Monday, 11 January 2010

Living Down Under: My experiences with Racism

Between Early 1997 and late 1998 I lived as a working-student in Adelaide. The town has a reputation of being conservative and is very different to Melbourne and Sydney.

I had Australian-Asian relations as one of my papers and I am aware of Australia’s history. It has a horrendous record - particularly the relationship between the white immigrants and indigenous Aborigines. There is also the infamous White Australia policy.

When I was in Adelaide, Pauline Hanson was active in politics. She is an Aussie version of Raj Thackeray and her claim to fame is xenophobia. I witnessed over 300 Australian students carrying out the equivalent of a “gherao” of Pauline Hanson.

To add some balance to the current discussion around racist attacks in Australia, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight 3 incidents.

The “Indian” Cook
I was qualified as a cook. I had worked in 2 luxury hotels in India and would have earned my Chef De Parte Scarf in a matter of months if not for my admission in the University of South Australia.

When I landed in Australia I went knocking on several Indian restaurants. Every one of the restaurants that I interviewed at was owned by an Australian Citizen. They were also all persons of Indian origin. They were unwilling to pay anything close to a market wage (15-18$/hr). They wanted to pay minimum wage (6$/hr). In exchange, they would allow me to cross my permissible limit of 20 hours a week. You do the math.

There were several Indians in my course. Some of them were working in such sweat-shop. These conditions were being encouraged by owners – all of Indian Origin. These owners would have never had the guts to make such an offer to a local.

I had reached a situation where I had no money for my next meal and was a couple of weeks behind on rent. An Australian classmate who was working with the Adelaide police at the time, offered to lend me 400$ to get over my “settling down pains” .

I eventually landed a job as an orderly at the largest hospital in South Australia. It was a job nobody wanted because it involved working Friday and Saturday night. Because I was working during the night and weekends – the hourly wage of 12$ went up to around 22$. I grabbed the job with both hands.

A few months into the job, a patient was flown in on a chopper after a car-wreck. I was asked to move the patient (who had more than a broken bone or two), from casualty to X-ray and bring him back. When the patient saw me, his reaction took me by complete surprise. He said “I don’t want this blackie touching me. Get me one of my own!”

A senior nurse who was standing next to me (a tall and extremely well built caucasian woman) reacted instinctively.  She pushed his stretcher into the wall (ouch!). Gripped his wrist and swiftly yanked off a canula. She then looked him in the eyes and said “Oops! How can I send you to X-ray without getting painkillers into you?” She then nudged me out of the bay.

It transpired that he had to wait for the next shift which was a good six hours away to get his drip back, get the painkiller and be taken to X-ray. Both the nurse and I never mentioned it again. I never filled out an incident report.

Go Back to Your Own Country
One Sunday evening our entire shift from the hospital decided to meet up for a drink at the Exeter Pub on Rundle Street. It is normally a quiet place, not much noise and a great place to sip on a few -pints of Cooper’s Pale Ale. There were 6-7 of us and I was on my 3rd round when two of us left the table to take a leak. On the way out of the loo somebody said something. I didn’t catch what he was saying and kept walking assuming that it was not directed at me. My colleague (a Caucasian and a 3rd generation Australian) had heard exactly what he said. At the top of his voice with one hand blocking the loo door he called out to me and asked the person to repeat what he said. The person promptly turned and said “Go Back to Your Own Country”. My colleague showed him the middle finger and headed straight to the bar-counter. The red neck moved into the loo. I headed back to the table not knowing what to make of the situation. A few minutes later three bouncers were escorting the red-neck out of the premises. I was restraining my colleague from heading out onto the street to pick up a fight with the red neck.

In Conclusion

These were the three racist incidents that I encountered in Australia.

There was nothing in the environment that I studied in or worked in that made me feel I was living in the midst of racist people. Every country and city will have it’s crack-pots and racists. But the overwhelming majority are not like that (both in India and Australia).

The common man in Australia does whatever they can to nip racist behaviour in the bud.
Note to the media: Make your claims but please be balanced. This story has two sides. My personal experience does not allow me to say that Australia is a racist country.


  1. it s a very thin line between tolerance and botherance !

  2. I agree wid u. Good post. Be brave a writer, as ever. Best.

  3. nice one yaar.

    agree with u on this. also i feel that our junta needs to learn to mingle and most importantly communicate properly wen they r abroad. this includes understanding and respecting the foreign land's customs. i mean does it take rocket science to teach u to stay away from trouble-prone areas ? i dunno if i sound shallow or judgemental, but i get the gut-feel that most of our lot who hav been targeted offlate cant even speak fluent english.

    going by media's logic, we are no less a racist nation. we not only letch at and attack foreigners but dont even spare our own ppl frm anthr state.

    no, we cant be one-sided on this issue. a coin has 2 sides.

  4. Lakshman-

    Thanks for your comments.

    I think okay if an immigrant in any country is not fluent in the local language. Over time they will have to pick up the language to survive.

    I completely agree with you on the last point.

  5. Totally agree Bala, there will always be a small minority that can quickly and easily defame anything.

    What is'nt anyone talking about racism in India towards Indians by Indians?

  6. @Ashwini

    Thanks for the comments. It is exceptionally tempting to write a post on racism in India.
    Will do it when I get back to Bangalore.

  7. Good post!
    I have had extensive interactions with Australians from all parts of the country, especially Melbourne. I have not experienced any kind of racism.
    I agree there are crackpots everywhere. But to paint an entire nation with the same brush is unfair.
    Australians are now especially sensitive about treating people fairly, precisely because of their history.

  8. @anita

    Thanks for the comments.

    The broadcasting media has been flinging too many stones at the moment.