No welcome stranger in racist Australia

Candles for peace, Flickr image by scissorhands33At Rawalpindi bus terminal, the light is violet from the rising moon, and gray from the perpetual smog. I am held in the mystery and danger of twilight in a new city. Fresh off the long haul bus, I weave my way through loading an unloading vehicles towards the indigo glow of  gas burners and promising smells of an outdoor café.

There is no menu, just tall pots of rich burgundy curry and people sitting at tables solemnly picking apart joints of meat atop flat plates of rice. Tired bus drivers, rickshaw wallas, families consisting entirely of men. 

I am vegetarian, I am tired and I am hungry. I am also a stranger, a foreign woman alone in a creased salwar kames and slippery head scarf that constantly fails to sit quite right. I bite my lip and contemplate the Urdu required to order a meal of something less meaty than what I can see the other diners eating.

Twilight is becoming night and the headlights of buses at the nearby terminal and the oil-specked lantern from the restaurant's kitchen do their best against the growing dark. Camouflage helicopters begin their nightly hover above the city.

A fellow diner in white cotton salwar and gray woollen vest approaches my lopsided table.

'Excuse me Madam?'

I look up wearily, expecting a curious 'Which Country do you come from?' or a leading 'Do you have boyfriend?'

But no. He dips his head respectfully. 'We would like to pay for your meal.' He indicates another lopsided table on which his Uncle and teenaged son are eating. 'You are a guest in our country. It is our hospitality to you.'

He does not invite me to join their masculine trio. To do so would harm my honour and leave me vulnerable to unwelcome advances from other diners. Instead he calls over the senior waiter and quietly orders a vegetarian meal with soft bread and 'anything else she wants'. Then he leaves me to eat.

Later a pot of sweet mint tea arrives at my table. Later still, his son is deployed and a taxi sourced and paid for.

Before bidding farewell, the man gives me a tattered business card with several phone numbers of friends and family, should I run into any trouble during my travels through his country. He assures me that his second uncle is a lawyer and that, should I visit their house, his wife and sister will be there to keep me company.

I warmly thank them for their hospitality.

Now at Flinders Street Station.

The light is clear. A smog-free day for an intersection that is usually crowded by cars and trams. The traffic has come to a standstill. Over 2000 Subcontinental students with hand-etched signs and worn-out winter clothes are staging a sit in. I am sitting with them.

Three kilometers away in the Intensive Care Unit of the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Sravan Kumar Theerthala remains unconscious after being stabbed in the head with a screwdriver last weekend. In Australia in the past year there have been an estimated 60 violent attacks against Subcontinental students.

They are protesting a lack of action by the Australian Government. I am protesting because I am ashamed that a white Christian woman is safer in the military capital of Rawalpindi than these students are on a train in Melbourne.

The students have issued a list of demands. They touch not only on the immediate issue of safety from violence, especially on public transport, but on housing, economic vulnerability and access to health care and ambulance cover while living as guests in our country.

With my hand-painted sandwich board, my white skin and tear-streaked face, I look ridiculous. The sandwich board reads 'Hospitality not Hurt' and on the back 'Australia Welcomes Indian Students'. An Australian and a Christian, I feel deeply the absence of the Australian Christian communities.

One of the students thanks me for my support and asks why I am there. I clumsily mumble something about racism and hospitality and solidarity.

This is what I want to say:

Because on the train in Kolkatta I was included a dozen times at the makeshift dinner tables of travelling families and afforded the same protection as their womenfolk.

Because in his one room house in Hayrana, Rajpal cooked for me parathas full of potato and coriander that he paid for out of his driver's wage.

Because of the transgendered woman working the streets in Old Delhi who shouted me an ice cream in summer, and the college student in Lahore who gave up her seat for me on the bus.

Because of the kindness of the toilet cleaner in the airport bathroom in Mumbai, who corrected my clumsy attempts at wearing a sari and gave me all her safety pins.

Because on a nightmarish day in dreamy Kashmir I was sheltered from crossfire by a stranger who shepherded me out of the bus, into a coffee shop, and distracted me from the soldiers by feeding me jam on toast.

Because I have lived as a stranger in your country. I have been vulnerable and alone in your lands. When I was hungry, you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.

We give each other the thumbs-up.

I look around at the gaunt faces and angry fists. I wonder how many of these students have experienced an Australian home-cooked meal or have been shouted a latté in a laneway café. How many have had their bus fare paid for, or offered a seat on a busy train? In how many Aussie homes have they enjoyed warmth?

How are we going to respond to the protests of Indian students and welcome the stranger in our midst today?

Cara MunroCara Munro is a registered nurse. Her essay Noor placed Third in the 2008 Margaret Dooley Awards.

Topic tags: hospitality, welcome stranger, indian students, stabbing, screwdriver, protest, Sravan Kumar Theerthala



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Existing comments

This is such a truly sincere message of solidarity that tells me one thing that Australians at least not all of them are racists. That racism doesn't exist in a country but in the minds of a few people.

Sushanth | 03 June 2009  

Such a moving article. It touohes at the core of our common humanity. I only wish disenchanted Australian youth can transcend whatever meaninglessness they have internalized to scapegoat our brothers from the Subcontinent. I only wish that our government can produce programs and policies that truly address the concerns of Melbournian disaffected youth.

I agree with Cara who writes so eloquently about welcoming the stranger in our midst. It's high time for Australia to disengage with her apparently deep-seated xenophobia.

Deborah Ruiz Wall | 03 June 2009  

It is such a touching personal account. A very timely article. Thank you Cara.

Dewi Anggraeni | 03 June 2009  

Cara's account reminds me of a close parallel in my own experience as a traveller in India many years ago. I was well looked after when sick. Over many years since I have always associated India and its citizens at home and abroad with an exceptionally high level of social tolerance and personal civility. Of course there are exceptions but broadly speaking gentleness and tolerance are values inscribed in the Indian social ethos and recognised by Australians who have any dealings with persons of Indian descent.

I too am dismayed that Australia must own to the bullying hooliganism and cruelty that seems to be the too ready reaction of some young people to their own predicaments.

At the heart of the problem is a truth that hurts; as a nation we promote a culture that approves aggression and does not shrink from lauding the bully and the loudmouth. Perhaps we may have to wear the economic consequences that flow from others perceptions of how that culture produces the social behaviours we abhor. Most Australians rejoiced when, a peak tide, our 2000 Olympics showed us at our multicultural tolerant best. Unhappily, when Hansonism scratched the surface of that tolerance, too many Australians saw no contradiction in the political exploitation of a xenophobia that is always ready to emerge.

Let us hope that better policing and other measures can get some of this Australian genie back into its bottle but no one should neglect the probability that too many of our kids become conditioned to ethnic antagonism and segregation before they leave the primary school playground.

Paul Munro | 03 June 2009  

A deeply touching, indeed an overwhelming, picture of a culture where hospitality and kindness show themselves in such spontaneous and generous gestures of concern - a truly admirable people on the lookout for those to whom they know their help will be precious. Thanks, Cara Munro, for the insight and congratulations on your response to their need.

Joe Castley | 03 June 2009  

Thank you Cara, I was quite moved by your beautiful description of he kindnesses you received in India and by your brave solidarity with the the students in Melbourne. I wish your article could be read by a wider audience. Keep on you compassionate writing and nursing. Peace always, Kevin.

Kevin | 03 June 2009  

Thank you Cara. Your article is really touching. I hope your article will open the minds of those practising discrimination. Australia as a nation is not racist but there are some elements who betrays the country. Also Australians are not open minded they are hesitant to accept new ideas or technology from other parts of the world.

I myself am a victim of this. After working in the middle east for more than 16 years i have moved to Australia on a PR visa. Now even after 6 months I could not avail even part time or casual job. Everybody is asking for local experience. These people should know that may be we lacking some local experience but we are bringing some knowledge experience and expertise that you do not have or posses, from a part of the world where the latest technology is adopted. This hesitancy is the main drawback that Australia is considered backward. Hope all Australians will change with time.

Cherian | 03 June 2009  

A great example of solidarity, and a moving and powerful article, Cara. Congratulations.

David Collett | 04 June 2009  

I lived in India 1991-97, and even as a bloke received hospitality on par with that described above. Thank you, Cara, for making a stand for 'the good life'.

Scott MacRae Collingwood | 07 June 2009  

Thankyou, Cara. Discrimination against international students starts at the top, in Victoria. The travel concession on public transport available to local students is denied to those who contribute millions of dollars to our Australian economy.

Neil Tolliday | 09 June 2009  

I'm touched and glad you wrote so powerfully about your experiences in richly diverse and cultural india. god bless and keep up the good work. my fellow indians did me proud !!!! i would like to continue to encourage greater peace and harmony between our cultures and this piece is going to be sent to all my friends, of all different cultures.

susan athaide | 12 June 2009  

Great article, thanks. Thanks for wide Eureka St coverage generally. making the news on international TV networks, online, press - as I sit in Kabul wondering what the...??? back in Oz.

Jan | 13 June 2009  

I have no doubt that 'foreign' people receive simple acts of kindness and assistance in the cities and towns of Australia every day. At the same time, 'outsiders"' in Pakistan and India, whether locals or from elsewhere, sometimes find themselves the object of prejudice and violence and on a scale never experienced in Australia.

To conclude from the fact that some Australians are treated kindly overseas and some 'foreigners' are treated badly here that Australians are a generally uncompassionate and racist people would be, well, uncompassionate and racist.

Sylvester | 13 June 2009  

Thank you for celebrating the inherent goodness that can be found all over the world. I have experienced similar through many years of living in Uganda. What greatly saddened me was the absence of other Christians at the demo. Sure, activism isn't everyone's cup of chai, but we somehow need to find ways we can stand with those who are alone, oppressed, marginalised, hungry. Wherever we are.

Joanne | 13 June 2009  

A deeply moving story Cara. My experiences in the Philippines over the past quarter century have been mixed. Generally helpful and very kind( Women in particular).Often thought by the locals to be a "Joe" (American), I know enough of the local lingo to tell if I am the subject of conversation. I do find I get annoyed that they (almost always the men) think they can hide under cover of ignorance of the local language/dialect.

My wife is a Filipina-Australian and has very, very rarely been subject of racismhere in Australia. My kids did experience some when they were at school, but not now.

I have to say I think the media has blown this issue out of all proportion to the reality.Sadly some Indian groups with their own agendas have not helped and may even alienate ordinary Australians by their 'protests'.

Gavin | 14 June 2009  

Although I agree with most of the comments here, and found Cara's article really touching, I must say, that not every foreigner in the subcontinent, especially India, receive the kinda special treatment that Cara recieved. I'm born and raised in Mumbai and lived here my whole life, and let me tell u this; no matter how educated and urbane and Indian might be, he/she STILL has some degree of fascination for the white skin!

No matter how much, many of fellow countrymen would deny that, it is true. I have seen it all the time.A classic example would be the very common experience for most Indians at restaurants..whites being offered better service than the Indian diners...and that too promptly.

We sort of subconsciously feel that anyone from a country like the US, UK or Australia, is superior to us..that's our psychological make up. Cara, if u were an african, or a nepali or a bhutanese, I'm pretty sure your experiences in India would have been different, because we feel that people from these countries are inferior to us, and don't deserve our hospitality and respect, basically because they are poorer.

Im ashamed to say this, but Indians are actually one of the most racist people in the world! we are racist towards our own people...any student from the north eastern part of India studying in Delhi would know what I'm talking about.

Amal Nicholas | 19 June 2009  

I really enjoyed reading this article because it did spark in me the feeling and sense of welcoming I do get when I travel overseas. I am Australian; however I also cherish my background which is Lebanese. This different background does not allow me to be accepted in the Australian society sometimes even though I do contribute to the Australian community tremendously by working, paying taxes, studying, volunteering for different multi-faith communities etc…

Your article has also reminded me of a discriminative incident that I have come across yesterday which has made me stronger. I was verbally and physically harassed in a shopping center by a 55 year old man because of my scarf. These incidents that I tend to come across a lot do increase my confidence no matter what people do or say because at the end I know that I am a valuable asset to the Australian community. Thank you again for your article.

salam | 23 September 2009  

Very moving and shocking at the same time.

Deborah Hildebrand | 17 July 2013  

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