This memoir was submitted to the SBS Writers Competition 2021. Although it didn’t receive a prize, I was grateful for the opportunity to enter it as it’s been a story I’ve been wanting to write for years. I have enjoyed writing this so much, that I have now decided to write a full memoir of my life once I no longer have business responsibilities. Thank you to all the people who encouraged me to write my story and to those who helped me edit it. You know who you are.
“Hon, do you understand what’s going on with mummy right now?” I asked my sleepy seven year old as I was tucking him into bed.
“Yes. It’s like this mummy. You were a brown kid growing up with a white family and now you’re a brown picture on a brown piece of paper.”
I was 33 and had met my Fijian-Indian family for the first time.
My Dutch mother and Fijian-Indian father were married in the 60’s. Traditionally, Indian men would marry within their own culture, so it was rare at the time for an Indian man to marry a white woman in Australia. It was also 1965 and the White Australia Policy that was enacted in 1901 was still in place. It’s a term encapsulating a set of historical racial policies that aimed to forbid people of non-European ethnic origins, especially Asians and Pacific Islanders, from immigrating to Australia. It was likely that the only way my father could live here was to marry a white Australian woman.
The union was fraught with pain, domestic violence and alcohol abuse. My father came into her life with issues that intensified as time went on. I was born in 1966 and my brother in 1969. My mother chose to stick around long enough to give me my brother so I had a sibling who looked like me. After he was born, my mother found the courage to leave. A white Australian woman, in her 20’s, on her own, with two children of colour.
My mother came from a Catholic family where divorce was frowned upon. It was also a time when women who were in a domestically violent relationship weren’t supported or understood. To save the shame and embarrassment, she was encouraged to say that my father had died. It was also the story my brother and I were told and a way to explain our skin colour.
My mother met my Australian stepfather when I was six. He was a gentle, friendly bloke with a thick, black moustache and a calm, logical manner. He loved us as though we were his own. His family embraced us, and I loved them dearly.
After my mother remarried, we moved to a small country town in NSW. The locals were curious about newcomers and being a family with white parents and two children of colour gave them something to talk about. Most people thought we were adopted. They had no filter and their questions were raw. “Your children don’t look like you!” They’d boldly say to my mother. I now cringe at the thought of her having to respond to the rude inquisition of strangers. Trying to find a way to shut them down, she’d reply with, “They had a different father and he’s dead.” Those words were the survival mechanism of an abused wife. They were also words that pierced my heart and constantly reminded me of how different I was.
Soon after, my parents had a son. Blue eyes, white skin and fair hair; he was the spitting image of them. I loved having another sibling, but his white features made my brown ones stand out and the questions became more intrusive.
It was in this town that I experienced racism for the first time. It was subtle in the beginning. First it was the glaring stares. Then the harassment on the school bus. I was spat on, had racial slurs hurled at me and told to go back to where I came from. I often came home from school in tears. When my stepfather realised what was going on he was livid. “No-one is going to call my daughter names!” he fumed. He drove me to the bus stop and threatened to take the bully to the police if he didn’t leave me alone. Although it had little impact, it was a fond memory and I loved him dearly for standing up for me.
At the age of 13 I began to question the stories I’d been told. Things just didn’t add up. I wondered where my relatives were. They didn’t all die with my father. As I probed my mother, she’d become defensive. She’d refuse to talk about it and shut me down. It would often end with my parents having an argument about it. I later learned that my stepfather had always encouraged her to tell us the truth about my father. But the fear of him finding us terrified her more. She believed it was the only way she could protect us.
I’ll never forget the moment I learned the truth. I was 13. My mother sat my brother and I down, with our stepfather, and gave us the unfiltered, painful story of her first marriage. For the first time in my young life, I had some understanding about who I was and where I came from. The questions about why I looked so different started to make sense. I was half FijianIndian. I began to realise that my father could still be alive and that I had a huge family out there who might want to know me. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins; another world of people who were just like me.
At the end of the conversation she said, “As far as anyone is concerned, he’s dead.” That was it. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it other than my parents.
That day changed my life. I had family out there somewhere who looked like me. I made up stories about their lives and how they came looking for me. I’d wonder about my father and what he thought about me. Had he changed? Was he a better man? Did he love me?
Being forbidden to talk about it created a tension in my life that grew into rebellion and anger. I was angry at my parents for lying to me. I was angry at my father for not loving me. I began to have thoughts of not being good enough. My behaviour reflected my internal conflict and all I could think about was leaving. I had to move away from where I was and closer to where I was meant to be.
At 16, after my sister was born, I left home and moved to Sydney. It was scary leaving home at such a young age, but I was determined to live life on my terms. It was refreshing to not be constantly questioned about my skin colour and it as liberating to tell the truth when asked where I came from. I would proudly say that I was Fijian-Indian/Dutch.
The thought of finding my family would always be on my mind, yet I tiptoed around it for years. My mother supported my desire to find them as long as I kept her location hidden. She provided me with enough information to start my search. I learned that I had 12 aunts and uncles, grandparents, and dozens of cousins. I had letters and photos that my mother had shared with me from her past. I studied them to find clues of their whereabouts.
I found myself randomly opening the telephone book and searching for my father’s name. I had enough information to know he would likely be in Sydney as would many of my relatives. Unfortunately, the family name was as popular in their culture as Smith is to Australians. As I made calls, the language barrier became a challenge. I got nowhere fast and felt disheartened. A few years later I’d give it another go, then stop and start again. I was never ready for meeting them. I was young and insecure and full of anger. I was afraid of being rejected. How can I fit in their world?
I married at 25 which settled me for a while. At 33, after I had my two children, it seemed to heighten the need to find them. The internet had just made its way into our world and chat rooms were a big thing at the time. I made a few assumptions about my father and realised that my best approach would be to search for my cousins. I wasn’t sure what stories were told about my brother and I, or if my father had married again; I didn’t want to be disruptive to another woman’s life. On the other hand, it may be that he didn’t want anything to do with us. As far as I knew, he hadn’t come looking for us. Either way, I had to tread lightly.
My research skills quickly led me to an Indian chat room in Fiji. Within a week I was chatting with a first cousin who lived in Melbourne. Coincidentally, he’d been looking for my brother and I for the last ten years. He told us it was our grandmother’s dying wish to see us. Sadly, we were six months too late.
A week later I met my cousin for the first time. I’ll never forget that day. His skin was a lot darker than mine, but I saw myself in his eyes and in his smile. I was there in his face. I gathered a great deal of information about our family and the secrets that had covered up our existence. My father had remarried and had another child, my half-brother. Their experience was similar to my mothers, and another family was left broken. My father disappeared shortly after and he was never seen or heard of again. I later learned from police records that he was listed as missing and assumed dead. His last known location was in Footscray, Melbourne in 1999; just two suburbs from where I lived.
Over the years, I was introduced to hundreds of family members. There were over 70 first cousins at that time. Many of my aunts and uncles lived in Australia. I was invited to events where I was formally introduced to family members. They’d weep as they held my face in their hands, crying tears of joy that they had found their long-lost brother’s child. It was exhilarating and emotionally draining at the same time.
Then came the questions. I found myself back in the same place I was as a child having to explain myself. I had to defend my mother from the lies my father had told to explain away a wife and two children. It was the same experience in a different setting.
I didn’t relate to my Indian culture at all. My skin was white in comparison. I didn’t embrace their religion, nor speak their language. I was brash and fiercely independent, not like the women in the family. We had no shared history, no connection. We just shared DNA.
My half-brother, his parents, wife, and children were very welcoming. We’ve had many holidays with them over the years and I’ve formed a close bond with them. It hasn’t been an easy relationship to develop and we needed time to work out what it meant to be siblings for the first time, so far into our lives. We lived in different states and knew very little about each other; yet with patience and persistence we found a way to connect and be brother and sister in our own unique way.
My upbringing had many complexities, and my parents did the best they could. They made sure our childhood was filled with love and adventure. I can never understand how difficult it must have been for my mother and the challenges she faced. It was a different time; it was a lifetime ago.
That night putting my son to bed was the beginning of this journey. His child-like response was incredibly profound. I was a brown kid who grew up with a white family, then I found my brown picture on a brown piece of paper. I have my Fijian-Indian family and my beautiful Aussie family. It’s not a matter of either/or.
What I’ve come to realise, is that I can belong in both worlds, and somewhere in between.