power, “I would make everyone an African American… at least for a week. Know what it’s like. Know what it’s like to get on a bus or any public conveyance, and have people look at you as if you’ve just stolen the baby’s milk. Look at you and turn the face away, and still say ‘I forgive you.’”

If I had the power, I would make all Australians migrants for at least a week. The emotional baggage that migrants carry with them is compounded on a daily basis and sourced from the fear of being misunderstood, or worse, not being heard at all. The fear of being told that there are cookie cutter actions, thoughts, and beliefs that you must espouse, and that your culture plays no role in shaping the narrative that this newly adopted country follows.  

I remember my first day of primary school in Perth. The teacher was doing the roll call. Tom, Dick, Harry, Sally and Joanne were all present, along with a host of other anglicised names. To my surprise, the Chinese and Vietnamese pupils also had anglicised names. Years later I studied their political history and found that the Chinese hadn’t been colonised while the Vietnamese had French colonial history, but the students’ names and mannerisms suggested that the Queen of England had won over their hearts and minds so even those kids had their names slip off the teacher’s tongue easily. I knew when my name came up on the roll even before the teacher had attempted to pronounce it. Squinting at the page, as if deciphering hieroglyphics, she stammered out my name, or in fact what was an abominable rendition of it. I corrected her pronunciation. She tried again. I corrected her again. She said she would stick to her own pronunciation of it. The other students in class snickered away. I didn’t correct another teacher for the next eight years. I guess I was mispronouncing my own name all along.

I also remember the first time I entered the soccer field. It was a few days after my first day at school. Having spent some time mustering up the courage to join the rest of the kids, I tentatively meandered towards the pitch and stood on the sideline as the rest of the class played. They could see I was waiting to be invited but they just ignored me. As recess neared its end, I asked if I could join the game. “Why do you want to play soccer? You’re not one of us”, came one response. I guess that was decided as well. Tricky name means you’re not one of us, you can’t play soccer with us—the circle of life for a migrant kid. Funnily enough I found out a few years later that the girl who made that statement was Italian herself. Whether she was a first, second or third generation migrant I wasn’t sure, but the irony of it all wasn’t lost on me.

And finally, I remember my first day of private school a few years later. The demographics were quite different (much more balanced) than the public school. Maybe it was because migrant kids tended to excel academically, which was why many of them were on scholarships. In my class of 25, I remember at least eight of us were born overseas. The rest of the 17 had almost all travelled abroad and were attuned to diverse cultures, with some taking a curious and inquisitive approach towards those differences. As quickly as my fear had exponentially risen over the last few years, I felt it almost as quickly melt away as teachers pronounced my name properly, class fellows played football with me, and I got to embrace the diverse cultural backgrounds of students and vice versa. Some of these people are the closest friends I have today, even though I left Perth years ago.

I have no connection with anyone from my public school days. At first it was a relief that I had sidestepped a tough environment where my fear as a migrant in Australia was amplified. As time went on though, I grappled with my experiences and tried to understand why the students tried to instill fear in me rather than embrace me for who I was.

To a large extent, I think it came down to exposure to differing cultural experiences. The private school kids had travelled globally and some had even lived overseas. They had been migrants in another country so they somewhat understood how it felt when the shoe was on the other foot. They also knew that their understanding of migrant communities and the countries they come from is much more complex and richer than the ones peddled by the state, media, and other stakeholders. Furthermore, they were surrounded by people with similar experiences, which reinforced this. The public school kids had none of this and therefore at that age I could only expect them to take in and spit out what they were taught at home and elsewhere, without the wherewithal to challenge those notions. The result of that wasn’t pretty.

An understanding of this came to me over the eight years that spanned the start of my public school stint and the ending of my high school one. This was a cathartic process and one which helped me get over my fear of being misunderstood or not heard at all. Even though the remnants of this sort of fear remain lodged in the crevices of all migrants, the ability to forgive grows even though we will never forget it. And forgetting wouldn’t be healthy either, as only when we have experienced cross-cultural fear can we truly open up to people having cross-cultural experiences, whether as migrants or travellers.