I have lived in Australia for 26 years, in Sydney’s Inner West where, when I first moved in, there were very few brown faces to be seen. I am not a tall, blonde, blue-eyed Aussie. On the contrary, I am short, dark and balding: far from standing out in a crowd, I am noticeably different. In all the countries I have lived in, I have learned to live with myself and the accompanied prejudice.
In the country of my birth, Sri Lanka, I belonged to the minority race. In the late 1960s, living in London and away from my comfortable life, I had to learn to live with rudeness and taunts – it was a shock when knocking on a door looking for a place to say to be told “we don’t want your sort here”. As an art student in London I took great pride in fighting back by having a small print of the Union Jack pasted on my portfolio, with the central red cross of St George blacked out and the slogan “I’m blacking Britain” carefully lettered in – my answer to the “I’m backing Britain” campaign (then current). Yes, the racist taunts were malicious and cruel but it toughened me up: I learned to live with it and my skin got considerably thicker. I learned to live with being spoken to very slowly, as though English wasn’t my first language! I learned what it was to be stereotyped and often cheekily played up to people’s perceptions.
I went to Hong Kong where I lived for 18 years and again I learned survival skills, and learned to live in a tough commercial world. Luckily as a designer, my world comprised the weird and wonderful creative types who were at ease with like-minded people and who cared little about colour, race, sexuality or stereotypes. There, where success was measured by the dollar, I learned what hard work was. Yet there was still prejudice in a society where there was a large expatriate population, and apart from one very notable and wealthy Indian business family, Indians were seen as shopkeepers, tailors or those who ran cheap eateries. Of course it didn’t matter explaining I was born in Sri Lanka – we all look alike! I remember being refused membership of an exclusive club, and when it hit the press (thanks to journalist friends), all hell broke loose in my defence – but Hong Kong wasn’t exactly a colour blind society. After a few years of living there my knowledge of Cantonese was enough for me to know the nickname my colleagues gave me: Hak Jai (black boy) – Yes, the HK names can be very direct and don’t lack subtlety. Yet I loved all the time I spent there, and made some very close friends with locals as well as expatriates.
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Coming to Australia with an English wife, we were looked on as ‘exotic’ – I didn’t have doors shut on me but often saw the look of surprise when I turned up for job interviews, then told “oh, you sounded very different on the phone”. Does colour alter an accent when you are face to face? Obviously yes! I guess for years I have learned to live with prejudice, learned to live with being ignored in shops or being the last served. Learned not to care that on a bus the seat next to you will be the last to be taken. Learned to look ahead bravely when someone in a passing car yells out “Hey Curry”. Learned to live with being stereotyped. When I took my young sons to the local kids’ cricket club, I was instantly asked to coach the young team. Despite my background, I’m not a cricketer, and have said time and time again “can’t bowl, can’t bat, can cook” but the message still hasn’t sunk in.
Yes, living in Australia has had some problems, with acceptance and prejudice, perceptions and stereotyping surfacing. I, as all others like me, just have to live with these attitudes – we have to put up with them and learn to control our tongues as well as our tempers, although there are times when I give as much as I get!
I have learned to live with people who, when invited home for a meal, are shocked that I have done a roast, or bouillabaisse, paella, boeuf bourguignon, crème brulee or pannacotta and not a vindaloo, korma, biryani or kulfi! My beef when it comes to cooking is that every one expects me to like hot and spicy food – I don’t. Cook it every day? I don’t. Why? Because there are too many other cuisines I love, to eat, cook and share. This is probably reflected in the fact that each of the four of us in my family was born in a different country. I was born in Sri Lanka, my wife in the UK, our older son in Hong Kong and younger son in Australia – so we are a very multi-cultural/national family. During the Sydney Olympics in 2000, we had a family pact: every night for dinner the family would decide on a country and I would have to cook a dish that represented it – we travelled the globe and had such delicious fun.
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Three years ago I got into an adventure that changed my life drastically. My five minutes of fame on reality television continues. What started out as one-off adventure has resulted in something that I am still trying to cope with. We were told that it could be a life changing experience – I had no idea what I was getting into and where it would lead. As a result of MasterChef Australia, and MasterChef All Stars the following year, I was thrown into the spotlight. From the day my elimination was aired, I was suddenly thrown into the public arena. I get shouted at, but now with friendly words of greetings. I get asked to pose for selfies, hugged and kissed: young, old, kids, teens, middle-aged and seniors – it is overwhelming. Initially, I felt shell-shocked and didn’t even like going out. My family made me see the positive side of it and the happiness people got from seeing me. Yes, it was scary and sometimes intrusive, especially when out having a private family dinner. But when I see and hear mums and dads telling me that I inspired their kids to get into the kitchen, or someone at a bus stop, street corner, the baggage carousel of a foreign airport, in the queue for a movie, or in a gallery somewhere, will come up to shake hands and say “thank you, you brought us happiness” – well this is magic and I like to think that this is a special experience I am privileged to have.
Sadly, today racism has reared its ugly head again and as usual it has polarised peoples’ opinions and is causing distress and fear. It saddens me when politics plays up stereotypes and induces panic and insecurity, and in the process causes racist rifts through ignorance. The media can be so damning as well. It is sad to see the malice and damage that ignorance can cause. So this short, dark, old, balding man is very glad to have opened at least some peoples’ eyes to see that all of us have something to offer… we might look and sound a little different, but we only just need the opportunity to show who we are, dispel some myths and share our talents. For me, I have been fortunate to get opportunities I never dreamed of, meet people who are my culinary heroes, learn heaps and get to do things I never thought I would. I have also become much more confident with who I am, and with what I can and want to do. From being a rather shy person, I now have the confidence and ability to talk and appear in public. But above all, the one good thing I have got from this experience is the feeling that I have helped people accept someone from another culture and see that I am no different from them. I was given an opportunity for people to get to know the real me and I am grateful.
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What prompted me to write this was the insistence of a very close writer friend who is much better with words than I will ever be – we were catching up on our lives and recent events and he said “you have a great message, get it out”. This together with Noel Pearson’s recent, very powerful and moving eulogy for Gough Whitlam, where this line particularly resonated with me:
“Only those who have known discrimination truly know its evil”
What do you think of Kumar’s comments? Have you seen or be a victim of discrimination? Tell us your thoughts below.