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Aishwarya Sunil Menon

Being the Outsider reflects on the isolation and disconnection that many experience when they move into a new culture. Students participating in this project share the challenges of assimilation and the cultural shocks they’ve encountered during their course of study in Perth.

Aishwarya Sunil Menon is from India and is pursuing her Master’s in Professional Writing and Publishing. I first met Aishwarya at a Master of Arts orientation event at Curtin University in 2018. Over the course of the two years here, we’ve extensively helped each other out academically. We offered solace in times of hardship and kept reminding ourselves of our dreams and goals. Moving to Australia was a unique experience for the both of us and sometimes when we feel overwhelmed, it feels good to be provided reassurances and motivation. In this interview, Aishwarya opens up about her journey in tackling academics, of reconnecting with her roots and learning to assimilate into Australian culture.


What was your experience of moving to Australia for study?

So I am a really introverted person, what really helped me is in the first semester, we both shared the same student housing accommodation that is. So, in that, there were opportunities for me to explore, if I wanted to, because they had a lot of house parties and common community parties. But I kept to myself because I was still adjusting to living away from home. So that was a big thing for me. I had difficulty getting used to the academic culture and especially what it is. I know that I always used to call you to ask what is expected of us, like if you’re not going to attend a tutorial should we email them? So these are stuff that we did not know. So, I was really involved in all the stuff that I couldn’t really get into the cultural aspect of it. I think I’m not that big of an explorer, like if I’m going to a touristy place, then I would go and explore their culture because I know that I’m going to be there only for like 10 days, or whatever, but here it was like, I knew I was going to be here for two years so it was kind of, I put it on the back of my mind and I never really got to it.

It has been so long that I can’t really pinpoint the first cultural shock but, the good cultural shock was that everyone greeted the bus driver and said bye to them when they left.

So that was a good culture that I really liked. Even when you go to retail shops, you acknowledge them so that is really different from the place that we come from. So, yeah, that was a good side of the cultural shock. With eating, I didn’t explore that much. I’m a vegetarian so I have never tried much. I think the thing that surprised me most is back home, when it’s winter, I’m always sick. I’ve never been sick here, especially in winters. So it was really surprising that I never got sick here but that is because the pollution is less.

What has your university experience been like?

First and foremost, the teachers are supportive. They’re not out to get you. That was a shocker. I think the culture of inclusion, they expect you to be interactive in class. I think that for me, back home—because it’s like the teacher speaks—you’re supposed to listen and make notes, and then that’s it. Here, they want you to come to that decision. They want you to read and then understand. So you do have that independence, but it also means that you are responsible for your own understanding.

I think the other thing that I find really challenging or cultural shock-wise, is the level of independence that people have here. And I think because of that, because they have that personal space—which is their top most priority—I think the compassion is less.

Because even when you see here, like, even with First Nations Australians. Even in the news media, they are portrayed in a different light. I find it really surprising that they would behave like that with their own people. We are people of colour. That means you are treating your own in a shitty manner. So, it’s not surprising that you treat international students in a different manner either. And people are indifferent and they don’t want to really get in touch with that cultural background and it’s like I feel like people here are on extreme scales. It’s either totally indifferent, or people who really care.

So, for people here, its important for them that they give that personal space, and the independency to make your own decisions. So I think that’s a big factor, which is a cultural shock for us. We have such co-dependent lives back at home.

Can you expand on the levels of privacy that you get here compared to being all cluttered and clustered in India?

Levels of privacy, yes, I completely agree that—at least I can smoke here without being judged or wear shorts—without being ogled at. I think it’s the same for everyone. Because, again, it goes back to that personal space, people respect your personal space, they are not going to intrude on it until and unless they have your consent. So, I think with that aspect, there are pros and cons as well. The pro in this aspect is that everyone gets their privacy, but sometimes I feel that is the reason why there is a lot of issues with mental health here. Because everyone is confined to their own personal space. And sometimes it’s difficult to get out of it.

So, you know, if that is the case, siblings should have a deeper bond, right? Because they just have each other. But still, at the end of it, siblings don’t even talk to each other once they leave home. They’re just two separate entities and they meet for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and that’s it.

I had heard of Western culture being so progressive but I never imagined that they would set up dinner dates like how they set up a meeting.

It’s very formal, very formal—it doesn’t feel personal. You set up a meeting with your thesis supervisor, you set up a meeting for a job interview, but when you set up meetings for your family, that feels really formal. I’m not like judging them or anything but I was like, “Oh my god does this really happen here?”

How far did this cultural shift take a toll on your mental health?

I did not suffer that much, but I think for me the biggest thing was staying away from my family. I have realised now that I need my family around. Because I don’t make friends easily, and it’s difficult for me to open up to new people, and even just a basic conversation, my mind is always overthinking if I’m asking too many questions—so for me, I have realised that I need my family.

But academically; referencing, plagiarism, citations—I still haven’t figured out half the time. So that really takes a toll on you because you don’t know what is expected of you. And then for us, we have so much at stake. We have taken loans coming here and we try to get a part time job. Even if you do [get a job], there’s always striking a balance between your academics and your work and your social life. I think I haven’t attained that perfect balance, because I have no social life.

A photograph of Aishwarya who is outside and smiling at the camera

People here start working early on when they’re seventeen or eighteen. I think they have mastered that skill. I’ve seen that because they’re also familiar with the curriculum and the requirements. But for me, I’ve always found that I go into a spiral and I have a panic attack and I am just like, “Oh my god, oh my god, is this what is expected of me even?”

In those initial months, when I was living in the student accommodation, in those initial six months I survived on chips, bread and Maggi noodles. I’m cooking now, but when I was living in the student accommodation, the people who were sharing the house were Australians and they had banded together. It was like four Australians, one Chinese guy and me. So the Chinese guy has his own friends and the four Australians used to have house parties. So, I was left alone and I wouldn’t say that they didn’t try—obviously I also did not try. So, the fault was at both sides.

So that really affected me in the beginning. Obviously I missed home food, my home and stuff. But then I think for me, I needed the space to grow more. It took me three years to get an acceptance from a university. So, this—coping with the academics and learning new stuff—that had a bigger influence on me compared to homesickness.

The homesickness would just hit me out of the blue, like a bolt of lightning, and then it drowns you, but then you get back up on your feet.

It was really cool because my dad has lived away from his family for 14 years. So, he has been a good support person for me, because when I am paranoid or anxious he could calm me down because he has been through it and he understands how important this is for me. So I think that was what helped me get through it and obviously some really close friends too.

How has COVID-19 affected you during this time?

Australians and universities say that, “We are inclusive, we have international students club,” and this and that. “We are not racist. We welcome all communities.” And I understand that this is a crisis situation. And that you need to take care of yourself—for each their own. But I think the difference is, it was so easy for them to cut us out. I think that’s because their ideology changed from inclusion to exclusion, just as an example.

So, like in Canada, international students who are working are getting insurance money. And I saw the other day a video of Justin Trudeau talking about the safety measures that need to be maintained, during Easter, Baisaki, and Tamil New Year, he included these dates of celebration. Even under this crisis situation, he included them. But anyway, it’s like, obviously the Australian Government made that call—I’m pretty sure there was nothing mentioned or put in place. And like I said, we contribute to GDP. International students are the second largest contributors to Australian GDP. So, we should not be excluded. But, I don’t know enough about the Australian economy to actually make a comment about it. I don’t know where this money goes.

Because it’s likely that next semester the universities will not have new international intakes, they will have to capitalise on what they’ve already got this semester. So I think that’s why they wouldn’t give us that money back. I think we don’t have that kind of freedom.

Even if all of us band together and make a noise, I don’t know if there would be people who care enough to maybe even look back at us. They will just turn a blind eye because they do that to their own First Nation Australians, so we are outsiders.

We are just here for a few years, they’re definitely not going to care for us. I do feel that way.

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