My name’s Rushil, and the story I’m going to tell you tonight—it’s part coming of age story, and it’s part immigrant story. Because if there’s two things that I really hate, its coming of age stories, and immigrant stories. So I feel like I gotta put some sort of spin on it. Anyway, I came to Australia when I was eight, eight years old. Does anyone know where Coolgardie is? Yeah? So we moved to this small town called Coolgardie, I was eight years old, and there were five of us. So there was me, my older sister, my oldest brother, and then my mum and my dad. We didn’t have anyone else, we didn’t have friends or family, we just came here by ourselves. There were five of us, and really, at that time, that’s all that we needed. Now at that time my sister was 10 years old, and my older brother was 12 years old. So that kinda makes it easier for you guys to keep track, my sisters 2 years older than me, my brothers 4 years older than me. My mum was 37 and my dad 43.
But I have this theory about immigrants who come from different cultures—so it’s not about different countries it’s about moving different cultures—which is that, there’s this reset button that get hit on all your life experiences. Because suddenly everything that my parents knew about growing up in Malaysia and the time my dad spent in college in India. None of that mattered anymore, because the culture here was so different, he had to relearn everything from the start. They couldn’t really teach us how to navigate social situations, they couldn’t tell us how to go through schools. They couldn’t tell us what time the shops closed. None of these things mattered anymore and we had to all figure this out on our own. Added to this, my parents had to work really hard. My mum was a teacher, so she had to work school hours, and then also on top of that she had to come home after that make dinner for us, clean the house, we were so young we couldn’t do any of that stuff ourselves. And our dad was a doctor, so he worked at a surgery, and he would work all day at the surgery, and then at night he would be on call at the hospital, and they would just call him in, you know random hours in the night and he’d have to go.
So, my parents couldn’t really do the things that parents do with kids, at that age. Because they had to work to provide for us. And never did I begrudge them for that, never did I feel bitter because that’s just what I understood. I understood that that’s the way things had to be. And you watch a lot of movies where there’s like upper middle class white kids and they’re like. “Hahh daddy doesn’t spend enough time with me.”and growing up with all these issues. I never felt that way about my parents, it just always made sense that this was us. And this was the way things were. On top of that there was a third layer which is just that—generational differences we’ve all been through it. When you’re growing up your parents just don’t understand some things that you have to go through.
So when I was growing up being the youngest out of all of my siblings, I looked to my brother and sister in order to navigate these social situations in order to figure out where I was going and what I was doing with my life. And very quickly I learned that for us, we had to work harder, we had to work longer, we had to be more resilient, just to achieve this basic level of comfort that seems so easy for everyone else in Australia.
No one embodied that spirit of hard work more than my older brother. His name is Ashwin. And for some of you guys here tonight I don’t know if you’ve ever been here before to the Centre for Stories. But I’m here quite often, and you would’ve seen my sister Nisha, she’s here as well, she’s participated in a lot of things–but not a lot of people know that we do have an oldest brother as well. And he is the most hardworking person I know. He’s so goal orientated, he sets his sights on something and he just goes and he gets it and along the way he stresses himself half to death, just to achieve that. And when he was in like year eleven and twelve, my parents kinda tested this, there would be nights where he would just be—eleven or twelve at night—and he would be sitting at the kitchen table and just writing out his math equations and then erasing it, and writing it again and erasing it, and writing it again and erasing it. And you could measure how stressed he was at the end of the night by how many rubber erasings were all around. The table was a complete mess all the time.
Now, looking back—this is not something that I realised at the time—but looking back. Ashwin was definitely my best friend growing up. Not in the sense of best friend as—we didn’t talk about our personal things or the issues we were going through. We didn’t even get up to mischief together really. But it was just that things were so easy with him. We were into the same movies, we were into the same video games, we were into the same music. We didn’t really need to talk about all those other things because we had that. And so in that way in this completely new country and this new environment, he kinda just reminded me of home. And that’s all that it needed to be.
Now my parents also put my brother, my sister and I, through piano classes when we were younger because that’s what asian parents do, they put their kids through–you either play the piano, the classical guitar, the violin. And, Nisha never really took to it but Ashwin and I really did. And we used to play the–he used to play the piano for a youth group at church. And those year–the year just before he graduated when I joined the youth group because I need to take over from him. So I joined, so that he could transition out and just show me the ropes. And I remember those times when we used to play together, it was insane. The way that it sounded and the way that it felt. And then people would come up to us afterwards and just be like, “We were so moved, that was beautiful, how did you guys do that?” but that’s just how Ashwin and I operated. We didn’t need to talk to each other we didn’t even need to give each other queues or anything. He would just—He was the one who knew what he was doing so he would just be like, “B flat. Okay chorus. Nice.” and that’s how it would go and our melodies just flowed in and out of each other it was so seamless that was the synergy we didn’t need to talk about it. It just was. But if there’s one thing that everyone will tell you about my brother, everyone who came across him, was that he was very stressed out a lot of the time. It was this weight on his shoulders and there was this tiredness under his eyes, and I have such a vivid memory of my mum sitting him down one day and just rubbing his back and saying, “Son, life doesn’t need to be so hard.” And I remember looking at him and being like yeah like, relax it’s okay everything’s gonna be fine dude chill. Like it doesn’t have to be so bad. And then one day he left. He didn’t like run away or anything he just graduated and then went to uni, that’s what people do. So he left Kalgoorlie and he came up to Perth. I was in year ten at the time and I really didn’t think about throughout year ten. I didn’t feel anyway about it. I didn’t miss him. I didn’t text or message him because—Ashwin and I didn’t really text each other unless we were recommending a movie or a book or we had an actual question that the other person could answer that’s just the way that it was.
And then I went into year eleven—now, the school that I went to in Kalgoorlie was a private school, it only went up to year ten. So when I had to go to year eleven I went to a public school. And all of my friends still came with me we all went to the same school, but from this group of five boys suddenly we expanded to a group of fifteen boys. Fifteen teenage boys. And that’s when things started to click in my head. I started looking around and just noticing the conversations that everyone was having and realising that—the things I was into, they weren’t into, and the things that they were into I wasn’t into, at all. They weren’t into the same movies, they weren’t into the music, they weren’t into the books, and I’d never noticed it before because I’d always had Ashreem next to me and at the end of the day I’d always come home and there was my brother and it was familiar and it was easy and it didn’t matter what the world out there was like, because he was there. But it wasn’t like that anymore. And all they wanted to talk about was sports, and video games, and girls, and anyone who’s heard me speak knowns I don’t understand the obsession with sport, I don’t get it. Playing it is fine but watching it seems so mindless and boring I don’t understand. Video games. Ashwin and I used to play video games for fun because it had a good story and because it was fun to play with my brother, to have him sitting there—and all these guys wanted to be competitive about it, they wanted to be the best. And I was–that just took the joy out of everything. And girls, i had girlfiends and i had a lot of friends who were girls, but the obsession with sex and the culture around it, it just never made sense to me in that way.
And so, it was at this time, when I heard this little voice in my head that said “Hey, you don’t fit in, there must be something wrong with you.” and that voice kept getting louder and it came in so many different variations, but it was there constantly there nagging me, telling me that I didn’t fit in and that I wasn’t like any of these people and there wasn’t a space for me here. And so I did the only thing I knew how to do, which was, work hard, work long, and be resilient, that’s all I’ve been taught how to do since a kid. So I worked hard, not only at school but in my social circles as well. I had to be smarter, I had to be funnier, I had to be more interesting than everyone else, in order to be heard, in order to have some sort of space, in order to have some sort of voice for myself. And it was at that time, when I started to feel, this weight, this pressure, this claustrophobia of trying everyday to make a space for myself, trying to push all these voices out and just listen to what I wanted to listen to and do my own thing. It was at this time when I had to be conscious about standing up for the things I wanted to stand up for. And I remember, that was when I first started being conscious, and actually taking a stand against snide little racist comments that get passed off as banter in a group of boys. And it was at this time, that I had to take a stand when I heard jokes whispered after a girl in our school had committed suicide. And it was at this time when a fourteen year old aboriginal boy would run down from an adult white man in Kalgoorlie and I heard the rhetoric that, “Oh no the kid had stolen the bike.” and so not to say that he deserved it but really should the man be charged with anything because he really shouldn’t have done that. And I tried to speak out against these things.
But the things that I remember the most, is that for every one comment that I tried to stand up against. I let at least 5 slide by. I heard everything, I noticed everything, I just didn’t say anything, because I still had that voice in my ear that telling me just let it slide, and then you’ll fit in, and then maybe life won’t have to be so hard. It was just day in day out of this, and I would come home, and Ashwin was in Perth, and Nisha at that point had moved to university. And between my parents and I were just too many layers that I could not break through to try to talk to them about what was going on. So everyday I just felt tired and defeated, and depressed, carrying this weight, trying to make space for myself. The only thing that got me through was thinking I have two years here. I’ll get my grades up, I’ll get into med school, that’s it. I’m out boy. That’s all I need. And those two years became one and a half years, and then it was one year, then it was six months, then it was the WACE exams, then I was out. November, three years ago, as soon as my last WACE exams were over, I got the call that said, “Hey, you’ve got a place for the interviews at med school” and I never went back to Kalgoorlie. I said nah, that’s it, were done.
Earlier this year, I got a call from a friends mother, she said, “Hey, michael’s turning twenty one, would you come back down to Kalgoorlie I wanna throw him a surprise party.” I thought, shiiit—See Perth brought with it it’s own shower of problems, yeah sure I had to make space for myself here, and it had its own difficulties but I kept telling myself, if I can make it out of Kalgoorlie, I can do anything. Anything. You kidding me, I’m Iron Man. And I was faced with this opportunity to go back, and to face all those day and all those nights sleepless and I couldn’t do anything and I was fatigued all the time. And so I said, “yeah sure, we’ll be there we’ll come down, catch the train, come down on Friday we’ll go back on Sunday. It’ll be cool.” And inside I was hoping to save some sort of curiosity. I was hoping for some, like, closure. Some sort of explanation to figure out why I felt so miserable during my time there. I didn’t get any of that. I got no answers when I went back. What I did get was a pretty good time. And hanging out with my friends there wasn’t so bad but that just complicated everything even more. I was like, “Well why was my high school like that?” And so then I came back to Perth.
Many months passed, and then I realised that, Kalgoorlie’s a place, I can’t hate the place, that just doesn’t make sense. And I can’t hate the people either. Because I have friends from Kalgoorlie that I’m still friends with now and they’re pretty cool people, one of them is sitting right there. they’re not too bad.
It’s just that, for a certain type of kid, growing up in a certain type of place. You need to fight, and you need to muscle, and you need to make noise in order to be heard, and even then, nine times out of ten, no one gives a shit, because you are so foreign to their concept of what normal is supposed to be, that they don’t even think about it. And, I think about what my mother said to my brother, “Son, life doesn’t need to be so hard.” And for a certain type of kid growing up in a certain type of place, it does. Because being yourself is not a luxury that’s affordable to everyone. And so when I look at my brother, and I see the weight on his shoulders and the tiredness under his eyes, I understand that. Because for those two years that went by without him by my side. Without him paving the way for me, without him there for me to look up to. He had to put up with so much more, because he had absolutely no body.
Now, this story doesn’t have a sad ending it’s not a drama ending. Ashwin ended up graduating from UWA. and he went to Cambridge and currently lives in London. Where he seems to be pretty happy these days. He seems to have found a space for himself where he gets to be himself. Where his voice can be heard. And I’m standing in front of a room of thirty people listening to my story. So I guess for a couple of immigrant kids growing up in Kalgoorlie, we did okay.