(The fourth article in a series exploring the journey of a Sri Lankan immigrant teen to NZ)
Friendships are an integral part of human life. We are not an organism designed to live in solitary confinement. Many of us yearn for the company to share the highs and lows of life. For a teenager, friendships are a critical pillar that helps define themselves. If a friend stands by your side, life just seems more possible. From an early age in Sri Lanka, I questioned whether I could make quality friendships. Perhaps this uncertainty contributed to the premature demise of some of the relationships in my life. Nevertheless, friends are important to me and have always been an integral part of my life.
Events in childhood can have a profound impact on life. I recall an incident from year one in Sri Lanka where I was wrongfully accused by a classmate of cheating in an exam. In response to the accusations, the teacher put my school bag in a rubbish bin. I was sad and shocked and refused to take the blame for an act I did not commit. I felt so alone as my classmates laughed. Despite my humiliation, attending school was not optional. When I look back at this moment, a key factor that helped me get through this time was my one significant friend from year one. He did not say many words to mend my feelings. His presence in day to day life helped me move past this episode. From childhood to the teen years, the impact of moments increases in significance. The relentless attempt of teenagers to shine among their peers is fuelled by uncertainty and a yearning for attention. It is only with age that we gain the wisdom to step back from a moment and focus on the holistic perspective.
I spent the first few days of my life in NZ mesmerised by the beauty and peace of this incredible land. Nevertheless, when the school start date arrived, I was nervous. The moment I gazed at the uncompromising faces of high school teens; I knew I had an uphill battle. As a new immigrant student, I was placed in the English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class. Pupils of this class were from many parts of the world, including China, Nigeria, Columbia, and Korea. I remember the warmth that washed over me as I shared the misery of not understanding Kiwi English with my ESOL classmates. The collective pursuit of a singular goal unites people. ESOL class was no exception. These students provided me with a reprieve from the rigorous effort to connect with an alien world. After six months, I had begun to comprehend NZ teens. I knew it was time for me to leave the ESOL class. But I refused as this was my fortress of happiness in a harsh new environment. I did not wish to walk away from a setting where I understood every word. My tenure in ESOL only ended a year later when my teacher forced me to leave.
As I have discussed in the past, sports form a critical part of NZ culture. Sports such as cricket and rugby that relies on teamwork for success provides a great platform to build friendships. In my time playing school cricket, I was able to create some friendships outside of the classroom setting. I recall running into ball with a singular mindset to get wickets. The pure delight of collecting a scalp helped me build a stronger bond with my teammates. As we travelled to other schools, we were forced to unite against our foe in a foreign setting. Beyond cricket, social basketball also helped strengthen friendships. Few of my friends shared my passion for basketball. I recall how we played B-ball to our heart’s content until the sun vanished in the horizon. The shoes, the music, and the streetball moves were all great common denominators among us. Shared interests created more effortless conversations and helped me express myself.
From High school, I met some Sri Lankan friends that have remained close to me over the years. However, another major part of my High School life were the Back Courts (BC) boys. I had mentioned in a previous article how the boys that hung out at the multi-purpose courts behind the Hutt Valley High school gymnasium identified themselves as the BC crew. In an ever-changing world, this group of friends created a constant in our High School lives. We played touch rugby every lunchtime, had group parties in the weekend, engaged in signature moves such as the ‘casual bottom slap’, and used patented terms such as ‘cupped hands’ which I will explain in a future article. I believe that most teenagers underestimate the value of stability. As hormones fluctuate and biological changes take place daily, teens engage in acts to display a sense of assuredness to the outside world. It was a common belief that radical activities help you rise higher on the “Cool” scale. In fact, a group of kids in our year group were labelled ‘Too cools’. This was not a term of affection. Instead, the name ‘Too cools’ aimed to ridicule what these teens held in the highest esteem. The aspiration to be ‘Cool’ lasts all through high school and beyond for some. I remember an instance of how a group of teens at my first-year University of Otago hostel were genuinely upset that a member of their social group was not voted as the most popular student. Unfortunately, the race to be the coolest kid in the block adds to the uncertainties of teenage life. In retrospect, a pursuit of stability may have been far more effective to counteract the internal biological changes.
In school and in the community, I was also able to foster some relationships with fellow Lankans at the Sri Lankan dance classes, cricket tournaments, and other community events. Most Asian children are expected to uphold cultural traditions, respect the parental authority, pursue a respectable career, and hopefully, end up with a partner from a similar culture. As diamonds form under immense pressure, the weight of these expectations help mould the relationships between immigrant children. Hence it is no surprise that a greater portion of my friends today are immigrants or children of first-generation immigrants. Our relentless pursuit to bridge the gap between NZ society and immigrant parent expectations, undoubtedly allowed us to connect at a deeper level.
Beyond social interactions, friends also influence our perceptions of physical appearance. Most teens and adults never appreciate the person that looks back at them in the mirror. It is an internal struggle that we grapple with for the entirety of our lives. In the next article, I will explore the role of physical attraction in the life of an immigrant teen. After all, as a boy in NZ, you are led to believe that you got to be “Skux”.