Finding a home in Australia
Mum and I sit on the edge of my parents’ bed, holding plain white cups of chai in our palms. As a child, my sister and I would jump mischievously on the mattress, or lie on it listening to funny stories Mum would tell us. As I sit to interview her, however, it’s a little different – it feels formal, which I think makes us both slightly nervous.
As she begins to reflect on her time in India, Mum feel more at ease. She tells me of a comfortable life, with a strong sense of home and a promising future. I’ve always found it warming to hear my mother describe India, knowing that it was a far simpler life than what was to come. I wonder, then, why my mother chose to leave the security of that life, to move onto a completely different one.
“Daddy realised that there were many job opportunities” she tells me. “It seemed like a glamorous place to live. I had seen Nescafé adds with the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House,” she laughs.
Yet, mum soon realised that life was never going to be what she had imagined. She recalls the initial sense of “loneliness and dejection… I had come to a country which wasn’t mine.” With tears in her eyes, she tells me of the humiliation of being patronised in the workplace. She recounts customers refusing to be served by an Indian woman and bosses designating her degrading tasks.
Amidst tribulations of racism and unemployment, I ask mum how she managed to raise a family in Australia. “I always thought I’d raise my kids in India… Nanaji (grandfather) had passed away, my mother and sister weren’t here. The idea of raising a family with no support… it didn’t feel good”. Mum breaks down, and I struggle to hold my own tears back. She continues, “After Ammu (grandmother) passed away, I felt I had completely lost my home.”
In the face of this adversity, my mum was able to find a job and rise within the Australian Tax Office, sacrificing any relaxation to spend time with her children. As she tells me of her determination to “work twice as hard as my white counterparts”, I begin to understand why she’s always pushed my sister and I to study hard. Yet the greatest lesson I learn from her struggles with racism and loneliness is when she calmly says, “I am not angry. This country reminds me of how I could succeed, it was where I began to grow”. I truly realise now that I owe all I have to my mother – she has given me everything.
My mum isn’t usually the one being interviewed. When I was nervous about transitioning to high school, she would help me practice making new friends by pretending to be one, ‘Susan’. She would quiz me on my homework, hand me cups of tea as I ranted about my high school love life. Even now, when I call home for a chat, we debrief about my life and my problems.
I feel guilty that it took a structured sit down interview to centre her experiences as the talking point.
My mum and I have always enjoyed a Gilmore Girls level of closeness. It was particularly hard when I was the last to leave home, five years after my brother and sister. Interviewing mum, I recalled something she used to say to me, “sometimes I feel invisible.” What did she mean?
“There is a definite time in your life, I can’t pinpoint it exactly, where there’s a shift and you become aware that you could just disappear from where you are and no one would realise it.” She hesitated to give examples, maybe worried they were frivolous, “it’s just a big adjustment in so many ways,” she said of my leaving home. ‘”When I trip now in the supermarket I don’t have someone to laugh with, or help me up.”
But she wants me to emphasise how lucky she has been throughout her life. At university, she studied to be microbiologist, then 27 years later, she studied law long-distance. A few years later she became a local government councillor, then a mediator, and now she is Mayor.
For the majority of her adult life though, she’s been a stay-at-home mum. She was often confused by the “societal thing where people ascertain your value often through your children or your situation”, feeling pressure to prove her work at home was equivalent to women “doing it all”.
Mum is careful to remind me that her particular experience was coloured by being “financially fortunate” enough to stay at home when she needed to, and pursue education later in life. I have memories of my mum and I completing our homework at the kitchen table together – her torts assignments written alongside my school certificate practice exams. Sometimes it was hard, she recalls, trying to pursue an education that would allow my dad to slowly retire from his job as a builder, whilst also caring for three children. Education changed so much from her first degree to her second, and she laughs remembering how she sculled her first ever V and a packet of frogs before an exam, becoming “a jittery mess” dropping her pens and paper in front of her younger peers.
After my siblings and I left, I feel like mum took on the community as part of her family. I wonder if sometimes the reason she feels invisible, is because she never stops working to put others in the spotlight, fighting for their interests and their needs.
It’s an important subversion, placing my mum in the interview chair. I hope it reminded her that she shines too brightly to ever be considered invisible.
Confronted with the task of synthesising an interview with my mother in 300 words or less about her teen life is difficult under the best of circumstances; the fact that she passed away two years ago makes this process a little trickier.
I turned to my usual suppository of wisdom: my Polish grandmother, Toni. “Krysia was a bit of a rebel, she wanted to belong to this and belong to that.”
I had no idea what that meant. Toni apologised, explaining that Krysia didn’t always tell her about what she was working on at the time – “you know, teenagers.”
Mum’s sister Nina was able to offer greater insight: “Krysia was very involved in the Victorian Secondary Students’ Union. I recall going with her to Melbourne University’s Union building for a meeting of secondary students every Friday night. They saw the inequality between private and public schools – the haves and the have-nots. There were government schools in poor areas that were incredibly poor, and Krysia was trying to address these social inequality issues when she herself was at high school.”
“They would utilise old printing machines at the university – writing articles and reeling off these newspapers. I remember her going around and distributing them at each school, at various marches.
Krysia never missed an anti-Vietnam war march. It was heavy days politically – the Vietnam War, the Social Revolution, the Cold War period. Krysia, like other secondary school students, wished for a place to find her voice and this was where she could do it.
She herself tried to take action wherever she could. When she was at high school, she made a short black and white film about inequality in education. She studied Filmmaking at Flinders University and made another with a dramatised metaphor for the lack of safety in the workplace. I started in it as a moustached male worker.”
Looking back at the women my mother became, I can see traces of her younger self. She never lost an interest in education or media, making a career out of the latter. She started the Australian Schools Director to give all schools an equal opportunity to tell their stories. She ran for politics on the premise of giving a voice to those who didn’t have one. I still remember her lobbying for girls to be able to wear pants at my single-sex primary school.
I think Toni says it best though: “She got there. She was a very forceful person and very determined. Lots of kids at school go one way and you follow them. But she went a different way. She ended up very well.”