(The tenth article in a series exploring the journey of a Sri Lankan immigrant teen in NZ).
Dr Nehan Ruwantha Munasinghe (University of Sydney).
As I conclude this series of articles, I find myself lost in a complex web of emotions. I had gone through incredible highs and deep lows and everything in between. Hence I felt it is only fitting to revisit critical junctures in this journey. My journey in Aotearoa was driven by a need to fit in and rise above any challenges presented to me. When the challenges of an immigrant teen life seemed to tower over me, it was by necessity I found ways to conquer them. After flying nearly 11000 kilometres across the world, going back was not a viable option.
In the first article of this series, I explored the first days at Hutt Valley High School. These were unforgettable times with a relentless uphill battle to understand the New Zealand accent and slang. I have heard from many that the Kiwi accent was one of the hardest for them to understand. I am genuinely grateful that I was at least able to speak and understand English. I cannot begin to imagine the difficulties of learning an entirely foreign language in an unknown land. In the words of Kiwis, “It will be hard, bro!”.
The challenges of learning the Kiwi lingo were compounded by the cultural barriers. I was in a relentless struggle to establish my cultural identity in a foreign land. From Sinhala rap to the persona of 50 Cent, I began to define myself through a mix of Western and Sri Lankan culture. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact timeframe of this transformation. Nevertheless, this change paved the way for me to identify myself in a new light.
Culture in New Zealand is intertwined with sports. Hence it was no surprise that sports played a significant role in shaping my life. The All Blacks are an incredible team to follow, and they made you feel proud to be a Kiwi. Simply put, Rugby is in Kiwi DNA. It is an unparalleled feeling to run down the open field for a try, and through my years in high school, I embraced this joy full-heartedly.
In contrast to Kiwis, Sri Lankans are cricket fanatics. By taking part in social cricket games held by the Sri Lankan community, I built connections with the Wellington Lankan community. However, beyond the field, my true sports passion was basketball. I embraced the NBA and the dominant Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant from the Lakers was an inspiration to me. His skill, charisma and most of all, the work ethic was intoxicating to watch. I played Kobe in computer games and emulated his work ethic in everyday life. Overall, sports played a pivotal role in helping me find myself in a foreign land.
Friendships were an essential aspect of my journey in New Zealand that I discussed in the fourth article of this series. During classes for second language speakers, I made connections with students through sports such as touch rugby, cricket and basketball, and at Sri Lankan community activities. No matter how I made friendships, they provided a pillar in my life. To an immigrant teen in search of support, a true friend is an oasis in the desert. If you ever come across someone looking to find their place in a new land, never underestimate the value you can provide through a simple conversation.
One unfortunate truth of our society is that our appearance can play a significant role in making connections. As a teenager, insecurities about your physical appearance are rampant. As an immigrant teen, I felt different in a predominantly Caucasian society. I dressed up and performed for the world to create the image that I wanted. This was a teenage circus and never the true path to happiness. Cultural events and school parties were events to showcase the person I wanted to be. When I finally accepted myself with all my flaws, I unlocked the true path to freedom.
The sixth article in this series explored the influence of food and the change in diet as I migrated from one country to another. From a country where everything is “curried” to a country that tries hard to make the key ingredient shine was a novel concept. Biting down on the fourth lamb chop or the fifth drumstick in New Zealand made me realise that I lived a first-world life. It was a far cry from the one piece of chicken for dinner rule in Sri Lanka. Eating fish and chips, sausage rolls, cream buns, and pavlovas was a significant change from Kotthu Roti, Hoppers, String Hoppers and Kiribath. Over time, I started appreciating fusion cuisines such as fish and chips with curry powder mixed batter, lamb curries, and curry pies. Despite all the changes in diet, food forever remained a social lubricant among family and friends.
Social lubricants help build the world around us. Many people that come into our lives make a lasting impact. However, we must maintain our mental well-being throughout all these interactions. As an immigrant teen, having a good strategy to protect yourself both physically and mentally helps ease the challenge of settling in a new land. Martial arts training and an unwavering belief in myself helped me cope with some of the testosterone-fuelled activities of being a teenage boy. Beyond myself, I had pillars around me. These metaphorical pillars included family and friends that helped me hang on when the pressures of a foreign land felt overwhelming. Over time, with self-acceptance, I found happiness and my own little niche in Aotearoa.
The acceptance of who we are requires us to explore deep within ourselves. I did not have this insight during my early teenage years. I allowed my external image to dictate my internal happiness. The street clothes and accessories gave me the boost of “cool” that I craved. This is an insatiable craving that plagues most teens. However, being considered a member of the “cool” group is akin to the holy grail for most immigrant teens. The problem with reliance on our external image is having no control of its ever-changing nature. The acne that I battled during my teen years destroyed my sense of self. Many years passed before I could accept my reflection. Nevertheless, true liberation came as I began to understand the impermanence of our physical existence.
The final article of this series explored gaming as a medium of escape and its impact on my life. Computer games provided me with a gateway to a wondrous world detached from reality. Hence, it is no surprise to see teens enjoy their digital presence more than their regular life. Fortunately, I built a beautiful life in NZ that I did not need to escape. It is not lost on me that this statement holds less meaning when I live in Australia. Yet my love of Aotearoa remains strong. From an uncertain immigrant teen, I transitioned to a hybrid Sri Lankan-Kiwi. I hope that reading my journey helped you fight your own immigrant battles. Life is just a set of fleeting moments. Dare to dream but never forget your journey. With every success and failure, understand that perfection is not the end goal.