The Peacock Mosaic

My story


On arriving in South Australia in 2003, we were faced with a sea of challenges. My husband and I realised how hard it was to get a job, even though I already had 25 years of teaching experience and a Bachelor’s degree and he had 30 years of experience in the Air Force. We had to prepare for IELTS English Proficiency Test. Then I had to get my Teacher’s Registration and police clearance. Next I had to take a First Aid Course and attend a Mandatory Notification Course.

After achieving all these, I was eligible to apply for a job with the Department of Education. When I applied, I was told that there was a long waiting list. So, I decided to apply to do a Master’s in Education to teach learners of foreign language. I was accepted and was ready to commence my studies when I was offered a six month teaching contract position in a high school. I took the job to gain access to the system but found out that permanency was a far cry. Since I had already been accepted into the Masters program, my job and studies ran concurrently. This meant I had to buy a car to get me around quickly.

We wanted to buy a house as rent money was dead money. The banks turned us down as we did not have a ‘job’ although we had a large sum of money in a bank in South Australia . This led to postponement of our dream of owning a house here, all because of a clause that a migrant without a job will not be given a loan, even if they have four times the deposit amount in the bank. Even so, within ten months of arriving here, we bought our first home. All these cost us a tidy sum, which is one way the Australian economy gets a boost from migration.

The growth in the number of Asian, Chinese and Indian groceries meant there were hubs to meet and network with fellow Indians. As a result of the growth in the number of Indians in South Australia , there is now a monthly publication – The Indus Age.

Our circle of friends is now our nearest and dearest family. Although we hail from Singapore and are Catholics, because we have Indian roots, we had no difficulties befriending Indians, regardless of their religious, linguistic or regional roots. We have also made in-roads in making friends among non-Indian Australians. We have mutual respect and have learnt much from each other.

Nevertheless, it is only human to miss your relatives. So, we have travelled to Singapore on an average of once a year.

I am yet to make a contribution in the area of politics. Two years ago I tested the water by standing for local council election. I will pursue that goal in 2010 at the next local government election. This is my way of having a say in the way my suburb is run. By pursuing a PhD to investigate the trials and triumphs of the Indian Diaspora in contemporary Australia , I am doing my part to add to knowledge about this community. While we have integrated, we have retained our identity by maintaining our linguistic and cultural roots.

My story leads me to wonder how similar or different my mother’s migration experience was to mine. Although I have not officially, in the capacity of a researcher, interviewed Mum, I have gleaned these through my conversations with her and observations over the years:

My mum left Pondicherry , India in 1956 with a long distance proposal of her hand in marriage. Up to that point Mum had never travelled outside of her state, let alone the country. In spite of being mono-lingual in Tamil, with a primary school education and a couple of years work experience in a textile mill, Mum accepted the offer. Her motivation was to get away from poverty and perhaps be the one to help her mum and siblings have a better future.

A bundle with change of clothes and a head full of wishful thoughts, she arrived in Singapore where my dad and his sister received her. She was taken to the accommodation which Dad had organised prior to her coming. It was a one room lodging in what was called workers’ quarters, a special row of 20-25 unit double-storey buildings housing lowly paid Indians, Tamil speaking ‘coolies’ who worked for the Municipal Council. This arrangement suited Mum as she was surrounded by people who spoke her language, cooked Indian dishes and dressed in saris.

Within a month of settling down, she was officially married to Dad and before she could get her head around the socio-economic, cultural climate of the land, she was pregnant with me. Having no family or close friends to talk to, consult or confide in must have been hard for a 25 year old girl in a foreign land and multicultural environment. How lonely and isolated must she have felt? How helpless and vulnerable must she have been? These are questions I would like to ask Mum.

In spite of the uncertainties that surrounded her, the unasked questions that bothered her, she gave birth to me and subsequently to seven children. She also experienced a miscarriage and the death of an infant son. With a houseful of crying whining, hungry children, she had no time for herself. She did succumb to prenatal depression and survived it because of her tenacity to make this new life work. As she never had the time or the opportunity or encouragement to learn English or Bahasa Melayu (the vernacular), she was helpless and isolated from the rest of Singapore. Her world was made up of her husband (who worked at two jobs to feed the family and so had no time for her) and the neighbours who were kind and understanding enough to help her as and when they could.

Mum’s sheltered life may have been a blessing as she did not have to face the outside world. However, it also made her become very dependent on those around her. I remember one time, she was writhing in pain because of teeth decay and dad was not home; thankfully a neighbour decided to take her to the dentist, which meant we children had to go along, too, as there was no-one to look after us. That was the first outing I can remember having with Mum. That was when Mum found out that many of her teeth had decayed and she could not eat or drink anything cold. We bought a glass of sugar cane juice and Mum went ‘ouch’ after one sip.

Mum never left home by herself ever. Everything she needed had to be brought to her. Dad, knowing Mum’s love for Tamil literature, made it a point to borrow books for her and some children’s books. I still have this image of Mum, book in one hand, ladle in the other, preparing lunch for us. Reading, immersing in the world of fiction was her solace and her refuge (as these were the days before television). Mum spent many hours inventing games for us, telling us stories with a moral.

The only way she could keep in touch with her family in India was by writing letters. Although I do not have much recollection of Mum writing, I do remember her or Dad reading sections of the letters from India.

Then, when I was five years old, three of my siblings made a trip to India with Mum and Dad. It was Mum’s first visit back to India and she was thrilled. However, it was not such a happy one as my new born brother took ill and died within days of arriving in India. Then my youngest sister took very ill, which forced us to shorten our trip. I don’t know how Mum dealt with this unforeseen disaster but at least she was with her Mum and siblings when the tragedy happened. I wonder how she would have taken it had it happen in Singapore?

When we were all old enough to go to school, Mum would be home all by herself, doing the chores and looking into our needs. I wonder if she ever regretted not learning to read and write English or learning a skill or not going out to work, as Dad’s income was not enough to support the family. I was 13 years old when Dad decided that we would be better off in India as his income when converted to rupees would provide us with a better life there than in Singapore. In spite of my pleas to him and intervention from his friends to abort this insane idea, we were packed off to India. Needless to say, we had a very hard time adjusting to the lifestyle there and, after constant pleadings, I returned to Singapore within six months. Within a year Mum and the rest of my siblings came back as well.

I can understand the circumstances were such that Mum had no choice, she could not have said to Dad that she wanted to do something for herself or for us. During her time, a woman’s priority was looking after and listening to her husband and taking care of and supporting her children. In the 1950s-60s, women, especially migrant Indian women, saw their role as housewives and their place – home.

In spite of her not having learnt another language or a skill in demand, in my eyes she is a winner — my hero. Under such difficult and challenging circumstances, she remained focussed and composed and successfully brought up six children who are model citizens, who know right from wrong and are successful in their own small way.

This story is based on my recollections and observations; how much of this tallies with Mum’s will be known when I interview her and ask about her trials and triumphs as an Indian migrant in the 1950s.

My story leads me to wonder how similar or different my daughter’s migration experience was to mine and Mum’s. Although I have not officially, in the capacity of a researcher, interviewed my daughter, I have gleaned these through my conversations with her and observations over the years:

My daughter left for Adelaide six months before my husband and I migrated here. She began school in an Adult Education facility in the northern suburbs of Adelaide . She had a hard time adjusting to school life which was very different from that of Singapore . She used to call home on a weekly basis complaining about the lack of discipline and respect among the young people she studied with. She used to talk about culture shock giving examples of freedom of choice the Australian youths had and how they abused or misused it. As for her, she volunteered to help out in the childcare centre that the facility ran and soon was employed as a casual.

She said she felt like scared to walk the streets after dark as she feared for her life. She had arranged to be chauffeured to and from school. Having lived her whole life (18 years) in a safe and sheltered society like Singapore , she was quite shocked by what she encountered in Adelaide .

So, before we left, she advised us not to move into the Northern suburbs. She said who we network with, where we live is important for our future as this was going to be our home henceforth. I then realised how quickly our baby girl had grown up. She had learnt to be self-sufficient and independent.

When we came, we lived in the western suburbs where she did her year 12. During this time, she took up driving and has since become a very good driver, despite being involved in three accidents. She managed to make many good friends and completed year 12 well enough to apply for university. Before she started University, her former boss, who was looking for someone to work in a new childcare centre, offered her a job. My daughter worked for a few months and then gave it up to concentrate on her studies. Before long she found another part time job which meant she had to juggle work and studies.

In the midst of all this, one morning in 2005, my daughter said, ‘Mum, X has asked me to be his girlfriend. What do you think?’

‘What did you say?’ I replied.

‘I said let me think about it.’ She told me.

So, I advised her to do what she thought was right, adding that X was a good person. So, she brought X home and soon X was coming to church every Sunday, attending all our functions and gatherings, which led our friends in the Indian community to suggest that we start planning my daughter’s wedding. Both my daughter and I laughed it off saying it was too premature. True enough, within a year of their coming together, X disappeared from the scene.

Then she got involved in church seriously, taking up the leadership role in the newly formed Youth Group in preparation for the coming of Pope Benedict to Sydney for World Youth Day 2008. As she was very strong willed and vocal, she met resistance from some of the older members of the council which caused her to quit after successfully taking a delegation from the church to WYD ’08.

After returning from WYD, she packed up and left for Tasmania ‘on an open ticket’, putting her studies on hold. She did not communicate with us for almost a week and then answered my calls randomly. Every time I asked her when she plans to return home, she said ‘I don’t know’.

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