Melbourne-based author-illustrator Nash brings new light to the Australian immigrant experience in his hilarious and insightful debut book, What to Expect When You’re Immigrating. Here, Nash shares how he learned that comedy can help make even the most difficult topics more approachable.
After moving to Australia from Sri Lanka in 2012, I spent my first few years here constantly looking out for a slight or a misplaced word that might reveal the true feelings of the people around me. It was a paranoia fuelled by the stories from fellow past migrants and a desire not to experience an unpleasant encounter based solely on the colour of my skin.
There were times this exhausting practice was justified, but in hindsight those moments were few and far between. Before long I was living my life based on an unfounded bias of my own. I look back at my encounters during those years and wonder about the many relationships I may have hindered due to my suspicions, as well as the unhealthy relationships I fostered because of someone’s complexion. ‘If they look like me – they have to be on my side, right?’ I remember asking myself, despite evidence to the contrary.
I had to consciously make an effort to break out of that mindset. The paranoia, although just a few years old, had become a prominent filter through which I viewed most of my interactions. A sharp increase in the media’s focus on race only served to reinforce this filter.
The more critical I was of my own paranoia, the more I saw the humour in the way the people around me still held onto their own. I was able to find light in the ‘microaggressions’ that I might have once found extremely offensive. For example, I was advised by my own relatives and friends (both in Sri Lanka and Australia) to trim my beard because I might be identified with a certain religious group. The conversations that ensued where they tried to justify this request without admitting their own bias were comical and hopefully enlightening.
It didn’t take long to find the humour in the simpler things I hadn’t noticed while I had my guard up. Being from Sri Lanka, I was the proud owner of an extremely long name that rarely fit into the space provided on official documents, which resulted in a variety of nicknames throughout the first few years.
Varying definitions of what constitutes ‘spicy’ were another constant source of laughter and surprise amongst my peers. When I started living in shared houses where there could be up to five different nationalities living under the same roof, it was easy to see how the acceptance of our cultural differences actually reinforced our friendships.
Immigration has always been a fraught topic in Australia, with all sides too afraid to say what they think in fear of getting something wrong. It would be a shame to live in a multicultural society but be unable to learn from and about the different cultures due to a fear of being misinterpreted. Whether it be finding humour in self-critique or the shared humour of a similar experience with someone of a different culture, there is no better foundation than humour to build these cultural bridges.