(The eighth article in a series exploring the journey of a Sri Lankan immigrant teen to NZ)
Self-acceptance is a powerful concept. As we face the rigours in life, understanding the person in the mirror grants great strength. Most teens have physical and mental uncertainties, as I have discussed in past articles. Immigrant teens engage in a relentless tug of war between fitting into a new society and maintaining the identity from their country of origin. I was in a similar battle during my early years in Aotearoa.
The difference in physical appearance and the public perception of a predominantly Caucasian society impacted my upbringing. Most Sri Lankan and other Asian kids constantly battle the stereotype of being perceived as a nerd. It is not a bad thing to be a nerd. You should strive to let your intellectual prowess do the talking for you. But the young mind can rarely overcome societal pressure to see that ‘nerd’ is a simple term coined by society. The urge to be accepted by the masses always overcomes self-acceptance.
To a simple young mind, self-acceptance is intertwined with their physical image. I remember as I stood in front of the mirror asking myself, “will others think I look good?”. Clothing, accessories, body shape, social mannerisms all play a significant role in how you perceive yourself. I dressed in clothing popularised by rappers and basketball players as I wanted to be viewed as ‘cool’. I wore a thick silver necklace like rappers, which was a gift from my mother to the surprise of many. Fortunately, this silver necklace also added to the image I wanted to project to society. I worked out at the gym located at my Karate Dojo to change my body shape. I wore fitting clothing to show off any semblance of muscles I built up. Teenage Nehan’s tops were borderline tight-fitting blouses!
Social mannerisms were also a critical component in how I wanted to be perceived. It was important to walk into a room with a certain swag that said, “look at me… look at me… look at me…”. I truly believed that the way you kept one foot in front of the other would define how the world viewed you as a human being. It is commonly accepted that a confident posture helps you convey a powerful message. However, a teenage mind stretches this logic to believe that if you walk like Kobe Bryant or dance like Michael Jackson, you embody these legendary individuals. Dreams are free, and nobody should attempt to rob the teenage mind of these forms of sound logic!
Year 10 in high school was perhaps one of the greatest years in my teenage life. I felt more confident with myself, achieved good academic grades, made some friends, and felt happy. In general, I was accepted by my peers. Unfortunately for me, as year 10 ended and year 11 rolled around, raging hormones in my body had other plans. It was acne knocking at my door. This began a relentless battle that lasted years. Acne can truly destroy the confidence of a teenager. There was an ever-sinking feeling as I stood in front of the mirror and stared at all these uninvited visitors having a party on my face. I remember the deep sadness I felt when a family friend asked me, “what happened?” regarding the acne on my face. Questions of this nature made me think it was my fault that my face was being invaded by these tiny mounds. Eventually, I could not recognise the person staring at me in the mirror.
Many years have passed since I was in year 11. With life experiences, my views have changed and evolved. I have now accepted that our physical appearance is ever-changing and impermanent. If you rely on external appearance to define you, it will change without prior notice. It is an illusion that our body is under our control. The clothes and accessories on ourselves are akin to a decorative wrapping around a piece of meat. I now realise that it is my inner self that I must accept. This acceptance is difficult as we often shy away from turning a microscope towards ourselves. It is spine chilling to think about what ugly truths we may find within. The exploration of ‘self’ is a deep philosophical conversation that is as old as humanity itself. However, I am confident that my life would have played out differently if I stood in front of the mirror and said, “I look good”, instead of asking, “will others think I look good?”. In the next article, I will explore the later stages of my teen years as I embraced the Kiwi way of life and began to call “Aotearoa” home.
Dr Nehan Ruwantha Munasinghe
(University of Sydney).