Culture //

A life in limbo

Shiran Illanperuma describes his experience of international student life.


I am writing this from home.

Home is over 12, 000 kilometers away from University of Sydney. It takes me at least 16 hours by plane (plus an additional few hours on buses and trains) to get to class. The journey over oceans and continents takes me from my birth ‘home’ in Dubai, over my cultural ‘home’ in Sri Lanka and into the sandstone campus of Australia’s oldest university; my ‘home’ for the last five years. In case you didn’t get it, I’m an international student.

The lived experience of international students is far from monolithic; after all we come from every corner of the world and speak dozens of languages. Our stay in Australia could range anywhere between a few months to a few years. Some of us are here for invaluable life experiences, others for the material benefits of a western education. Some of us are passing through and some of us desperately want to stay on. But what unites us, I think, is a shared empathy towards each other’s sense of spatial and temporal displacement. We all know what it’s like to live a life in limbo, stretched between social, cultural and familial ties and the grittier realities of academic and economic responsibility.

I make the trip between homes about four times a year. Yet sometimes it can feel like I do it every day. Like when I used to wake up at 5 am every morning to wish my girlfriend goodnight on Skype. Or when my mum missed me and casually called to ask what I had for lunch. Or the mornings I’ve woken up slightly confused about why my bed feels so different and the lighting in my room is all wrong, only to realise that I’m not in the home I think I am.

This life in limbo tends to bring out the best and worst in you. I’ve had my bouts of depression and loneliness, locking myself up in my room eating cheap pizza, watching Breaking Bad and sleeping for 12 hours a day. Despite being a native English speaker I cannot describe how intimidating it was to sit in a classroom full of confident and outspoken white faces. And how embarrassing it was to be seen to be struggling with English when really I was just adjusting to an unfamiliar accent and vernacular. In this regard I cannot even begin to fathom the difficulties faced by students who speak English as a second language.

Through it all, Australia has given me confidence, purpose and adaptability. Most ironically it has pushed me closer to my cultural roots. It was in Australia that I learned to cook a Paripu curry good enough to rival my mum’s. It was in Australia that I became politically conscious, and learned about the colonial history and 30 year civil war in my motherland. And it was in Australia that I made the conscious decision to switch from my English name to my Sinhalese one.

Ultimately, Australia showed me who I really am. She was not always gentle when doing so, but still I am grateful. Five years after making the impulsive decision to study in a place that was cheaper than America, at the time, and had better weather than England, I have no regrets. And I can say this for sure: whatever my papers might say, I can assure you that I am a little bit Australian and Australia is a little bit me.