When I was younger, I was forced to go to church. Most of the congregation was from Taiwan, many of them international students. At the end of each service, time was allocated to pray for those who may have needed a little more divine assistance. More often than not, this included a plea from those seeking a positive outcome from their applications for permanent residency.
As I grew older, I came to understand the importance of ‘getting a PR’. For many of these young people, permanent residency meant hope, opportunity, the ability to better themselves. The myth of the Australian dream was (and is) still well and truly alive. The journey, however, can be longer and tougher than anticipated. It is one that is coloured by racism, a yearning for home, and a persistent questioning of the decision to move to this new country.
Over time, I became acquainted with their stories, and through Roanna Gonsalves’s The Permanent Resident, I have been introduced to some more.
The Permanent Resident is a collection of sixteen short stories that provide brutally honest reflections on the way Australia treats its immigrants. Though Gonsalves’s characters are primarily from the Indian subcontinent, their experiences are no doubt shared by many who migrate to Australia. Gonsalves explores the pervasive pull of assimilation, which eventually manifests in the actions and words of immigrants-cum-citizens.
In ‘Full Face’, the opening story, a woman recalls her husband, Anil, asking Gloria, a family friend and the couple’s host for their first few weeks in Australia, “A-bor-iginals are like the SCSTs in India, right? They have reservations here for jobs?” Gloria, originally from Bombay, replies: “they get a lot from the government. You name it they get it. But still they are not happy,” echoing sentiments surely familiar to all Australians. Interestingly, the protagonist in this story, who remains unnamed, does not feel completely at home in Australia even after living and working in the country for some time. Many of Gonsalves’s characters share this sense of unease, as they share the experience of being, looking, and sounding foreign in a country they are not sure wants them in the first place.
Gonsalves takes fears that are spoken about only behind closed doors, and brings them unapologetically into the open. There are anxieties around visas and permanent residency, difficulties finding work, and marital strains that often result in domestic abuse and divorce. Aspects of these stories are familiar to me. My father was a well-respected land surveyor, in charge of over three hundred people and his own department when he lived in Kuala Lumpur. After migrating to Australia, for a brief stint he was a real estate agent, and after I was born, he became a stay-at-home dad. He adjusted well to what could be perceived as a demotion in status, but this was a choice he made willingly. Many in these stories, like Nina’s husband, Deepak, in ‘The Dignity of Labour’, are forced to take more menial jobs, and do not adjust so well to the change. Deepak blames Nina for his misfortunes, calling her “a skanky bitch”, and this verbal abuse eventually escalates into physical abuse.
Gonsalves tackles the multi-faceted nature of racism, and she is good on the violence of racist slurs. The story ‘Curry Muncher 2.0’ not only explores the impact of racist abuse on an individual, but on other members of the community who may choose to stand idle for the sake of self-preservation. The unnamed female protagonist in this story is relieved that four men on a train do not seem interested in her, but she attempts to distance herself from her colleague and friend, Vincent, as they call him ‘Tendulkar’, and a “fucking motherfucking curry muncher … fucking curry faggot.” She eventually intervenes, but not before Vincent has been physically assaulted, and in the weeks following the incident, he carries on as if nothing had happened. As she laments:
he was just a person, longing, like everyone else, for release into some Eden where he could be happy. The path to that happiness involved a foreign education, permanent residency, a comfortable house in his name. He had learned yet again that this path would have to be negotiated with a thick skin, a blind eye, an evaporating footprint.
Gonsalves acknowledges that racism is not just white against black, or in this case, white against brown. The invisible strands of tension that exist between and within immigrant communities can be just as harmful as the taunts from Anglo-Australians. In ‘Cutting Corners’, a young mother, Brenda, meets art historian Myron. When introducing himself to Brenda’s friends, it is revealed that Myron is from Karachi, Pakistan. There is an uncomfortable silence, broken only by Myron’s assertion that he is of “Goan background”. Only then is there “a sigh of relief”. Even though one of the women, Aunty Felina, replies by saying “no problem. Whether you’re Goan, Mangalorean, East India, no one bothers about that here in Australia,” it is clear it is a problem. Racism is not an issue that can be waved away simply by saying ‘we are all Australian’.
My parents have lived in Australia, in Brisbane, for the past twenty-five years. But because Malaysia does not allow for dual citizenship, my parents have been and are still permanent residents. Their reasoning was sound – the only difference between them and Australian citizens was a piece of paper and a different coloured passport, but lately it seems as though my mother has been rethinking the decision to hang onto her Malaysian passport. “I’m considering becoming a citizen,” she said, out of the blue, after Christmas lunch. I nodded, and the conversation moved on but afterwards I found myself worrying about how my mother would do on the citizenship test. I was concerned that this ‘test of Australian values’ would find her wanting, disregarding the taxes she had paid, the money she had invested into her business, and the connections she had made in the years she had spent here.
I wondered if my mother was Australian enough for white Australia. I wondered if white Australia considered her ‘successfully assimilated’ into Australian society.
Assimilation is a word that has re-emerged in public discourse, thanks to the resurgence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. Indeed, One Nation’s policy on multiculturalism states:
One Nation intends to abolish multiculturalism and the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 based on the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination … We would replace it with a policy of assimilation.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines assimilation as “the process of taking in and fully understanding information or ideas … the absorption and integration of people, ideas, or culture into a wider society or culture.” This definition overlooks the insidious nature of such “absorption and integration”, and the ways in which this affects communities at large.
‘The Skit’, the second story in The Permanent Resident, is a cleverly manipulated metaphor for assimilation. The eponymous skit is written by Lynette, and tells the story of a young Indian girl who comes to Australia on a student visa, is treated extremely unfairly, sexually assaulted, and eventually deported to India. Gonsalves’s portrayal of the way in which Lynette’s friends eventually convince her to dump her story altogether parallels the ways in which some migrants renounce their cultures and backgrounds in order to ‘become more Australian’. After all, “why a fatwa [à la Salman Rushdie] when you’ve spent so much, waited so long, worked so hard for permanent residency?”
And therein lies the rub. The Australian dream may be a myth, but it is still something that many strive for. Permanent residency is the first step to achieving such a dream, and assimilating into ‘Australian culture’ makes it just that much easier to get a foot in the door.
The release of The Permanent Resident is timely, considering the renewed anxieties regarding immigrants in Australia and around the world. It tells gut-wrenching, emotional stories to which all immigrants—not just those of the Indian diaspora—can relate. Gonsalves shows how difficult it is to be a part of any diaspora. There are no hard and fast rules, no guidelines to follow to ensure a smooth transition, or a minimal amount of suffering.
However, Gonsalves’s stories—like many stories and novels I have read by Asian Australian writers—are all set in Sydney, an overrepresented city in Australian literature. While it is not Gonsalves’s responsibility to represent the breadth and depth of diversity of Asian Australians, because there are myriad ways of being Asian in Australia, I hope that in time, there will be similar stories set in Perth, Adelaide, my home city of Brisbane, and in rural Australia. I hope that these stories and these cities too will be considered ‘Australian enough’.
Yen-Rong Wong is a Brisbane-based writer. She is the founder and editor in chief of Pencilled In, a magazine dedicated to showcasing the work of young Asian Australian artists. When she is not writing, you might find her on Twitter, drinking tea, or chasing after her cat, Autumn.