Anju - Culture and Community

My Mother’s Daughter is a collection of stories reflecting on the traditions of femininity and what it means to identify as a mother, daughter, sister and most of all, a woman, in Australia. In this series, we speak to women of various ages, cultures and backgrounds to glimpse into who and what has shaped them as the strong and inspiring people they are today, as well as the legacy they build for their children and community.

Anju was born in Sri Lanka and predominantly raised in Australia. Working previously in community development, social work and the arts, she is raising her daughter to be understanding of and connected to all peoples and religions. Anju shares the differences between Burgher, Sinhalese and Tamil cultures, as well as what it was like to grow up in a multicultural environment.


So my name is Anju Sivarajah, I’m of Sri Lankan background, we migrated to Australia in 1984 with my family. I’m married and I have a 9-year-old daughter.

So, we grew up in Australia, I’ve been here since I was 5 years old, and my mother played probably the, had a huger impact on me than my father. My mother is of Burgher and Sinhalese background, I think it was more a Burgher influence that I guess, was in our household. So just for your reference, Burgher is an ethnic group in Sri Lanka who originate of mixed either Dutch, or Portuguese or English background, so therefore there is like a Western influence I guess, in our household. So my mum was, we came to Australia when I was five, sorry like I said earlier, my mother started working within two weeks of us arriving in Australia, because she was able to get a job with her secretary skills, and my dad tried his hand in many businesses, but didn’t quite work out with many of them, because it was hard in Australia. So I guess, my mother was the bread winner I guess, and that’s what I saw my mum was the one to go to work every day, go home, cook, make sure that we had everything, our clothes, our stuff for school sorted. Yeah, my mother was the matriarch and she was very organised, I don’t ever recall, I guess, feeling any chaos or feeling a sense of I don’t know, not being organised kind of thing, even with our socialising, all birthday parties, all our birthdays were celebrated. You know, we had parties for all our birthdays, and it was lots of fun, lots of drinking. Whereas, with my dad’s family, which I met many many many years later, they’re a lot more serious and yeah, I’ll talk about that later but yeah, my mum was a main influence in my life, and there was three–there was myself and two sisters so yeah, it was a very feminine household as well.

So, the difference is I guess–from the onset, there wasn’t markedly different, but there is a difference, and I didn’t feel it when I was growing up because I didn’t really understand or know, as I say “you don’t know what you don’t know”, it’s more when I got to my teenage years and my twenties, when I had my first boyfriend, when I got married, that I realised the expectations or the, you know, norms of what it is to be a Sri Lankan woman. So with Sri Lankan cultures, it’s a lot more conservative. Women are–even though my mum’s quite outspoken, in Sri Lankan culture generally, woman are not encouraged to be outspoken or, they can work but not in management or in places of power, I guess, and the women generally and typically is the one that cooks, does the cleaning in the house, looks after the children. You know, my mum worked but she also played a huge part in the day to day kind of cooking and all that. My dad, when he cooked, it was a special kind of meal that he would cook, and yeah it was a big deal when he did cook, it was my mum that–yeah.

Another thing I’d like to say is when I go back to Sri Lanka, it’s even more apparent that I’m different, I’m different to the typical Sri Lankan. For example, the way we dress in Australia, I wear shorts, short skirts, or pants. In Sri Lanka, girls or females are not meant to wear short or pants, and in the streets you get ridiculed, you get teased by the men, it was often done in Sinhalese so I didn’t understand what they were saying, and my cousins or my mum would interpret, but basically, they would call me a boy because I’m wearing pants, but it was done in a derogatory way, it wasn’t done like, you know, here we wouldn’t care, but in Sri Lanka when someone says, “Oh, you’re dressed like a boy.” It’s an insult. So yeah, even the way we dress is judged for a woman. So, you know, growing up, I couldn’t wear things that were too long– too short, sorry, I couldn’t wear things that were too see through, I had to wear something underneath, and I guess now with my 9-year-old–so conscious of the fact that I have a 9-year-old daughter coming into adolescent/teenage years, and she loves wearing shorts and short skirts, which is fine, but I at the same time I don’t want to restrict her, but at the same time I guess I can hear myself sometimes saying what my mum used to say to me, my dad used to say to me, it was more my mum, she was more expressive and strict with our upbringing u guess, with what we wore and stuff. So, you know, I’ll make her wear probably a singlet underneath her  top or I’ll say, “That skirt is too short.” But then I’ll say, “aww,” you know, I guess watch myself? Because, I don’t want her to be too self-conscious either, because that’s what happens, that’s what happened to me when I was growing up as result, I became very self-conscious and very judgemental of other women, and judgemental of myself.

The thing is, with Sri Lankan women, they associate the way you dress with your morals, what you do–promiscuity that’s the word, exactly, and so like girls that don’t dress a certain way are judged very badly. I hear it with my mum and my aunties, still they do it, and you know even on the–the way it’s done is not only the people that they know, but on the TV, “Oh, look at her, look how she’s dressed!” it’s very judgemental.

Basically, the way we dress, the way we act, the way we speak and when we can speak, so I no longer hold, I will speak up if I have to say something. But growing up, I was constantly told to be quiet by my mum and my dad, or told afterwards, you know who we interact with, when I was growing up we couldn’t have friends who were boys kind of thing, it was all quite strict.

Now, my mum judges me as a parent, “Oh, why did you let Jazlyn–” that’s my daughter’s name, Jazlyn–“wear that to school? Why do you not give her this to eat instead? Why don’t you–?” You know, she’s constantly judging me as a parent, and I often have to remind her that I’m a different parent and a different generation to her, but my mum feels it’s her right to do that. I guess I’m very blessed that I have a very good mother-in-law, my mother-in-law is also a very strong women, she has a senior role in an aged care facility in Sri Lanka, and she separated from her–my husband’s father, so she does her own thing, but I guess she’s a role model for me as well, and I know that she’s a lot more open-minded and broad-minded than my own mum, so she’s of Burgher background.

I had my daughter 9 years ago, and wanted to have a break and then have my second one, but I guess I wasn’t lucky to have a second child and I’m constantly judged that I’ve only got one child. It’s almost like, “What’s wrong with you?” and I remember in the second year after my daughter was born, my mum was saying, “If you can’t have children, you know you can go talk to your doctor about going on IVF.” There was no conversation about, or even her thinking about the fact that it was my choice, that I didn’t want a second child, that it was my choice that I was on birth control again, because I didn’t want a second child straight away, I wanted to take a break before I had a second child. So yeah, there was definitely and judgment and an expectation placed on me as woman because I didn’t have a second one. and when I couldn’t have a second child, I felt awful and I think I felt–I guess I felt I was deeply hurt by the way that I was judged by my mum and by other people saying, “Oh, are you having your second one soon?” and I would say, “No.” the look that they gave me, it was either looking down upon me or pitying me because I didn’t have a second one. So one child is just not heard of you know, and now I get to the point where I just say, “I wasn’t lucky, the second time around.” And then they just stop talking, or I make a joke about it, about my husband not being able to deliver the goods I guess. So that’s how I kind of deal with it, humour, but there was a long time where it really did hurt me because I was still grieving over the fact that I wasn’t able to have a second child. So yeah, motherhood is a huge part of being a woman, and people talk about other women that don’t have children, like I said, condescendingly or pityingly, both I think are just as bad.

I think my, the crux or turning point, the catalyst of my life, was when I met my Dad’s family, I think I was about 25, 26 when I did that, and I made a trip to Canada to meet my Dad’s side of the family. So, my Dad’s family is Tamil, and Tamil which I didn’t realise until then, is quite different to the way I was brought up, and my Dad’s side of the family, while they’re accepted for the fact that we shared a blood line, there was no connection to my Dad’s family, but in particular the women. The women were quite traditional, quite subservient I guess, not in an abusive way, but the women didn’t question at all the husband. The woman was very much the homemaker, and a lot of women of Tamil background will stay at home until the children are in school, whereas with me, I went back to work when my daughter was like 6 months old, because I didn’t enjoy motherhood. Sorry, I know I’m touching upon the previous question, but motherhood wasn’t something I enjoyed or embraced. I guess, you know, many Sri Lankan women do, so I thought it was something wrong with me. Yeah, so that was a catalyst for me, because I questioned–at 25 I didn’t know it was okay that I’m different, so I thought something was wrong with me, that this is part, half of who I am, but I could not relate, I did not belong, I did not make any connection to the Tamil of me, and as I said the women in particular. They were very nurturing, very ‘homemaker’ you know, but it didn’t resonate with me, it didn’t resonate with what I stood for, what I expected, what I enjoyed in life.

So yeah, since then it’s been a struggle for me, and I’ve come to the point now where I accept that it’s half of who I am, but you know, it does not mean that I am any less or any worse off because I’m not traditional [the archetype of that] yeah, the typical Tamil women, you know. And in fact, I think now when I do meet other Tamil women, they kind of, I guess not look up to me like a role model or like I’m better than them, but I kind of have to mentor them in living in Australia, because they don’t–they find it a lot harder to adjust to living in Australia in terms of, like, what to give their kids for lunch for school, you know, what activities to do in the daytime when the kids are at school. Even getting a job, they wouldn’t even think of jobs outside of you know, but I can say, “Why don’t you look at doing some volunteer work?” because otherwise by the time their children reach school age, they would’ve lost that ability and skill for what they did prior to having kids. So, it’s having that conversation that it’s okay to work and be a mother, or work and be wife. But it is, you know, it’s hard to find the middle ground sometimes.

So I guess, after almost 35 years of living in Australia, I guess I am at a stage–cause I’ve worked in the of multicultural, working with multicultural communities and community development, and community services for the last 15 years, I feel I’m at a stage now where I can marry my two together. Being proud of my Sri Lankan heritage and being proud of the fact that of all three different ethnicities, but at the same time, adjusted to living in Australia and I guess having the best of both worlds, you what I mean. So with my daughter, raising her to be a strong young women, proud of her Sri Lankan heritage, but at the same time claiming her space in Australia, and sometimes I’ve got to almost remind her that she is Australian after all, she was born here, she is first generation Australian, because she loves our Sri Lankan food, she’s been back to Sri Lanka like 8 times, so she’s got a very strong connection to her parent’s homeland, but at the same time, I want her to not forget she’s Australia as well. Because, I think she’s probably got more to offer and more to embrace and I guess promote with her generation, of living in both worlds. Being proud of your heritage, but at the same time being Australian. And really, I think that word ‘Australian’ is so fraught, almost, so open to misinterpretation and also yeah, I guess judgement, because I don’t think ‘Australian’ means the same as when I was growing up, which was quite a White Anglo-Saxon, Protestant upbringing kind of thing. My daughter goes to the Hindu temple, because my Father is of Hindu background, but her Godfather is Hindu, so I want my daughter to be exposed to all cultures, so even though she’s of Sri Lankan background, she goes to African events, she goes to the Hindu temple, obviously she goes to Sri Lankan events, and she’s been to Muslim events, Eid celebrations because I want her to understand and value and celebrate the diversity that she is so lucky she’s grown up in.

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