An Identity Crisis on Australia Day

26th January: It’s Australia Day here – and Republic Day in India.
The significance is not lost on me. While I love my life in the land Down Under with all my heart, its left ventricle still beats for Bharat Mata.

It’s been over 12 years since I moved to The Lucky Country. So it might seem like a total cop-out that I consider myself half-Aussie, half-Indian, with a stubborn refusal to choose sides. After all, my passport says I’m Australian. I’ve lived here for most of my adult life. So what’s with this identity crisis?

If you’re a first-generation immigrant, perhaps you’ve experienced this disconcerting feeling of belonging – and yet not belonging – to neither, the country you were born and brought up in, and your current domicile.

How do you deal with this ‘tale of two cities’ dilemma? Do you develop a split personality of sorts? How do you reconcile the first half of your life, which was moulded by and intrinsically linked to your birth-place, with the way you live in your current country?

Just take the two cities I’ve lived in: Bombay (Mumbai to you) and Sydney.
Both burgeoning, bustling harbour cities.
But miles apart from each other – and not just geographically.

Sydney. Her sheer natural beauty mesmerises me every single day. She’s a perfect multi-cultural mix (I have never felt even a smidgen of the racism that you see on the news). She exudes a cool, cosmopolitan vibe. The locals are a friendly lot – everyone’s a “mate”. Easy-going. Easy living. Easy as. Everything in its place with a place for everything. No gimmicks. No red-tape. No BS. Seems perfect on paper, doesn’t it?

And then there’s Bombay. How can you describe something that’s indescribable? A frenetic, heaving mass of humanity. A pell-mell of emotions, experiences and encounters. A sensory overload. Daily struggles overcome by personal triumphs. Almost amoebic in the way it is ever-changing, ever evolving, ever adapting to the “organised chaos” around. And that’s just your daily commute on the fast train to work!

For me, people make a place. Bombay = my family and friends, the cosy cocoon of familiarity – and the food (Oh, the food! Don’t get me started on pani-puri/dosas/kati rolls). Even though I now visit every 2-3 years, the sandwichwalla, mocchi (cobbler) and baniya (grocer), give me the warmest welcome every time I go back “home”. They treat me like a long-lost friend (emphasis on the word ‘lost’).

But each time we visit Bombay, I see the same faces and same places with new eyes. The more I try to hold onto to a rose-tinted past, the more I have to shake off the unnerving sensation that this past is fading away. I know, I know: it’s silly to expect things to remain the same. The city has transmogrified; friends have moved away; old neighbours have died (or “expired” as Indians say for some strange reason!).

The sad truth is, every time I go back to India on holiday, it takes me just a tad bit longer to get into the groove. A few days more to feel comfortable enough to bargain with the bhajiwalli in the bazaar over the price of brinjals. A slight hesitation when I speak the local lingo i.e. Hinglish. Even the rickshawallas know I’m “different”: “Aap kahin bahar se aye ho?” (You’ve come from somewhere abroad, haven’t you?”)
A stranger in my own hometown.

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My kids have no such identity crisis. Their dinky-di Aussieness shines through every time they ask for a Vegemite sandwich for lunch, some bikkies (biscuits) in the arvo (afternoon) and a barbie (barbecue) for dinner! “We were born in Sydney, mum. We’re Australian,” they assert.
(I, on the other hand, still can’t speak ‘Stralyan’: “How you going, mate?” just does not roll off my tongue.)

They have no qualms or questions about their sense of belonging. I’m glad for them. This is their life. Our future. But I want them to remember their roots, their Indian heritage, our East Indian culture…

Penning down these skewered thoughts has made me realise that I’m okay with this dichotomy. Do I have to choose one over the other? Why can’t I have the best of both worlds? After all, I am an amalgam of both.

So the next time I’m in India, perhaps I will relish my time there more. It will mean I get to spend quality time with my family and literally walk down memory lane.
But when my plane touches down in Sydney, I know my heart will give a little leap.
For I’ll know I am home. *

* The stand-out exception? When India is playing Australia in a cricket match! 😉

So tell me, have you ever lived in a different country or city? Which country does your heart call “home”?
Would love to hear your thoughts and views on this topic, so please leave a comment below. Thanks!

YOU MIGHT WANT TO ALSO READ:

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Sausage Rolls: An Australia Day Must-Have!

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27 responses to “An Identity Crisis on Australia Day

  1. Great piece Alison. I too understand the dilemma, having being born overseas. Your conclusion is the right one – you can have the best of both worlds. And I had a tear in my eye when you said “my heart leaps when my plane touches down in Sydney”. I think that is when you know where home is. (And of course you should always go for India in sport just as I always (secretively) barrack for Scotland – go Andy Murray!) xx

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  2. I loved the way you wrote about this dilemma, Allie. That feeling of estrangement never goes away for first gen immigrants, while we still feel a strong connect with both countries.

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  3. Awesome read Allison! I echo all your sentiments! I guess my link back to Bombay is through anecdotes with Sophia and Chai and Biscuits nad many wonderful delicious Indian, Goan meals! Food always win their hearts! The little ones, that is. 🙂 Happy Aussie Day and Happy Republic Day too! Ironic they are a day apart for you Aussies.

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  4. Loved reading this Ali! For me ‘home’ has always been where the heart is and the people I love most in the world are split between my life in India, New Zealand & Australia. India shaped my childhood- it’s where my ancestry is from, NZ is really where I had my most important growing up & Australia is now home. But, yes- I’ll always cheer for the All Blacks over the Wallabies! 🙂

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  5. totally understand! we are similar in that for the kids, even tho they were born in canada they are australian in the way they talk and think. We sometimes say, that’s not how we say it…we say it this way…you australians say it that way…Although my kids hold a canadian passport, Australia is where they have grown up and for all intensive purposes, they are australian….and definitely, they are australian before they are chinese…so i guess we have 3 cultures to try and meld

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    • Yes, my kids also speak like Aussies, Cindy. The slang and even the way they pronounce certain words (sawrr for “saw” always grates on my nerves!). But I have to remind myself that this is the way it’s done here and just let things be.

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  6. Al you expressed beautifully what a lot of us first gen immigrants feel, thought TO is now home to me and the only home my kids know, Bombay is never far from my thoughts, it shaped and moulded me and gave me an appreciation for so much more. The people is what makes Bombay what it is, hope to meet there sometime, we can carry on this conversation ….

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  7. This resonated with me Alison so much. When asked, “which Country is better or which do you prefer”? I simply say they are both different, they have many things to offer and I love and respect both. Home is where the heart is right now that’s Australia…..apart from the Tennis😃 come on Andy!!!

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  8. You either are in or out…. If its cold you need the hot water and if its hot you need the cold water & when in Rome be a roman…no lukewarm feelings…not a good example for the kids.. 🙂

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  9. Alison, you have articulated the feelings of all us first gen immigrants beautifully. A lot of the comments posted in response seem to point towards the same thing…that ‘who we are’ is shaped in a large way by where we feel a sense of belonging; be it to a country, a city, a suburb, a street or a home. I know that when I sit under the huge jacaranda tree on my front lawn along with my neighbours and sip on a coldie, that is where I belong. Likewise, when I touched down in India a few years ago (albeit not in a city where I grew up or had ever visited before, and after a 16yr hiatus) tears of joy welled up in my eyes as I inhaled the smell of the earth (followed by the smell of the food and everything else that comes with Bharat Mata, of course :)). I feel a great sense of nostalgia when I drive past a house I first lived in soon after getting married…so many beautiful memories were made there. I guess for me, the many places where I have and will continue to live in and belong to over the course of my lifetime, living my everyday ordinary life, are what identify me as ‘Me’. I read a beautiful piece recently about teaching our children how to make the ordinary come alive in our lives, because the extraordinary will take care of itself. This is the sense of appreciation I’m hoping to pass on to my son…regardless of where we live 🙂

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  11. Such a fabulous read Alison, loved it..
    You go through lots of stages being a 1st gen immigrant. The hardest one for me was when I was feeling a little unsettled here in Sydney only to consider for the first time of a life back ” home” then the realisation that I was now an alien in my mother land. Where was “home”?!!!!
    I suppose this “fitting in” is a strong instinct in most of us. Our boys will experience this soon at kindy bless them:):)

    Thanks for normalising what was and can be a lonely experience xx

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