(The seventh article in a series exploring the journey of a Sri Lankan immigrant teen to NZ.)

  • As we meander through the ravines of life, we are often left with a few bumps and bruises.
  • Fighting is a primitive method of dealing with disagreements…Whether you win or lose a fight, your peers will respect you for standing up for what you believe in. 
  • The pillars in our lives help support us during hard times. 
  • I am confident that the success of these friendships helped me find my place in the land of the long white cloud.

As we meander through the ravines of life, we are often left with a few bumps and bruises. As a teenager, many hours are spent in contemplation of the mental damage received each day. This relentless thought process creates an enormous amount of stress. Hence, it is paramount to develop strategies to maintain your mental wellbeing. As an immigrant teen, I utilised several methods to protect myself from my own thoughts that run wild in a foreign land.

As puberty sets in on boys, there is an underlying urge to let testosterone dictate every move. A constant dance ensues as the struggle to establish dominance heats up. I was merely a lost Sri Lankan teen attempting a Kandyan dance (a form of Sri Lankan dance) in the middle of a Salsa. Alas, endless failure was often the flavour of the day. I recall one time at the school library how a mere dismissive statement had riled up another boy. As per the common term, “he was ready to go!”  I had a decision to make. Face what was to come, or step away from the situation. On this day, I walked away. Despite the cultural diversity in Aotearoa, some struggle to accept differences. Although I do not recall this encounter’s specifics, I still remember the feeling of defeat in my mind. One of my coping strategies in these situations was to carry out the physical confrontation in my head. If you have watched the Sherlock Holmes movie series starring Robert Downey Junior, this was very similar to the mental fight he orchestrates prior to the real battle. During high school, I was also a dedicated student of Kei Shin Khan Karate. The self-defence techniques and the discipline I developed through the pursuit of Karate provided me with the confidence to protect myself if required.

On another occasion in high school, I could not walk away from a fight. I was confronted with a boy that attempted to belittle me. It was a challenging situation for an immigrant teen. But I wanted to ensure that I was not perceived as an easy target. I knew this was a defining moment in my high school life. I wanted to show my peers that I believed in myself. Hence for the better or worse, I stood my ground. Over the next few minutes, some shoving and tackling ensued with the odd punch up. The fight ended with me on the classroom floor, lying battered and exhausted. Fortunately, in some fights, I ended up overpowering my opponent. Nevertheless, I always tried my best to avoid physical confrontation. Fighting is a primitive method of dealing with disagreements. In no way do I condone it.  However, it is crucial to stand up for yourself. Whether you win or lose a fight, your peers will respect you for standing up for what you believe in. 

The ultimate tool to deal with the pressure of settling in a foreign land is developing mental resilience. As a teen, it is natural to worry about the opinion of the world. On most occasions, many would offer their negative feedback free of charge. The input from others lead to anxiety and creates a relentless urge to please the world. Over time, I learned to tune out negativity and lean on the pillars in my life. The pillars in our lives help support us during hard times. These can include many factors such as family, friends, hobbies, sports and other activities that bring us joy.  In my case, I was fortunate to have a close-knit family. To this day, my family remains the greatest pillar in my life. 

Another central scaffold in my life is friendships. As I began to find my footing in Aotearoa, one significant challenge was to build connections with peers. Most teens do not wish to venture outside their comfort zones. Unfortunately, this reluctance creates a barrier to meaningful friendship with a foreigner. It took over a year in NZ before I felt that at least some friends sufficiently trusted me to share their life with me. I am confident that the success of these friendships helped me find my place in the land of the long white cloud. 

The final strategy I used to cope with life challenges is accepting myself. I remember looking in the mirror during my early teen years, not knowing the person staring back at me. The rapid changes that occur in a teenager’s mind and body often leave them unrecognisable to even themselves. When you are in a foreign land, this identity crisis is exacerbated. Hence it is paramount to be comfortable in your own skin to find inner peace. There were many lunchtimes that I sat alone, lost in my own thoughts during the early days of high school. I would let my mind run wild as I took in the breeze from the Hutt River and stared out into the lush green field. There was a profound self-awareness that came through seclusion. Many years would pass before I ultimately accepted myself. But it was necessary to consistently strive to learn more about who I am in order to fortify my mind. 

  • In the next article, I will explore how this self-acceptance paved the way for success in my life and helped me find my place in the land of the long white cloud.

Dr Nehan Ruwantha Munasinghe (University of Sydney)