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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.

Kanchana Rughoo is from Mauritius and is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Actuarial Science and Statistics from Curtin University. Like many international students, Kanchana struggled with assimilating into Australian culture and found it difficult to establish a community amongst her Mauritian peers.

Kanchana is a very charismatic person who has a love for oversized jhumkas and funky earrings. Her vibe is highly contagious and she comes bearing positivity wherever she goes. She knows the best bars (and bartenders) in town, and is always down to dance and loves to explore exotic cuisines. In this interview, Kanchana discusses mental health and how she managed to carve a niche of her own.


What was your experience of moving to Australia for study?

I grew up in a family where my mom had studied outside, and a lot of my aunts and cousins have studied outside. So, from when I was young, my mom had already made us independent in the sense that, hey, if we needed some groceries she would just send us and be like, ‘go grab this’ or say school supplies, we would just go by ourselves, take the bus. So, that wasn’t much of a difference in terms of going shopping by myself, or doing the laundry by myself. I think what made a difference for me, was more on what I would say as in Australian culture, would be the learning style in university. The cooking style, perhaps. The supermarkets here are different compared to the supermarkets back home;

And also just about anything else I would say it does make a big difference. So learning style, it makes a big difference because here, it’s much more concentrated on self-learning. So I had to do a lot of my stuff by myself—I had to look up stuff for myself. I had to talk to people and try to find it for myself, so that was definitely a big difference. And also, when you get in a class—sometimes most of them, especially those who are citizens here, or the residents here—they leave school with a group of friends. They already know the friends, so it’s definitely hard to kind of find a group of people that you can talk to or chill and have fun with.

They are very close knit, they might be talkative and fun, but at the end of the day it’s very rare that they let you in, or even if you are, Australians, are very selective, not just Australians but any culture.

And I think as of culture, it was more, it wasn’t a shock—but it was just learning how much depth, it had, compared to seeing it at home. So before I turned 18, I would still walk around the city and see people getting to clubs, pubs, or just any other place, you would see very packed and that was the perception I had, or just people going out having fun. But after 18, when I was allowed in such places, you would see that its not just going out and having fun, obviously there is this drug use, alcohol specific, drugs and whatnot, but definitely it’s not a shock as to how much of a difference there is. In Mauritius, people still do drugs. But you would be surprised as to how much more open it is here.

Compared to back home I feel like here it’s much more stricter, but then also, once you get in, it is much more looser than those places at home. I didn’t have much of a culture shock because, even in Mauritius, I was always learning what other cultures were and seeing how things are.

Did any stark differences stand out to you while settling into Australia? Like, language for example?

The language, yes! It wasn’t difficult. It was funny. The first six to eight months, coming here, I didn’t really know anyone. One, obviously I was younger, and two, I didn’t want to let go of what I felt I was. I wanted to share who I was as a person.

But what I saw a lot of people doing at that point was, how many people let go of who they were. People are bound to change sure, but how much of a difference that made just because they wanted to do that. Even if it was crossing the line for them. And yeah, you do need to cross the line at some point, you need to get out of your comfort zone. But then, for me it was just how crazy how by day, let’s say you were with me you would act how you are, and then by night you’d just switch into that person that they themselves wouldn’t agree with.

A photograph of Kanchana. They are standing in a beautiful garden of autumn leaves on trees.

So what things did you keep from your culture and what things did you adapt?

When you push yourself out, it feels forced. Yeah, but for me it wasn’t that. I am an introvert, I was an introvert—I still am—but the big difference between there and now is when I came here I was much more confident.

Like, let’s just say ethnic wear, you don’t see it often here. But for me, I took great pride in it because I’m like hey, first of all, this is like, it is not being related to religion or anything. This is such a beautiful fabric. It took hours to make, so many people get together every day to make it. I’m proud of wearing. So for me I never had a problem of, for instance wearing traditional wear outside, I would not wear like the Lehenga dresses and go to uni. Definitely not like the decked out one. But like simpler ones and go to uni and have people be like hey, this looks really nice.

Because my whole life, that was one of the things that I loved. It came mostly from like admiring how well the work is done, how appreciating like hey there are people that make such beautiful things. Yeah, maybe I’d feel a bit awkward wearing a sari or not because of how everyone would perceive it. No, I’d be like, Hey, this is a bit overdressed for university. But like anything else, a Kurti with jeans. That wouldn’t be a problem for me because for me I’m like hey this is really comfortable to me.

I am someone who, when I first came here, I had a total of 50 dresses;  Collared buttons, long leg cuffs. I just wear them with heels, walk to uni and go to classes and then walk into the library and be like that idiot who wore heels in the library.

Yeah, I would do that, and I still do that now. Because for me, it’s not that clothing gave too much importance, no, but I feel comfortable. I loved that, and I feel confident wearing ethnic wear in uni, because for me—like, no matter what anyone said what anyone pointed out—I do admit, I have gotten unfavourable comments from Indians themselves, those who knows that culture. For someone who knows, and this was a shock to me where I’ll be like, hey, those people should like it more, I mean you are sharing something from their culture. Other people like Australians or Thai people, or other cultures would say, “hey, you look really nice in this”, “where did you get this?” “what made you wear this?” and things like that. But when it came from people that knew that culture, or shared the same traditions around it, they would be like, “yo, why are you wearing this?” like, why wouldn’t I? This is beautiful I like wearing it. This is one of my most comfortable things to wear.

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

So when I started learning things, I thought was Australian—like doing brunch or water rafting or stuff like that. Mauritian people do that, but its only on occasion. When I first started experiencing it, I found joy in doing these things. Lately, my mental health hasn’t been the best. I haven’t been feeling the way I used to. When I really learned what the culture was, I saw difference in who I was, and also in how much my mental health changed. I found people who liked the same thing I did, the same food I eat, the same restaurants and stuff like that, so definitely it was positive. But also, I think going down the line there, there were a lot of stuff that impacted and in a negative way and I am not grudging against it. You need to have higher goals in life and right now I am not the best as it is, and with the current situation, you can’t do so much.

When I was back home, there were certain things that would not be considered appropriate. The weight that I am, the way my body is, it would not be considered appropriate. But coming here no one questioned me about that. “Hey, you don’t look beautiful because you don’t fit a size.” So that was definitely one confidence boosting aspect of it. That was really good.

How do you cope with homesickness?

Homesickness really was there for me when I was actually sick, physically sick. Because when you’re sick back home, you have like a parent or people taking care of you. Yeah, while being shouted at for not being careful. Sure. But it was mostly them. Like I said, we always grew up independent, so we knew from a very young age that hey, there is this big possibility of us going to a different country and study over there.

I can’t speak for other people. But I can speak for the way I grew up. And I’ll say for me, I think we feel that way because I grew up with it and it didn’t make much of difference. I wouldn’t feel homesick it’s definitely the one time when I got homesick is when someone wasn’t feeling well back home. Like a parent or a grandparent, who is unwell. Like when my grandfather passed away last year, I would say it definitely was like that at times. These are times when people need to be together, so at times you feel homesick. There are other people supporting you at that time and making you feel better.

What hardships did you face in establishing communication with peers?

I have certain things that might feel familiar to them, but might be very distant to me. And there are other things, where for me feels really familiar, for example, a way of talking or way of addressing someone. But to them it might be very distinct and unfamiliar. But I’ve definitely learned that through years of going to events, doing research—which is very important actually—and just depending on that, there are also people that are gifted and can do that, in a minute. I wasn’t like that at the start I wasn’t like that in a way. I was in a certain group and certain society, you don’t really know how to act. But then, when you come in here and you’re in a whole different country and different people, you end up learning.

You learn how to read a room, you learn how to read it well. It takes work.

It’s not something you’re gonna learn in a minute. But it’s something that with time and work and effort, obviously takes effort to do. This is very similar, where you have to learn them, you have to realize you have met some people at certain age at certain times of their lives. And so you have things that they’re not going to share with you.

Because, obviously. They have priorities, which was the same for me personally. It’s about finding that. When I first saw that it doesn’t always work out, and that’s fine. There’s nothing else to do except, learn and grow from it. Definitely in terms of personal relationships, I would say, patience is the biggest hurdle.

You know how there are some people you just meet them and you just click with them? Yeah, that is true, that happens. And there are also people that you love and have a lot of differences with. Then at the end of the day, you respect each other’s opinions. So it takes a lot of that too. What a lot of people don’t realise is, just because you have a lot of differences, doesn’t mean you have to be like that. It’s totally fine as long as you respect each other’s opinion, and you’re willing to listen and not judge without seeing the full picture.

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