As a 13-year old boy in Sri Lanka, I knew very little about Aotearoa. My father saw an opportunity to pursue his career in New Zealand and our family went along for the ride. To help us settle, he moved a few months prior and set up camp. On arrival, we drove to our new home in Lower Hutt. I remember the fear and excitement that rose in my heart as I stared in wonderment at the rolling hills of Wellington. On that day, a little boy from Colombo had his lifelong dream of living in a cold land come true. Over the next 18 years in NZ, I had many triumphs, defeats, and incredible moments. In this series of articles, I will share some of my experiences that may provide you with some insight into the mind of a young immigrant.
Soon after I migrated, I enrolled in high school. I felt the weight of being thousands of miles from all that I knew. I thought to myself that I was fortunate to have the ability to speak and understand English well. But on that fateful day, I was in for a big surprise. I found out the hard way that Kiwis spoke English very differently. On my first meeting, a lady from the school administration office asked me if I was jet-lagged. I remember being incredibly nervous and not understanding much more than the word “jet”. I spent the next few moments perplexed as to why I was questioned about a jet. I thought to myself, “meh gaanita pissu (this lady is crazy)”. I was later relieved when she explained to me the meaning of jet lag. Despite my nerves at the office, I was far more concerned about joining my new class. I did not know if I would be accepted. I had to allow time to decide my fate.
Upon arrival at my first school lesson, I felt the dismissive attitude of my classmates. Since I joined the school a few months into the year, I had missed the initial formation of friend groups. I knew I was the outsider that had to find a way to fit in. The kids from my high school class were a different species to the humans I had encountered. I recall sitting in a corner attempting to decipher teenage humans, feeling like a foreign chimpanzee.
The Kiwi accent is a real enigma for most immigrants. As a nervous teenager, this is a far worse ordeal. I recall a year nine English lesson where a debate arose on whether gay marriage should be legalised. The teacher requested the class to split based on their viewpoint. It was a tragic moment for me. How could a boy that did not understand more than a few words take part in a debate? Hence, I sat in the middle of a divided class, entirely clueless and ashamed of my inadequacy. Little did I know that this debate would eventuate across the entire nation until the legalisation of gay marriage in 2013.
Most days, I was frustrated at not being able to understand the conversations of fellow students. Teenagers are unforgiving if you do not speak their lingo. Therefore, it was an uphill battle to get acquainted with this unusual accent and learn Kiwi teenage speak. I was unfamiliar with words such as bro (brother), cuz (cousin or close friend), skux (cool guy or fancily dressed guy that appeals to the opposite sex), chur (thank you), munted (broken or drunk), chundered (vomited), egg (idiot), gutted (disappointed), Eh? (what are you talking about?), sus (suspicious), flag that (give up), pash (kiss), hungus (a person that eats often), crack up (funny), mean (awesome), and straight-up (honestly), which were used frequently. Communication problems were further compounded by my pronunciation of words such as hose and horse, hole and hall with minimal distinction. Hence, most of the verbal exchanges with other kids ended with “eh?” for me. When I reminisce about these memories, they seem hilarious. But they were traumatic encounters at the time.
Fair to say, being a teenager in any country is a tough task. The social awkwardness, constant biological changes, and relentless mental uncertainties are some of the cornerstones of most teens. But with a new language and a different culture, my teenage years had a unique set of challenges. In the next article, I will explore the cultural barriers I faced as I assimilated into the land of the long white cloud.
Dr. Nehan Ruwantha Munasinghe(University of Sydney)