lifestyle

Sometimes? It's better if you don't fit in.

Lakshmi

by LAKSHMI NARAYANAN

As a child, I lived in Sydney’s Sutherland Shire, which was (unless you were white, blonde-haired and a good swimmer) a fairly torturous place to grow up.

I’m brown and Indian, in case you were wondering.

The year was 1991 and white Australia was doing its best to avert immigrants. My parents, oblivious, decided it was a good idea to uproot us from our multicultural flat in Campsie to an all-white cul de sac in Beverly Hills (which I’m still convinced is the television set used in Neighbours).

We lived in a small fibro house with a rusty old garage and a hills hoist out the back. My next door neighbour was an eight-year-old girl named Fay. Fay had a freckled face, scrawny legs and blond hair, which had turned green because of the chlorine in her pool. On the first day in our new house, she ran over to our front yard and introduced herself.

“Hi, I’m Fay and I like eating poppadom’s.”

I remember feeling confused yet intrigued by her effort to make a cultural connection.

Later I would realise Fay was quite the character. I remember waking up to the sound of her screechy eight year old voice singing, Tina Arena’s “Chains”. When I went outside to get a closer look, I found her tied to a chair trying to set herself free. Another year, she successfully managed to get Gak stuck in her hair.

When it came time to start school, Fay and I had become firm friends, but alas, we were attending different schools in the neighbourhood, so our friendship was limited to after-hours only.

The cast of The Shire, a semi-reality television show set where Lakshmi grew up.

When my first day arrived, my Dad ironed my school uniform and my Mum neatly plaited my coconut oiled hair.

They told me I looked wonderful and dropped me off at the Principal’s office where a teacher collected me and introduced me to the class.

I stepped inside and was greeted by 25 suspicious white faces. The teacher wrote my name on the blackboard and suddenly an eruption of giggles spread across the room. I couldn’t understand what was so funny, so I ignored it and focused on the morning lesson.

At recess, a little girl named Julia came up to me and said hello. I said hello back and smiled at her.

Her face seemed friendly and her mouth almost curved upwards into a smile, but then she looked me straight in the eye and whispered “you’re ugly” and ran off to meet her giggling friends.

Life progressively got worse after that first day and after three months of seeking refuge in the library, I realised I had to do something about it.

So at age eight, I came up with my first strategy ever. It was called “Operation Shire Kid” and it was split into three simple phases. Observe. Imitate. Fool. I knew that I wasn’t a Shire kid at heart, but I sure could act like one.

Phase 1 was easy. I spent most lunch times on my own observing my surroundings, so now I just had to take notes. The first thing I noticed was their lunch.

Tomato sauce was the ultimate achievement.

There were ham sandwiches, chicken nuggets, meat pies, roll up fruit bars and then suddenly I spotted the holy grail of the Australian lunch box – Heinz Tomato Sauce. This Heinz Tomato Sauce I realised was the ultimate accompaniment and I had to make friends with it fast.

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Phase 2 was pretty tough but I persevered and soon my lunchbox began to resemble theirs. Chicken nuggets replaced chapatti rolls and my theory on tomato sauce turned out to be true.

The higher the ratio of tomato sauce to a meal, the more accepted I felt. Soon enough the popular girls invited me to sit with them and my hours of studying Home and Away lingo paid off. It felt rad.

Phase 3 was so successful that I almost fooled myself. My hair smelt like chlorine, I was awarded a nickname and I even got invited to my first sleepover. Life was great and Deiter Brummer’s t.v spirit was smiling down on me from heaven.

But as with every nerdy girl transformation, there’s always that one moment where everything she’s worked so hard for, comes undone, and I certainly was no exception to that rule.

The moment I fell from grace…

The one thing left to make Operation Shire Kid a raging success was the acquisition of a surf t-shirt. Brands like Rip Curl, Billabong and Quiksilver were huge at the time, and if you didn’t have the logo emblazoned on your chest, you may as well have gone back to where you came from.

I begged and pleaded with my parents who didn’t see the value in spending $25 on a t-shirt they could pick up for $5 at Best and Less. But eventually my Dad caved and presented me with my very first (and last) Quiksilver t-shirt. I was so happy I could cry and I began counting down the days until our next mufti day. When it finally came, I put on my Quiksilver t-shirt and strutted into the school grounds like I owned the place. I met my friends by the bubblers, excited to see their reaction.

‘Mean Girls’ of the Shire, remember Puberty Blues?

They greeted me with a strange indifference and then Lindsay (the queen bee of the pack) asked me where I’d gotten my t-shirt from. I told her it was a gift from my Dad.

She had this funny smirk on her face and made eye contact with Julia, and then she said, ever so softly, “too bad it’s a fake”. The two girls walked away, leaving me behind.

I stood there feeling rejected and exposed, like a cop that had just blown her cover. But most of all I felt angry, angry at my Dad for buying me a fake t-shirt.

Life at school went back to normal after that. And by normal, I mean, I had no friends and the library staff welcomed me back with open arms.

Looking back now, I’m surprised at the lengths I went to to fit in. In a strange way that experience toughened me up and I never apologised for my ethnicity again. In fact it made me prouder to be different.

In conclusion, there were no severe repercussions from my primary school experience, except that I developed an addiction to Heinz Tomato Sauce. The silver lining in this story is that I think about Fay often. I wonder what she is up to and whether her hair recovered from the Gak incident.

If she ever happened to stumble upon this story by accident, I would want her to know that I was so thankful for her friendship and open mind. At eight years old she saw me for who I was – a little girl in a new neighbourhood that just wanted someone to play with.

Lakshmi is a freelance writer living in London. She writes about pop culture, relationships and her experiences growing up as a brown kid in Australia. Check out her blog Modern Day Chettiar or email her here.

Did you struggle to fit in as a kid?

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