Special thanks to Ashley Thomson for his excellent editorial help on this one!
I was born in a hospital in Suva, Fiji. I can’t recall ever seeing the building on my trips back to the city, first as a child or later as an adult. I imagine it in shades of blue and brown, the plastic waiting room chairs covered in the fine film of moisture that creeps over everything there. It is not a place I’ve thought of often, but I think of it now and wonder how it has shaped me.
I am Fijian-Indian, and have lived in Australia since I was three years old. I visited Fiji last month after several years of deliberate avoidance. It was the first time I’d visited my birthplace without family, and the difference was emphasised by the fact that I was travelling with my partner, and his family and friends.
In the lead-up to the trip, anxiety plagued my planning and packing. My own family had just started speaking to me again after eight months of near silence, the enactment of their disappointment in me for being with a white Australian. I was certain that the staff at the luxury resort we were staying at would judge me the same way my parents had, for stepping outside of cultural boundaries. I knew it would feel strange to be the only non-white person in the Australian tourist party, being served and waited on by people who looked like me, whose experiences I could have shared if my parents hadn’t been able to migrate to Australia.
There was also a sense of guilt: my whole life I had resented visiting Fiji. Each year my parents would plan an annual trip back ‘home’. We would visit family for weeks, battling the oppressive heat, going to functions and weddings, wearing Indian clothes and speaking Hindi exclusively.
I hated this forced cultural immersion. I spent all year trying to downplay my difference and fit in with my white Australian friends. And yet, each year, I would be forced to reengage with Fijian-Indian culture, separated from what I saw as normalcy: Australian summer afternoons at the pool.
The thought of going to Fiji of my own accord seemed farfetched. After my grandmother passed away in 2011 I thought I would never go back. When my partner’s sister planned her wedding for Fiji, I couldn’t understand the appeal.
But there was also a part of me that was excited. Memories came flooding back to me over the days leading up to our departure: the smell of sugar cane fields after harvest; the sticky vinyl seats on public buses with no glass in the windows, DIY air-conditioned; the mushy texture of dalo after being cooked for hours in the lovo firepit.
I was nervous but there was a pull, a strange sense of homecoming I hadn’t experienced before. Perhaps it was because of my new distance from my family, and the resulting feeling of forced disconnection from my Fijian-Indian heritage.
Fiji is where I was born, and this fact, which I had actively avoided in the past, started to take on new importance.
When the trip arrived I was on edge, a combination of nerves and anticipation. That first day I felt a rush of conflicting emotions as we travelled to the resort.
An air-conditioned bus took us from the airport in Nadi to Port Denarau where a water taxi awaited. The streets slipped by, the lush green leafery that sprawls across every visible piece of land in Fiji creeping to the sides of the road, trailing up the corners of buildings.
On the bus were my partner, his family and the rest of the 20-person wedding party, all in high spirits at the beginning of our week away. The group was all Caucasian except me. My skin is brown, my hair the same frizzy black as the Fijians (both Indian and kaiviti*) who walked on the footpaths outside sleepy stores, who stood at bus stops with distracted expressions, or who played energetic games of rugby on the ovals we drove past.
It felt strange to be sitting on the bus while everyone who looked like me was on the other side of the window, occupying a world completely unlike mine. I tried to feel a sense of connection. Everything looked familiar but nothing struck a chord.
Fiji was home for me for three years of my life. It was where I took my first steps, learnt my first words. Where two grandfathers and a grandmother died, where both of my parents were born and lived for more than half of their lives. I had an overwhelming sense of displacement, watching the distant hills slip out of view as we drove. The bus paused at an intersection and I watched a young kaiviti man walk down the street. He looked up and our gazes caught for a moment. He smiled and waved, and I waved back.
We were staying on Vomo, a privately owned island in the Mamanuca region, all lush foliage and white sand, sprawling coral reefs in the shadow of Mt Vomo which rises on the eastern side of the island.
That first day, I was trepidatious as our taxi boat pulled onto the beach. A waiting party of kaiviti staff sang to us as we were helped off the boat, and it made me feel uneasy to see the grass skirts, the hibiscus flowers behind every ear, the practiced way they all shouted ‘Bula!’ in greeting. The commercialisation of kaiviti culture felt awkward to me, and I worried that by participating in the morally fraught tourism industry in Fiji, I was contributing to the broader issue of indigenous cultures being tokenised the world over.
Being a fellow brown person and having the staff serve me, carrying my bags and offering me a wet towel and a drink, was even more awkward. I had somehow crossed the white-brown barrier to the side of privilege, a feeling that I battle every time I take a cab driven by an Indian man or see an Indian woman cleaning the floors at my local shopping centre.
‘Why me and not them?’ I often think. If we had stayed in Fiji I would probably be working on a resort or at my parents’ small business. Perhaps, if I was lucky, I would have been able to study teaching or business admin at TAFE. Luck and circumstance mean that I have a university education, an Australian passport and a middle-class existence.
That my parents worked hard and were intelligent enough to get scholarships to universities overseas is not actually that unique. The guilt I am used to is amplified every time I visit my cousins in Fiji, whose parents tried for years to migrate to New Zealand or Australia but had the ill fortune of bad timing. Migration laws in Australia are an ever-tightening noose, making it harder and harder for migrants unable to satisfy Australian skill shortages to obtain visas. When I would stay at my uncle’s house in Suva, where two of my cousins shared a tiny bedroom with my grandmother and my uncle earned as little as $2 an hour driving a taxi, my guilt would plague me, manifesting in the books and clothes and Australian lollies we would take as gifts.
At Vomo this guilt became a constant, uncomfortable buzz in my ears. I overcompensated by rushing to carry my own bags, saying ‘thank you’ too much and smiling in an over-the-top, almost pained way. Whether anyone noticed is impossible to say, but I couldn’t accept my role as pampered tourist, not in the country that produced me only a few degrees of opportunity from the kaiviti staff at the resort.
That first night there was a traditional kava welcoming ceremony. The staff brewed the pungent, mildly sedative drink while guests looked on. They stirred the kava, explaining the cultural significance of the drink, and came around to offer a taste to everyone. The rest of the guests seemed interested, excited to be there, enthusiastic to learn about the kava.
I sat towards the back of the crowd. For me, kava wasn’t some mild novelty at an island resort. It was the drug that had ostensibly consumed one uncle’s life, as he became increasingly addicted to it, unable to handle an evening without it, and spending his nights in a hazy stupor after drinking an entire bowl full himself.
Growing up, I knew not to look when my uncle got up after dinner and disappeared to the porch with his kava, bowl and cheesecloth. It wasn’t taboo to talk about his addiction but I knew my mother and father disapproved, and kava took on a sinister quality.
Sitting there, I remembered the sharp words between my mother and uncle on trips back to Fiji. I never knew the exact context of his addiction – how much he drank, his motives – but with kava available throughout Fiji and consumed without much thought to long-term health consequences, I do know that it wasn’t seen as a problem by those outside our family.
Sitting there, watching the ceremony and the easy way the western tourists consumed their kava, joking about the numbing effect it had on their tongues, I felt a helpless anxiety.
How different my perspective was. The disconnect between these elements of Fijian culture and the realities of life for average Fijians was so stark in that moment. I couldn’t enjoy the grass skirts, the warrior dances, the kava ceremony in the same way because they were markers of my birthplace, of a culture to which I once belonged, one burdened with an unstable political system, a problematic history built on slavery and racial tension, and a widening gap between the rich and the poor.
I spent the evening in a tense almost-silence, determined not to ruin the event for the rest of our group but increasingly stressed about the remainder of the trip.
Our villa at Vomo was the highest on the island, set against the back of Mt Vomo. I was surprised by the lack of frogs and lizards. ‘On the mainland,’ I told my partner, ‘you can barely walk without stepping on a frog.’
Was that true? Maybe frogs and lizards were a seasonal plague – I had almost always come to Fiji during summer. Or maybe it was something to do with the ecosystem on Vomo in particular. I didn’t know the answer. It made me uneasy to be unsure, a reminder that I might be from Fiji but I wasn’t really of Fiji.
The view from our balcony was incredible – the sea a smooth expanse, with the distant shadowy form of another island on the horizon. Palm trees and foliage covered the near ground – the view was distinctly Fijian, and breathtaking.
I stood out there in the morning, drinking in the view. I yearned to connect to this country again. None of the staff on the island had asked me where I was from – they were almost all kaiviti and they accepted me as part of the Australian wedding party without any real question.
One waiter asked me where I was from as he served me at dinner and was excited to hear I was born in Suva. There was none of the judgement I was expecting for being a Fijian-Indian born girl, here with her white Australian partner.
In Australia we’re used to sideways glances and even open hostility from Indian-Australians who see our relationship as an aberration, a breaking of cultural codes of the worst kind. I was expecting similar uneasiness at Vomo. That trip was my first time entering the cultural zone out of which my choices had pushed me. I thought the consequences would be felt. Yet, no one looked askance at us once.
I was surprised by this version of Fiji. The veneer of the resort – three gourmet meals every day, the sun playing along the coastline, the polite measured tone of our interactions with staff – was enchanting. Fiji felt inviting, alluring even.
The complete separation of Vomo from the realities of life in Fiji had worked its magic. Away from the streets, the poverty and poor infrastructure, the judgmental gaze of Fijian-Indians, I found a sort of peace with my birthplace that I hadn’t had before.
We talked about coming back, just the two of us. We could make it what we want it to be, I said. I could have a connection to my birthplace without having to engage with every aspect of the culture.
By the final day of our stay at the resort, there was a swelling of affection in me for Fiji. For so many years I had battled the part of my identity that was born there. At first because I wanted to fit in with my white Australian friends, and later because of my own family’s rejection of my choices, I assumed that I would never be welcome in Fijian-Indian culture again.
But Vomo had changed all of that. This Fiji was an accepting one, without the cultural conditions I had come to expect. It might have been a connection with a false construct, with a product of the country’s forceful and primarily foreign-owned tourism industry, but it felt powerful at the time.
Leaving Vomo, I decided I didn’t have to give up this connection. I told myself I could be Australian and Fijian, both, without losing something in between the two cultures.
The final day of the trip, we travelled back to Nadi to stay one night before an early morning flight to Sydney. It was late afternoon when we arrived and were taxied to our mid-range hotel.
The city looked more like the Fiji I knew – the streets crumbling and crooked in parts, the air dusty. The further you got from the airport, the more real it looked.
I was still filled with my sudden and euphoric love for the country and we decided to go exploring in Nadi town. I said I wanted to see the ‘real’ Fiji before we left.
I set out with my partner and his brother in a taxi into town. The driver was Indian, and he barely glanced at me as we clambered into the back. He chatted with the boys, asking them where they were from. When one pointed out that I was born in Fiji, the driver’s tone changed.
‘Yeah? In Suva? Which suburb did you live in?’
I opened and closed my mouth. I had no idea what suburbs there even are in Suva. I had been there so many times but the geography of the city was unknown to me.
When we got to the town centre we started walking the streets, glancing into shop windows. It was a slightly desperate attempt to find something authentic in what is ultimately a shopping district in an airport city.
The atmosphere on the street was not friendly – gone was the measured politeness of the kaiviti staff on Vomo. Indian shop owners stared at me, judgment clear in their eyes. Some called out as we passed, ignoring me to speak directly to the boys, inviting them to view trinkets and Hawaiian shirts.
At one point a young man yelled out, staring straight at me, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘I was born here,’ without really thinking.
He sneered, now looking at the boys. ‘You don’t look like you’re from Fiji.’
We walked away. Did he mean that I didn’t look like I was from Fiji, or that my partner and his brother didn’t? I felt jarred, out of place.
I longed to see something familiar – my grandparent’s farmhouse with its broad front verandah. The small bridge we had to cross in Suva to reach the movie cinema. The steep cement path to my uncle’s old house, which we would trail up single-file after a day of shopping. Despite my sudden desire to discover Fiji for myself, the uncertainty I felt that afternoon in Nadi forced me to acknowledge that my only real connection to Fiji had been forged through my family – and was intrinsically linked to them.
We caught a taxi back to the hotel. My head was roiling with conflicting thoughts. Those few hours in Nadi had brought me thudding back to earth. I would never be accepted in Fiji, not now that I had chosen to break cultural boundaries and be with a white man. I was the Other now, the example parents use to forewarn their daughters. It’s like what my mum said to me, warning me against having a white Australian partner: ‘You’ll be an outcast in our culture.’
For her, and for most Indian migrants living in any other country, ‘our culture’ was mutually exclusive of any western culture we resided within. It referred only to the traditions that we lived by in our home countries, and that we pushed constantly against mainstream society to maintain in our adopted homes.
But for me, ‘our culture’ felt forced, a society and set of rules that didn’t apply. I always felt that my parent’s insistence that we visit Fiji every year was a sort of immunisation against us becoming too westernised. With me, it had clearly failed.
After the rift with my parents grew, however, and the realities of being an ‘outcast’ became apparent in the judgement of strangers, I realised the loss I had dealt myself by stepping so far away from my cultural heritage.
In Nadi that afternoon, I had my first experience of ostracism in a setting where I had never before been a minority. I was so used to blending in when I was in Fiji that being so conspicuous, walking with my partner, made me feel a far stronger sense of discomfort than I had ever felt in Australia.
The taxi driver on the way back to the hotel was openly rude, refusing to look at me and speaking bluntly about the unfairness of his work, his terrible wages, the need to survive off tips from passengers. His tone was derisive and his dislike of all three of us – foreigners that we were – was palpable.
I sat in the back seat, my teeth gritted, mentally debating whether to leave him a tip. I remember thinking, ‘This man is odious, but he isn’t lying when he says he earns $2 an hour and can’t afford to visit his daughter in Australia.’ As always, my guilt at being one of ‘the lucky ones’ was inescapable. Despite his rudeness to me, I knew I would give him a tip.
When we got out of the car he told us the fare was $10, so I gave him $20. For the first time he looked at me.
I nodded and climbed out of the car. He had the grace to look a little startled, perhaps a bit awkward.
‘Thank you,’ he said.
That night I lay in our sterile hotel room and cried, trying to explain why the afternoon had upset me so much. My partner was concerned, but also confused – why did I want to belong here so much? Why did it matter, when my home is Australia, when I am Australian?
‘You don’t know how much it means to go somewhere where everyone looks like you,’ I said. ‘To not be the only brown person in the room, or one of three brown people on the bus.’
I wanted to fit in, to belong in Fiji. Being Fijian-Indian is a constant marker of my difference in Australia. But being Australian precludes me from ever truly belonging in Fiji or India. My lived experiences are influenced by all of these facets of my cultural identity to the extent that it is forged more out of difference than any connection to one of the three countries that have created me.
I am a no one, a no-countryman.
The fact is, other than looking different, my experiences of being Fijian-Indian have been primarily marked by what I couldn’t do, not by cultural differences worthy of celebration.
Yes, I ate different food growing up, and went to Indian weddings, and spoke Hindi at home. But for me, those things didn’t encapsulate ‘being Fijian-Indian’ as much as all the ‘Australian’ things I wasn’t allowed to do: drinking alcohol, going to sleepovers with friends, dating, wearing certain clothes, listening to certain music. When I thought of myself as Fijian-Indian, it was more as a marker of my being ‘not Australian’, or not really Australian.
When I really think about it, I don’t even know what ‘belonging’ in Fiji could possibly mean, considering the cultural norms of the country are so often at loggerheads with my personal beliefs and value system.
But ‘belonging’ in Australia isn’t as simple as taking on ‘Australian values’ (whatever that means) either.
I spend my days in Australia fielding questions from well-meaning (and sometimes ill-meaning) strangers about where I’m ‘from’, where I’m ‘really from’ and what my ‘background’ is. I look different, therefore I am different – it’s the assumption most people act on.
Different from what, though? In my hometown, more people are shades of brown and olive than the pale white of the British who colonised Australia. And Indigenous Australians, the first to occupy this land, can never be the norm in a country that systematically tried to eradicate them at worst, and ignores them at best.
So who am I different to? Although our white-washed media portrays a different image, Australia is shades of so many colours that it’s hard to stand out or fit in.
My desire to fit in to Fijian culture during this trip was driven more by my emotionally fraught relationship with my parents, and my desire to prove that I’m not actually an ‘outcast’ in the culture I was born into, than a real sense of unbelonging in Australia.
Fabricating a sense of connection with Fiji from six days spent on an island resort was impossible, especially if 24 years of visiting the country had made no lasting mark.
My identity, I was reminded once again, is more complex than where I was born, where I live, where my genetic ethnicity originates from.
When our plane touched down on our return, I felt a sense of relief. This was a landscape I recognised, the Sydney Airport security system I knew so well. This was undeniably home, despite my identity crisis.
When we got to Customs, I had a moment of bizarre, patriotic pride as I walked down the ‘Australian Passport Holder’ line. Fiji is where I was born, and Indian is what I look like. But Australia is all I have ever known.
Image: Zoya Patel