Sticking it like cinnamon: on life and home from Colombo to South Auckland

Himali McInnes has been torn between identities and countries her entire life. Here, she tells her story: of Sri Lanka and civil war, of the UK and normality, and of New Zealand and its unspoken past.

“I stick it like I’m cinnamon

..I live it like a citizen”

Luka Lesson, ‘Please Resist Me’ 

The sense of belonging to a place is a curious thing. Home is at first simply the shelter you live in. Over time, it expands to include the society you move in. You absorb values and cultural tchotchkes in a haphazard, organic manner. You start to feel part of a larger whole, you feel depressed for days when the cricket world cup final is lost on some arcane technicality, you uphold common aspirations and ideals with others in the same cultural milieu. 

Or you may chafe and fret. You feel disillusioned by the subtle insinuations that you do not belong because you do not fit an accepted, normative stereotype. There is a disconnect between your internal identity and the external one bestowed upon you by others. If you boast an itinerant, nomadic childhood and you look foreign, there is a faint whiff of fraudulence to your proclamations of belonging. But where, people ask, are you really from? Why is your accent so weird?

Where my story starts, but certainly does not end, is Colombo. In the 1960s it is a sprawling metropolis replete with history, colonial architecture, and a vibrant cultural life. Fringed by the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, sprouting quills of scented cinnamon, studded with semi-precious gems, it is destined for great things. 

By the 1970s, there is an ever-widening gap in Sri Lanka between the haves and the have-nots. Inflation, internal dissension, massive debt and government mismanagement of farmland cause a critical food shortage. The British Empire is gone but not forgotten, for it leaves a legacy of tea and rubber plantations at the expense of rice and food. It also sets the seeds of the vicious civil war that is still to come.

I pop into the world, and in the US, President Nixon has impeachment proceedings commenced against him for Watergate. The two events are likely unconnected. There is an extravagant party when I turn one. The tiny black and white 1970s photos show toddler me, open-mouthed and a little perplexed, dressed in knee high white boots and a frilly dress. There is a band. Why is there a band for an oblivious one-year-old? My parents are middle-class, not affluent, but it is the done thing to celebrate a child making it this far. My mum and her sisters look beautiful, with kohl-rimmed eyes, beehive hairdos, short skirts. My dad and the other men look dapper in their best suits. 

We move to Malaysia shortly afterwards, leaving behind the grip that socialism has on Sri Lanka. Everyone dresses up when they fly. The cabin is full of cigarette smoke. I vomit on my father’s best suit. A steward accidentally spills red wine on him. He mentions this flight often, the trenchant discomfort of it, in tales of my childhood.

My brother is born in Kuala Lumpur, ending my narcissistic reign as my parents’ only love. His curly-haired cherubic beauty incites me to jealousy, and I prick his chubby thighs with a safety pin. The nanny flaps me away, appalled at my three-year-old cruelty. 

There are monsoons. The streets flood with frogs, tadpoles wriggle in puddles. My mum slips into a large open drain with me in her arms during a downpour. Passers-by yell and pull us both out.

We move back to Colombo, hopeful of settling down, of making it work. There are more monsoons. The entire sky fizzes with forked lightning. An ocean falls from above, the windows blur with torrential streams. I sit inside and read, soothed by the soundtrack of falling water, ensconced in a bubble of words. Enid Blyton and the Famous Five. Arthur C Clarke, before he became famous for his dalliances with young Sri Lankan boys. Asimov. A voracious diet of fantasy and sci-fi, of any words on any printed surface. 

My father’s parents died before I was born. So we live with my mother’s parents. Theirs is a love marriage, scandalous at the time, but one that outlasts all its detractors. My grandpa runs a sawmill. He has trumpet-shaped ears, patches of vitiligo on his arms, skin tags that he lets us pull. He works tirelessly in his mill, right into his eighties. I sit on his lap and pretend to drive his Volkswagen Beetle. He buys us Kandos chocolates – maximal sugar and milk content, minimal cocoa. He laughs as the cousins and I scrabble for the goodies, calls us his little piglets.

My grandma is a teacher, an orphan done good. She teaches me Sinhalese, how to make paper flowers, how to cross-stitch. She buys a sack of live crabs from the local fisherman, and squats on the kitchen floor as the crabs run out. One thundering whack with a rolling pin, and into a pot they go. She cooks a curry fragrant with coconut, garlic, spices, and we smack our lips at how delicious it is. She smocks clothes, makes embroidered leaves and flowers come to life. Her hands are nimble and have a multiplicity of skills. I hope I inherit these hands, and my grandpa’s tireless work ethic.

In later years, my grandparents will pass away, and their house – the house where my mother grew up, with its polished red floors and mahogany furniture – will be rubblised, its contents discarded or given away. Their house is what I think of when I think of the land of my birth. It was home, a touchpoint to return to again and again, but now it exists only in my mind.  

I go to a Catholic convent school in Colombo, dressed in shiny shoes and a too-white dress with a thin blue tie. The nuns rap knuckles when mistakes are made. The English teacher takes an instant dislike to me, because I am already so fluent in that tongue. She derisively calls me ‘the Malaysian girl’ and ignores my raised hand. This is my first experience of otherness, of not belonging.

We build a house that we will never live in. The civil war erupts in 1983. It will flare and fester for three decades. Thirteen Sinhala policemen are ambushed by the nascent Tamil Tigers in the north of the country. Riots break out as the policemen’s bodies are brought back to Colombo for burial. Innocent Tamil civilians are dragged from buses and set alight, knifed, raped. Businesses with Tamil names are burnt. There are endless curfews. Old friendships disintegrate under new suspicions. 

We flee again, this time to Papua New Guinea. My mother frets on the plane: “We will be eaten by cannibals.” She is expecting a tangle of jungle, and is surprised when there are houses, streets, cars. The paraphernalia of suburbia. We inherit a dog – our first pet, sleek and black and smart. The international high school I attend is superb, a glorious melange of nationalities with a dearth of bullies, a stimulating curriculum. 

When I am fifteen, we move to New Zealand. I somehow have an image of our new home as clean and green and egalitarian. A land with a pithy ex-Prime Minister, firing Lange-isms at those who suckle at the teat of nuclear milk. A land with people who are friendly and kind and inclusive. I am relieved that we are not moving to the barren red desert that is Australia, rust-hearted and red-necked, with its atrocious record of indigenous injustice. “But where is everyone?” I wonder. The suburban streets of Auckland are devoid of life. I am used to thronging crowds, a muddle of feet, a canopy of umbrellas. For weeks I think something awful must have happened here, something catastrophic and calamitous, until I realise this is normal for New Zealand. 

Georgie Pie becomes a favourite treat, doled out on a parsimonious basis by my doctor mother. We find a house, we get a puppy from the SPCA – a gorgeous blonde mutt with auburn eyelashes and a tremendous capacity for understanding human words.

I attend yet another school. It is overwhelmingly monocultural and it is not co-ed. I am crushingly shy. I feel self-conscious just walking to school. I am also lonely. My best friends are all overseas, and my new classmates are not unkind, but they have known each other since third form, and I am an alien brown-skinned presence. I know I do not belong. I hole myself up in the library, I pester the maths teacher for more calculus equations, I become a proverbial girly swot. 

For most of my childhood, I want to be a vet – although people look confused when I tell them, as I pronounce it “wet”. More puddle than poodle. In my last two years of high school, though, I decide being a doctor and having lots of pets will work just as well. I can only take six subjects here, not the ten I studied in PNG. So I drop all the fun stuff – art and English literature, French, geography, history – in order to knuckle down on the sciences. 

I pass the final exams with flying colours, and am ranked amongst the top twenty for the country. I feel curious classmates’ eyes on me, noticing me for the first time. I want to be invisible. It is safer.

Medical school is a fresh start. I get used to being average again, as I am now competing with minds so bright they can have an accidental nap, turn up to exams thirty minutes late, and still get an A+. Alasdair, you bastard. 

My new classmates are great fun. They are friendly and sometimes cheeky, even as they jostle for academic glory. The colour of my skin is irrelevant to them. I am just me, still a nerd, but now one amongst many. These nerds know how to party, yet they don’t mind that my Asian liver can’t handle a thimbleful of wine. One day I come across two of the jocks harassing one of the quieter, non-jock males. I bark in defence of the underdog, and the jocks slink off, looking chastened. Harassing a skinny guy is kosher. Harassing a woman of colour is not.

I meet the man who will become my husband. He is a fifth-generation New Zealander, aswirl with Celtic, German and Māori bloodlines. I relish indoors upstairs silences, and books, endless books. He talks constantly, and teaches outdoor pursuits. I ask him to stop talking every now and then, so that I can hear the birds sing, the trees susurrate. He memorises “Kubla Khan” by Coleridge to impress me. That is the last poem he will ever memorise. I learn to use an ice axe and crampons. We abseil down Mount Ngauruhoe in the dark, slither through phreatic limestone caves in Punakaiki, climb Rapaki Rock in the Port Hills. I discover I am unperturbed by heights, and am open to learning new skills. He overestimates my kayaking stamina on our first watery adventure, and has to tow me back to the shores of Lake Taupo after twenty kilometres with just three weet-bix in my tummy. 

“Do you think we’ll stay together?” we ask each other. We both sadly decide, on balance, that we are too different. 

Then we find commonalities. An absurd love of dogs. Of animals in general. A thirst for knowledge, a hunger for travel, the thrill of hosting lavish spreads. So, fifteen years later, here we still are. 

We travel to the UK. I locum as a paediatric registrar whilst my husband studies for his MBA and MSc in International Development. We live in NHS doctors’ accommodations in various states of disrepair, radiators ticking, snow slushing on the windowsills. Subcontinental faces are normal here, and I feel a part of the social fabric. I realise I am more normal here than I am in New Zealand. Butter chicken is the national dish, there are brown faces on Coronation Street. Represent. There is, of course, a long history of racism here also – ‘Paki’ covers an entire continent of people. The consultants I work with rabbit on about how sought-after Kiwi doctors are – we have a reputation as hard-working, capable, pleasant sorts.

I do a diploma in Tropical Medicine in Liverpool. The course attendees are international. It is akin to being in my favourite high school again. At the end of the course, we do a show. The Swiss doctors need some sheep for their skit – who better to ask than the New Zealanders? Two of us wear sheepskin rugs and woolly ears, and chew our cud with a glazed ovine look. The audience is in hysterics. It is the highlight of my brief stage career.

My husband’s first job in his new aid career is in post-tsunami Sri Lanka. The civil war is still popping apace. I work for the World Health Organisation, visiting camps peopled by Tamil civilians who are homeless because of the conflict. My colleague is a tee-totalling non-smoking vegetarian Hindu within the radius of his wife; on the road, it is endless cigarettes and whisky and fried meat. 

There is an old-world feel to the north-eastern towns of Batticaloa and Trincomalee. They feel like the Sri Lanka of yesteryear. Battered bicycles creak along dusty pot-holed roads, bare-chested thin men drive bullock-carts, barefoot urchins race along the ridges of rice-fields. The Indian Ocean, a sheet of silvery silk, billows in the morning. By midday it is a lapidarian green-blue. It smiles benevolently, but it is not to be trusted. The evidence of its December 2004 fury lingers, even years after the catastrophe. Battered boats, iron reinforcing rods with broken concrete walls, a no-build zone to avoid future potential tsunamis.

I see destitution and a lack of hope in the refugee camps. These internally displaced people do not have an easy way out – the government suspects them of being Tamil Tiger sympathisers at best, and actual terrorists at worst. Vulnerable women in the camps are molested and raped whilst trekking to collect water. Children miss school. 

Sri Lankan security forces take control of the town of Muttur from the Tigers; seventeen un-armed aid workers working for Action Against Hunger are lined against a fence and shot in the head in August 2006. They are wearing T-shirts that identify them as humanitarians. All are Tamil. I cry tears of rage and disbelief.

Back in Colombo, the papers brag about the war effort, the progress against the terrorists, the funds supposedly being used to rebuild Tamil areas. There is a disconnect between most media, pandering to the state, and the reality of the battered, bruised north-eastern provinces. 

An independent Sinhala journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunga, is fiercely critical of both the government and the Tiger rebels. He is courageous, iconoclastic, a former lawyer who is vociferous about human rights. He writes an editorial: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.” He is shot by four armed assassins on motorcycles in January 2009, just days before he is due to give evidence in a corruption case against the president’s brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse. 

There is rage, the rage of families burying relatives killed by Tiger bombs in Colombo. There is rage that the country is in the stranglehold of this bitter civil war. There is rage by Tamils who have been side-lined by a Sinhala-majority government for decades, excluded from plummy posts, constantly told they do not belong, that they should ‘go home’ to India. 

I want equality, harmony, flourishing, not chauvinism or absurd patriotism. I want people to not hate faceless amorphous labels. Buddhist, Sinhala, Tamil, Hindu. Dutch Burgher, Christian, Malay, Muslim. How about just human merely being?

If a people has been living in a country for a few thousand years, are they not its naturalised citizens? If Sri Lankans were to analyse their DNA, would they not be a conglomerate of Sinhala and Tamil, a smattering of Dutch and Portuguese, perhaps even a soupçon of indigenous Veddah? Let those who are amongst us with pure blood-lines not cast the first stone. 

It is clear that one’s sense of belonging to a place has as much to do with cultural norms, ethnicity, and other peoples’ assumptions, as it has to do with one’s own feelings about the matter. 

I read a book, Anil’s Ghost, by Michael Ondaatje. It is fictional, but it details the blood that has soaked this island nation for decades. I feel disillusioned. I remember a vacation at my grandparents’ place in 1987. There is a Marxist uprising in the country. I smell something acrid and foul. I peer out the gate, and I see a man lying on the road, a burning tyre around his neck. He is a charred watermelon husk of a human. 

My teenaged self thinks: I do not want to come back to live in this country when I am older.

Yet return I do, as an adult married to a white man, and in the midst of a civil war. I am often reminded I am not a real Sri Lankan. I am a Bounty Bar – chocolatey brown on the outside, white on the inside. Spicy curries bloom beads of sweat all over me, my tongue screams for mercy, my hair plasters itself to my forehead. I catch a three-wheeler, and the driver tries to charge me thrice the normal price, saying: “If you get into my cab like a white person, you should pay like a white person.” People turn and stare when I speak Sinhalese – I sound like a 10-year-old, my enunciation is stilted and foreign. 

We return to New Zealand, and I train as a GP. I work for a decade in South Auckland, and I fall in love with her people. I feel empathy, fondness. Their kindness and gratitude for even the simplest things is heart-warming. Pasifika grandmas kiss me on the cheek. Teenagers bring in toddlers or the frail elderly. There is much laughter in my consulting room, but there are also tears of destitution and loss. There is so much potential that is wasted when little minds and bodies are hungry or cold or crowded. These children could be poets, artists, doctors, or scientists, given half a fighting chance. 

I start to think communally, not personally. I take part in an overnight car sleep-in to protest against the alarming rise of homelessness in 2016. My Huntaway keeps me company. She groans and fidgets as the June night drops to 6 degrees. I remind her that she is a dog, she has a built-in fur coat, her ilk are herders of sheep and eye-ballers of rams. She rolls over and ignores me. 

I start a once-a-week shift as a GP in an Auckland prison. I meet New Zealanders who are despised by some, labelled as no-good no-hopers who deserve to be incarcerated. Their stories are all so similar; there are reasons why people end up in prison. A conflagration of developmental issues, childhood abuse, mental ill-health, poverty. The choices open to me whilst I was growing up – the education, the nourishment of mind and body, the safety – are not choices available to all. I am reminded of this quote by the American lawyer Bryan Stevenson: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

A friend lends me a book by Patrick Snedden, Pakeha and the Treaty. I am slack-jawed with shock as I read. I learn about women, children, the elderly, massacred by musket-toting government forces, despite the promise of protection within church walls. Land that is confiscated. Language that is suppressed for a century. Why does no-one talk about this history openly? The injustices of the Land Wars are suppressed from public consciousness by Pakeha. Māori, meanwhile, do not forget. I feel fury at these injustices, fury that this land is not as fair and egalitarian as my impressionable teenaged self believed.

The husband and I visit his relatives in central Otago. We drive through the Mackenzie Basin, and I feel an immediate and overwhelming sense of belonging. The Southern Alps rest lightly on the earth, dusted with a cape of snow, gentle giants who watch over us. We tramp in Fiordland. A South island robin lands at my feet and regards me with a quizzical tilt of her head. I expect her to speak, to ask me for a snack. She is so unafraid that I imagine I am in Narnia. I am ensorcelled by this encounter for the rest of the day. We kayak in Doubtful Sound with friends. There is sleety rain, white-capped squalls, brief bursts of sun. The walls of the fiord are ancient, coruscated with tree avalanches gashing the skin of Papatūānuku. There are squillions of sand-flies, a magical moss-drenched bank by the Camelot river, waterfalls that turn to spume as they fall. Pohutukawa pops cherry red in my hair, the Alps meander down the length of my spine, the swollen green waters of the Wanganui whirlpool in me, the mists of Waikaremoana escape from my nostrils. This land gets under my skin, it becomes a part of me, it becomes home.

I live in Sri Lanka for a total of five years of my life, a fraction of my middle-aged years. There are things about me that remain Sri Lankan. My propensity to atherosclerosis. My fetish for spice (even if it makes me drip with sweat), for all things salty. My mangled v’s and w’s. Yet my consciousness, my soul if you will, feels less and less Lankan with the passage of years. 

I enjoy visits to Sri Lanka. The ancient ruins, the steaming tea-plantations, the coconut trees fringing hot sandy beaches, the clouds of bats cart-wheeling through the sunset, the gorgeous smiles and ambiguous head-waggles. And did I mention the food, the spices, the fresh seafood? Oh, my word. 

But it is not home. It has not been home for a long time. I feel at home here instead, in Aotearoa. There is so much about this country that I love. Yet I am often reminded that my external appearance is not in sync with my internal identity. So I remain suspended in some in-between space, a liminality of belonging. Someone who has known me for 20 years innocently asks, “Have you been home for a visit recently?” I am silent for a moment, then I say, “I am home.” Someone else asks me how a person from “my culture” would deal with a particular situation. Erm, the same as you? I reply. The most vexing question asked of me by strangers is the perpetual “Where are you from?” clanger. The moon, I think in my head. I zip through outer space on comet dust and I am completely alien. You’re welcome. 

It does not help that I have a curious accent, a mongrel mangle of subcontinent and Noo Zild and posh BBC. A legacy familiar to others with itinerant childhoods. It also probably does not help that I cannot throw balls and instead haphazardly lob them, and that I have literally no idea what is going on during a rugby game. Give me a silly mid-on or a googly instead, and I’ll be right. I am a bee-keeper, but when I turn up to a training session, I am the only brown woman amongst a sea of white-haired white-skinned men. 

The people I work and socialise with are blessedly free of overt racism. But there is a tangible current of otherness running through many interactions. I am more often called a Sri Lankan than I am called a New Zealander, even though I have been here for three decades. Kiwis of Chinese or Indian ancestry, some of whom trace their roots in this country to the 1800s, are still told to “go home”. Vis-à-vis, those who look more “mainstream” are much more readily accepted as belonging, as being true-blue Kiwis, without having to prove their Antipodean depths. Former PM John Key is a relatively new New Zealander – his father a Brit, his mother an Austrian Jew. Yet his ponytail pulling and playing along with on-air prison rape jokes do little to dent his reputation as a good Kiwi bloke.

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The hashtag #ThisIsNotUs after the horrific terrorist attack on March 15 is met by a counter-narrative. Actually, this is us. There are New Zealanders who are subject to prejudice, who have been subject to such things for centuries, simply because they do not fit some arbitrary dominant stereotype. The things that make us look different from each other – eyes, skin, hair – are coded for by less than 1% of our DNA. Yet these things can account for almost 100% of perceived otherness. 

I am congruent to that anodyne ‘model minority’ trope – hard-working, conscientious, law-abiding, blah blah blah. But as with anyone else, there are layers of quirk and complexity that will not be uncovered by casual assumptions or superficial categorisations. Also, it does not seem reasonable that any indiscretions on the part of non-mainstream members of a culture are met with greater opprobrium. It seems peculiar and so Victorian to adhere to some notion of racial superiority based on skin colour. 

The national consciousness – as portrayed by much mainstream media – remains overwhelmingly Pakeha. A study by Massey University researchers in 2015 found that New Zealand journalists were 86% of New Zealand-European. Just 8% were Māori. 2% were Pasifika, 2% Asian, and 2% were “other”. There are a minuscule amount of favourable role models in our entertainment industries who look like me. Although there are many commendable attempts to give more air-time to diverse narratives, the stream of ink remains various shades of pale. 

A person is more likely to be appropriated by a country as one of their own if they display attractive qualities. Sporting prowess has great salience to a nation’s pride. So too does comedic talent, even as it lampoons Pakeha and Māori with a disarming giggle. There is currently a heartening global shift towards celebrating nerds. I am hopeful that, as a society, we will smother assumptions and stereotypes as we embrace each other’s rich stories and diverse histories, and see each other as multi-faceted Kiwis. As people, not labels. There is much to be gained if we do.


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