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.
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.
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.