Sunday Essay Indira Fernando Header

The Sunday EssayNovember 28, 2021

The Sunday Essay: Out of zone – growing up Kiwi-Asian in the early 2000s

Sunday Essay Indira Fernando Header

We grew up keenly aware that our families moved to New Zealand to give us better futures, and that meant pursuing medicine or engineering. But some of us had different ideas, writes Chamanthie Sinhalage-Fonseka.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand

Original illustrations by Indira Fernando

The first piece of creative writing I ever enjoyed writing was a mock medical school application letter for a fictitious Kiwi-Sri Lankan boy named Pradeep.

Titled “Why I want to study medicine at Auckland Medical School – an overzealous application”, it was a tongue-in-cheek ribbing, not of the smart kids who wanted to be doctors, but the Sri Lankan (OK, pan-Asian, really) cultural obsession with squeezing a doctor out of your progeny at all cost.

The Pradeep character was born while I was still at law school and my younger brother sent me his actual medical school application letter for proofreading and feedback. The temptation to satirise was irresistible. (He got into medical school, so really we both won.)

It was an embarrassing and amateur first attempt at humour from me, but my Sri Lankan friends delighted in seeing themselves in it:

Please state briefly why you wish to undertake the medical programme. Please include any professional and personal experiences, and other personal attributes that you feel are relevant. 

Ever since I entered the womb, I have been interested in enrolling in the MCBHB programme at Auckland University. 

My early months in the womb gave me a thorough understanding of the way in which the human body functions. This directly led to my decision to enrol in Biology 101. 

Furthermore, I am genetically predisposed to medicine as there are 53 doctors in my immediate family.

If you are Sri Lankan, it’s likely impossible to talk about your school years without also talking about medical school. Whether you grew up in Sri Lanka, or you’re a kid of the diaspora – as I am – the concept of “medical school” was less of an educational institution and more of an omnipresent god slash bogeyman.

One friend described it as being like Santa Claus: 

Other kids get told Santa won’t bring them presents if they aren’t good. Sri Lankan kids get told medical school won’t accept us if we so much as turn the TV on.

And don’t get me started on the Tooth Fairy. I can just hear Amma saying: “Money in exchange for teeth? What nonsense! If you wanted to make money from old teeth, we could have just stayed in Sri Lanka. Plenty of teeth for you to pull out there!”

Never forget: dentists don’t go to medical school.

One summer, I went back to Sri Lanka and ran into a relative who was advertising for someone to rent the granny flat on their property.

– Ideally, I’d like a consultant to rent it out.

– What kind of consultant? Like a doctor?

– No, not just any old doctor. A specialist doctor.

– But why?

–  Anyone can have a doctor as a tenant. A specialist brings prestige to our home.

Those of us who decided early on that we were more suited to other career paths were mistaken if we thought we were safe from the long shadow of the medical school slenderman.

– Putha, what are you planning  to study at university?

–  Aunty, I think I might go to law school.

*silence*

Is that because you aren’t bright enough for medicine?

 ***

Pradeep’s Greatest Real World Experiences

I have a wide variety of life experiences ranging from Chem 101 – Introduction to Chemistry, all the way to Phys 101 – Introduction to Physics…

Forget street smarts or conversation skills, for Sri Lankan parents in the 2000s, nothing was more “real world” than a deep understanding of thermodynamics or trigonometry.  

There is no doubt in my mind that, like me, fictional Pradeep would have been a product of early-2000s Kiwi-Asian upbringing in the Double Grammar Zone. 

Asian kids in the Double Grammar Zone were expected to take the “Asian Five”, which sounds like a bad K-Pop group but actually referred to biology, physics, chemistry, statistics and calculus. These five subjects supposedly made up the magic combination that would get you into any number of science-based programmes at university, even if you didn’t scrape your way into medical school.

In his final year at high school, my brother (who was more or less betrothed to the Auckland Medical School from birth) struck terror deep into the hearts of my parents, when he announced that he had dropped physics to take up art history. 

He returned to favour when he won the seventh form art history prize, but it would take another year, and winning entry to medical school, to see him fully accepted back into our family. 

(I’m kidding. He was never actually disowned per se, but there was a high level of nervousness that he might have gambled his entire life away on art history. Today, kids speak about him in hushed tones as the legend who art-historied his way into medicine.)

***

Pradeep’s Greatest Extra Curricular Activities

I first sat the UMAT examination at age six. I have been sitting this examination annually ever since. During my high school years, I was a regular, active and committed participant in weekly English, Calculus, Statistics, Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Advanced Chemistry, Advanced Biology, Advanced Calculus and badminton tuition classes.

Since last year, I have habitually visited the Epsom Public Library to engage in my reading of the New Zealand Herald. In this way, I have become informed of major world events such as 9/11 and the Rugby World Cup 2011. 

In the 2000s, the mothers of the Double Grammar Zone did a roaring trade in past exam papers, carefully collected, filed away and swapped with each other, much the same way Pradeep and his school friends spent lunchtimes trading Yugioh cards.

On Saturdays and Sundays, “tuition masters” – Sri Lankan uncles and aunties whose day jobs consisted of teaching the Asian Five at schools all over Auckland – went door to door to individually tutor diaspora kids to make up for the presumed deficiencies of the New Zealand education system.

Partway through these sessions, mothers would bring in trays piled high with biscuits and cups of sweet, thick milky tea (the powdered milk kind, if you know you know) while you learned to solve complex mathematical problems without a calculator. Calculators were for the weak.

In our world, the dedication to education was relentless and all-consuming. It was a full-family affair. Around the end of October one year, a sign was posted outside one Epsom house: “Please do not ring our doorbell for trick-or-treating. We are currently studying for our Cambridge exams and do not wish to be disturbed.”

It wasn’t all studying. When not participating in university interview-worthy extracurricular activities, Kiwi-Asian kids in the area found parent-sanctioned third places outside of home and school, which proved necessary in a time before social media or mobile phones.

If you were a Kiwi-Sri Lankan teenager, the Epsom Library was your regular social hotspot. Under the guise of studying (although that happened too – we were Sri Lankan, after all), plotlines worthy of several seasons of Dawson’s Creek played out on heady weekday afternoons between bookshelves.

***

Ko Singapore Airlines te waka, I read out my pepeha in my Form One te reo class.

A year and a half earlier, my family and I had boarded a jumbo jet to New Zealand. Like many of the Asian kids I grew up with, we migrated to New Zealand under the skills category. We grew up keenly aware that our families moved to New Zealand to give us better futures than we would have had in Sri Lanka – or in Beijing, where I had spent the first decade of my life.

They say that Sri Lankans have been in New Zealand for nearly 150 years, first as part of the gold rush in the 1800s, and then in the 1950s under the Colombo Plan.

For the decades that followed, New Zealand actively attracted highly-skilled professionals from countries like Sri Lanka, to help fill workforce shortages that had hit crisis point.

A Sri Lankan friend, now a senior doctor herself, told me about her family moving to New Zealand in 1973:

[It was] the skills shortage in New Zealand. They offered Dad full registration to come out and work in New Zealand as a GP. They almost went back [to Sri Lanka] because as a two year-old I didn’t adapt and was quite down.

The same friend entered medical school in Auckland in 1991. Out of her class of 120, 10 were Sri Lankans.

Much of New Zealand’s healthcare system was built on the shoulders and sacrifice of immigrants who came here half a century ago.

Three decades after independence from Britain, Sri Lanka became a republic, fuelling racial and economic tensions. New Zealand’s need made it an attractive new home for Sri Lankan Tamils and Burghers in the 70s and 80s.

In the late 80s, New Zealand  immigration policy changes emphasised immigrant skills over country of origin, leading to a marked increase in immigration from Asia. 

The first wave of arrivals in the early 1990s were mainly from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea. After 2000 China and India provided many of New Zealand’s migrants. In 2013, nearly 12% of New Zealand’s population were Asian.

The kind of people who came to New Zealand under the skills category prized education and training above all else. Perhaps it was partly a result of the way that New Zealand advertised itself overseas, but it was certainly assumed on arrival, by all of our parents at least, that their children excelling academically was the key to a successful life in New Zealand.

My own family, like those of the kids I grew up with, moved here in 1998, as part of this last wave.

We were part of the generation that obsessed over living in the Grammar Zone, subdivided and intensified the historic suburb of Epsom (not to be confused with the much more bougie electorate of Epsom), and created celebrities out of the local Barfoot and Thompson agents.

Whether by ownership or by rent, it became normal to try to secure an Epsom address years before your kid was due to go to school in-zone.

Unlike the current property market frenzy we see all around New Zealand now, the Epsom housing bubble had very little to do with the security of ownership. It was more about a pathway to education, which would (in theory) then provide security for life.

Once all of a family’s children had finished with their schooling, it was normal for the family to sell up and move to a different suburb further afield, such as St Johns, Howick or Pakuranga, and make way for a new family to move in and the circle of life to continue.

***

In the Double Grammar Zone, back when we were kids, it wasn’t unusual for immigrant doctors to drive taxis and civil engineers’ primary income to come from a daily paper route, while they tried to get New Zealanders to hire them in the skilled categories that brought them here. Some were lucky. Others were not.

Back then, Asian migrants arrived with very little understanding of Kiwi social mores. Had we known about the importance of building decks  –  or at least the importance of talking about building decks  – we would, no doubt,  have studied up and become deck chat champions.

We never really thought of soft skills as much of a priority. After all, everything we had known about New Zealand – a country mostly imagined in the image of the spotted cows and rolling hills on packets of powdered milk – pointed to a country of very nice people, mostly kindly sheep farmers, who were excited by the prospect of more doctors and engineers, and maybe even accountants, arriving to help the tiny population get on with the important job of nation-building. 

How hard could it be?

Most of us had no idea that we would arrive to find that many middle-class New Zealanders who had never seen foreign races multiply so quickly on these shores would interpret the 1987 immigration rule as an “invasion”. 

Buf it there were any doubt about the underlying racism alive in our new homes, that was squashed in newsprint, with the shameful 1993 community newspaper series headlined “Inv-Asian”.

***

Section: Ethnicity

Please tick all that apply
Asian _____
Indian_____
Other_____

Some thoughts that go through my head when confronted with such a form in New Zealand:

Sri Lanka is in Asia – so that would be the one, right?

But “Asian” isn’t an ethnicity, nor does it comprise any singular ethnicity. It’s a continent that spans from Russia to the Indian Ocean and from the Middle East to the Pacific. 

I’m not Indian. That’s a whole different country (and also not an ethnicity). And why have they separated out Indian from Asian when India is in Asia?

What about “Other”? Why tick “other” when “Asian” is already there?

And if I tick “other”, I wouldn’t write “Sri Lankan”, because that’s also not an ethnicity but a nationality, and if we’re talking nationalities, then I’m both a New Zealander and a Sri Lankan.

My ethnicity is Sinhalese (one of a number of ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, because we aren’t homogenous)… but would someone on the other end know what I’m talking about? Will all other Sinhalese people do the same so that we can be counted as one actual bloc?

Who wrote this form anyway?

***

It was 2011 and I was well into my 20s before I first saw New Zealand director Roseanne Liang’s masterpiece My Wedding and Other Secrets.

It tells the story of an awkward Auckland girl, the daughter of traditional Chinese migrant parents whose only wishes are that she become a doctor and marry a nice Chinese boy. She does  the exact opposite. I couldn’t help but marvel at Liang’s ability to produce a film that was both at once about breaking the rules of being a Kiwi-Asian woman, while also actually breaking the rules of being a Kiwi-Asian woman. 

Liang calls herself a “classic immigrant-child overachiever”, someone who had never questioned that expectation that she would become a doctor.

When she was accepted to medical school, she deferred her place for a year. “I was obsessed with Pixar and computer animation, so I did computer science and film theory,” she told Variety

There was a character, a writer, that I knew.Almost a decade later, I sat in a Fringe Festival show at Bats Theatre in Wellington and watched Saraid de Silva’s one-woman comedy show, Drowning in Milk, and again I saw it. 

It was a short performance,  perhaps only about half an hour, but I was transfixed. The idea that a young woman of Sri Lankan heritage was allowed to have her own theatre show sparked both admiration and envy. I hadn’t known we were allowed to stand on a stage and demand the attention of every person in the room (unless it was our wedding day). I definitely didn’t know we were allowed to be funny while doing it.

At the Auckland Museum in 2020, an exhibit about Auckland puts Deanna Young next to Stephen Tindall. The contrast is striking. A young, Asian-New Zealand woman could hardly be further away from an older European man – in privilege, in recognition and in the mountain that must be climbed.

A block of text explains: 

Opening her milk and cookie bar Moustache in 2012 at age 21, West Aucklander Deanna Yang has had to take on the haters for what she calls “the big three” – being young, female and Asian.

I can’t know who exactly Deanna was talking about when she referred to “haters”, but I’d hazard a guess it has to do with the unwritten rules about the spaces that women of Asian descent are supposed to occupy or not occupy as they navigate their Asian and Western worlds.

Parents seek husband for 21-year old daughter, New Zealand citizen, studying law…

My parents placed an advertisement in one of Sri Lanka’s biggest English language newspapers when I was in my third year of law school. I ended up with 40 marriage proposals that year.

I might have had my whole life ahead of me, but it was completely normal for Sri Lankan parents to worry that, by studying law, their daughter may quickly lose her worth on the marriage market.

Girls from good Sri Lankan families back then were certainly not encouraged to go into fields such as law, politics or public relations. In our world, the only PR that was celebrated was permanent residency. 

Media and creative pursuits were also off the table.

When I was in high school, I only knew of one Sri Lankan girl out of the community of 5,000 families in Auckland, who had gone on to study law at university.  In the early 2000s, if you knew with absolute certainty early in life that you wanted to pursue things other than medicine, there was a short, prescribed list of alternatives. “Being funny for a living”  was definitely not on it. 

After doctors (either as a career path or a husband path), engineers were next on the food chain. Pharmacists and accountants were generally considered acceptable. Teaching was fairly respectable. If you dreamed of doing something else, it got a bit tricky.

A daughter in the law wouldn’t make much of a daughter-in-law, or so the assumption went, because it was generally accepted that disciplines like law and politics created argumentative, activist wives.

Happily for me – and ironically for my parents – I ended up meeting my (Kiwi-Sri Lankan) husband through law school. And without the help of the Sri Lankan print media.

***

What a good girl! Your boss must love you.

A slightly smug, but probably well-meaning, middle aged man gestured at the tray of coffees in my hands as we both got into an elevator in a central Wellington office building.

As much as he made me cringe, this wasn’t a new experience for me – a thirtysomething woman in corporate attire – to be mistaken for a young and enthusiastic intern on a coffee run. 

In truth I was being a good boss:bringing coffee for the four team members I employed to work with me in a Wellington corporate affairs firm..

The consultancy I ran was a small but functional machine. We represented  some of the most high profile clients in the city. I edged out the competition – often white, often male, usually less hard-working – by being faster, better, smarter and, most of all, much better value for money.

I didn’t want clients to hire me or my team for diversity’s sake, I wanted them to hire us because we could get results. I also believed that the ultimate show of inclusion was a client hiring a young, brown woman with the expectation that she would out-pace the white men hired by a client’s competition.

If law school was off the beaten path for a Kiwi-Sri Lankan woman, then public relations was on another planet. Over the past decade in the public relations industry, it has been extremely rare to encounter Kiwi-Asian women in my field. More than once, I’ve turned up to a  new workplace to find myself the first Kiwi-Asian person my colleagues had ever seen in that role and, even now, it’s not unusual for me to be the only Kiwi-Asian person in rooms of caucasian people.

I asked some of my Kiwi-Asian female friends of being an “only” in their workplaces in the arts, media and the law:

“There is an expectation that you are grateful for being ‘allowed’ into a space. I’m not the first Asian woman to have legitimately earned her way into a competitive role, only to have my new colleagues pat their workplaces on the back for hiring someone of my skin colour.”

“People often assume I’m here to do a different job than the one I was employed to do [acting]. They think I’m there to babysit, or am a cleaner, or someone’s girlfriend who just showed up. Makeup artists freak out over my hair and skin tone, and I constantly have to be really fast or else people think I’m stupid.”

“There is an expectation that the value you bring will be a uniquely ‘Asian’ thing – e.g. food from your country for shared lunches. I had a boss who would often say he’d love to come over to my house ‘for a curry’, all the way to  law firms expecting you to speak Chinese and bring in Chinese business.”

Being  “Kiwi-Asian” can be a two-pronged fight for identity: we want both to be acknowledged and seen as Asian as much as we want to be acknowledged and seen as New Zealanders. 

For my Kiwi-Asian female counterparts in fields related to the sciences, it’s much more common to encounter people like themselves in the workplace. It’s hard to overstate how much this means that barriers are lowered well before they enter an industry. Who hasn’t heard of an Asian pharmacist, for example?

In many ways, the traditional Asian community expectations of us also work against us when we go out into everyday New Zealand. The myth of the model minority is something that meets us at school and can carry on throughout our adult lives.

“You’re Asian, you must be good at math”

“You’re Asian, so you must have been an obedient child, unlike our children who don’t know how to behave haha”

“Chamanthie is a conscientious student…” 

In her piece for the Spinoff, Helen Young talks about the experience of Kiwi-Asian women in the New Zealand workplace:

As Asian women, we often become political pawns in the name of diversity. That’s particularly true of East Asian women, who are often perceived as the good, hardworking, assimilated “model minority”. When we do reach positions of power, this role rarely comes without restrictions over what narratives we are able to disseminate.

Over the past few years, the New Zealand Twitterverse has become a great connector of Kiwi-Asian “Onlys” . My mentions and DMs are a patchwork of what I think of as a  whisper network of Kiwi-Asian women who have, in their own ways, bucked societal expectations of Asian women. 

They are well-informed, articulate, talented, passionate and extremely resilient. Some are younger than me and some are much older. Many, I’ve never actually met in real life. All are formidable and incredibly badass.

I also know that, behind the scenes, we can private message each other to share deeper frustrations, give advice, and celebrate the kind of wins where it really takes one to know one. There is a level of trust and support that is implicit in these connections. 

Unlike the more formal Asian-based societies, groups, and foundations, this network of female Kiwi-Asian “onlys” has no website or logo, nobody is forced to wear lanyards, and we don’t exist to promote our cultures or trade opportunities to New Zealand. 

Instead, we find each other organically and visibly, and form part of the distinct identity that is the modern Kiwi-Asian woman in New Zealand today.

For young Sri Lankan women growing up in New Zealand today, these are Kiwi-Sri Lankan role models to look up to. Women such as Vanushi Walters, Saraid de Silva,  Kethaki Masilamani, Ruwani Perera and so many others excelling across a range of non-traditional disciplines pave the way for every other Kiwi-Sri Lankan woman who might one day follow.

***

It is now 11 years since I met my Kiwi-Sri Lankan husband, who ditched medical school for law school. He followed law school with a fancy-international-man-of-mystery-type job that pleased my parents no end, before deciding to follow his true passion and – sharp intake of breath – become a journalist, something completely unheard of in the Double Grammar Zone universe of my youth.

But the real twist is this: my own parents couldn’t be prouder of the work he’s doing and the difference his writing is making to New Zealand.

Meanwhile, I’ve come full circle too. As I finish writing this piece, it’s a Sunday night and I’ve had yet another column published in a major New Zealand newspaper. I still wouldn’t call my writing “funny”, but it is a dream to have a few lighthearted creative writing side-gigs in addition to my day job. 

This morning, my Sri Lankan in-laws texted me:

Hi Chamanthie, Congratulations on your article today … you have an easy writing style and a clever, enjoyable way of storytelling. I hope you will find a niche to write in your spare time.

And, to think: this all started with writing a medical school application letter – for fun. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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