by Sonali Sharma
My first encounter in Australia, with the beastly thing we call a ‘beach’, was during our first summer in Sydney. I am 13, and everything about this beach looks wrong. It’s loud, the waves are big, the colour of the water is too dark, I cannot see the sand at the bottom of the water. Wait, how will I see where the starfish and sea cucumber are if I can’t see all the way to the bottom of the water? This thought halts me. No, it’s too exciting, we’re doing it.
The sky is clear blue, I shield my eyes with my right hand as I look up. Those white birds are strange. They’re not scared at all; they just steal food all day. The sand is a strange colour, weak chai instead of off-white or white. I pick up some dry sand in my hands. It’s too grainy. I squat down to let the sand fall through my fingers and bury my hands down to my wrists in the sand. It is warm, I feel this warmth travel up my arms, caress my shoulders while the wind against my body gives me goose bumps. I giggle. I imagine dark green, twisted tree roots extend from my fingertips under the sand and creep towards the water. My eyes follow these roots to the water where the waves crash to meet them. I think of what the white frothing seafoam would feel like as the roots from my fingers peak through from beneath the sand and dance in the ripples. I giggle. I stand and breathe in the smell of the beach. It smells wrong too.
I half-run half-walk into the water, a gleeful child. I run back screaming and crying all of ten seconds later. My mother didn’t tell us the water would be cold.
I chuckle quietly at the memory of that young Island child, as I squint to find all my favourite Sydney beaches, standing atop the highest point of the Harbour Bridge on my twenty-fourth birthday. As I overlook sprawling Sydney during this time of twilight between sunset and dusk, the floodgates of my mind strain to contain the last thirteen years of living in Australia. An array of my favourite summer memories whisper warmth and mystery to each other as the last remaining vestiges of the 10th of July’s setting sun begin its descent, softly swallowed by the horizon. The coppery hues of the setting sun set stage for the pinks, lavenders and indigos of the twilight to commence their intricate dance of calling forth the dusk. Lights begin flickering into existence all around me, the complexity that is the concrete and metal labyrinth of Sydney awaking from its slumber, a beacon of modern electricity-magic visible from space. I stand in the eye of the city’s skyline in awe and wonder as the golden dusk bows before me and embraces the twilight sky into a darkness that reverberates through the metal and concrete. I am pulled from my reverie by a clear voice cutting across my consciousness, it asks: “Does your dad play cricket?”
I turn to face the source of this voice. It is the middle-aged white man doing the Climb with his Asian wife. I look at him, look at her, look at him. Hoooowwwahh?..this man is supposedly married to an Asian woman, he has a personal resource to help him understand what ethnicity outside of Whiteness and Colonialism is, what is he doing asking me this dumb stereotypically informed question? How do I even answer it? Wait, did he just assume I’m Indian from India without asking? He does know that there are Indians around the world, right? Like, also those that left decades or generations ago and now have very little memory or ties to India as a country? Where do I start…okay so after the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 in British history the white folk trying to colonise the world realised, they still needed bodies to work the farms and fields in the colonies. So, they said oh wait India is part of the Empire right now and they have lots of people mostly in poverty let’s go steal them and offer contracted work that’s basically slavery but legal and ship them to the colonies. Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo four generations later my mum decides we’ll move to Australia so now I’m here, a strange chimera creature that is Indian by appearance, Fijian Islander by nationality, and Australian by citizenship. Sigh. Never mind.
“No, my dad doesn’t like cricket. He says it’s a very dull, slow sport.” Quick! throw in an Australian sounding joke or phrase in there to make yourself seem legit. “It’s a little like watching grass grow, isn’t it?”.
“Oh yes!” says his wife.
“Well I wasn’t expecting that answer, but I just couldn’t help myself from asking!”, says the husband, his expression much like the kitten that got all the cream that night.
For the remainder of the Climb I kept contesting the bewitching whispers to visit yet another summer memory. Walking down the narrow metal staircase, under the bridge and over the street, to make our way back to Climb Base, I give in.
The water is freezing cold, it laps at my feet as I leisurely journey towards the beach. It fizzes, bubbles and froths between my toes as the last of the seafoam’s tendrils retreat from the sand and sink back into the swell. The wind caresses my back and legs, the waves roar behind me and the wet sand is chilly as I giggle and wander out of the ocean. I can see goose bumps rise on my chest as the small hairs stand on end, visible against my toffee skin. My long hair is braided into a rope and drips down my back. Still giggling, I hop, skip and run back to the spot on the beach where we left our towels and bags. I am 18, and a beach in summer is the one place I feel I most belong.
The sun is scorching and bright, a very typical and muggy Australian summer day. I find my beach towel, look around to make sure there aren’t too many people close by, and gently proceed to shaking the sand out of it. I begin my post-water ritual. I kneel to dig the second towel out of my bag and lay it on the sand. I wrap the first towel around my shoulders, over my head and sit on the second towel in one swift motion. Confusing, but there is a method to the madness, strong rationale too. I hug my knees close to my chest, my entire body hidden under the first towel, I could easily pass for a small shivering child. I grin to myself, stifling a half shiver, half laugh.
The water glimmers every possible blue under the sun, a stark contrast against the gentle golden hues of the sand. I close my eyes and breathe in the ocean. I tilt my head to listen to the sounds of summer, letting it whisper sweet nothings to me as I hum, huddled under my giant towel. I doubt I’ll ever get used to how cold the water is, even on our hottest summer days.
I open my eyes, look around, and see an older couple have settled next to me. I smile at them, they smile back. I look ahead. I look back and decide to say hello. After a few moments of exchanging pleasantries about the day, the man asks if I’ve forgotten my burka at home today.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand your question?”. Wait! What? What is happening?
“Oh! You’re hiding under the towel, covering your head, I was wondering if you forgot your head covering or something at home.”
“No! no I’m not….I don’t wear a head covering or burka.” How do I explain WHY I don’t wear one? Wait, I could just say, I’m not Muslim. I don’t have time to explain that it’s not just Muslims who wear a head covering, a lot of other people do too but no I’ll just say that and see where it goes. But then should I also explain why I’m being a peculiar person huddling from the sun on a beach for goodness sake? Like everyone else is sunbathing and having a good time. Am I the only person with a makeshift towel tent? “I’m not Muslim, I don’t wear a burka. I’m just trying to hide from the direct sun because I don’t like that I tan patchy. My skin tans quickly but not always the same colour everywhere.” I say as I stick a hand out from under the towel, slowly twirling it to show them the subtle difference in the shades of brown in my outer and inner arm. Yes, believable, good.
“Oh! I’d love to have your tan!” says the woman, laughing politely.
I laugh back, mimicking her polite laugh.
“Sorry love! Hope I didn’t offend ya, I was jus’ wondering what you were doing, that’s all,” says the man, also laughing politely.
I laugh back, mimicking his polite laugh. I look down at my huddled figure, trying to calm my racing heart. What the hell just happened. Breathe. Calm.
The man continues to have a conversation with me. I explain that I’m here with my boyfriend and his brothers, they’re just in the water. Yes, they’re local, about fifteen minutes from the beach. Yes, isn’t it a wonderful way to enjoy summer. Yes, nothing like a day at the beach to get the best of a good summer. No, I’m good, thank you for offering, we’ll be grabbing some snacks soon. Oh, that’s wonderful, no my parents are from Fiji. No, we’re Indian but were born in the Islands. Oh, well that’s because my great-grandparents migrated for work offered on the sugar cane fields. Why yes of course, Australia bought Fijian sugar too, actually CSR was one of the leading companies and some Indians workers and native Fijians came to Australia to work on sugar cane fields here, too. Indeed, my family had a long history with Australia before we moved here. Great now I’m stuck in the dreaded loop. Why can’t I just answer that dumb question with “I’m from here”. How do I even begin to explain where I’m from? I’m still trying to figure that one out myself!
I look around trying to find everyone. I want to leave now guys, I did an awkward again. I see them walk out of the water and head towards my general direction. Yes, Australia is quickly growing into a very multicultural society. Indeed, Harris Park is a great place to find Indian food, although personally I don’t handle spice well. Well, our mum never cooked with a lot of spice, our food is very fusion.
“It’s been nice talking to you, I’m going to walk down to meet my boyfriend, they’ve just stepped out of the water,” I say as I stand and adjust my makeshift towel tent around me.
“Well there’s still one question I can’t get my head around love, so I’ll just ask”, says the man.
“Sure! Ask away!” I laugh as I turn to face the couple.
“Does your dad like cricket?”
Sonali Sharma, BA. MTeach., graduate of Western Sydney University, recently qualified Teacher and aspiring Writer. Sonali explores intersectionality, her Indian Diaspora heritage and liminality as a Fijian Australian by interweaving themes experienced across her teen and adolescent years. She moved to Sydney as a young girl with her parents and sisters and often reflects on her chameleon identity growing up in Australia caught between three worlds. As a proud young Woman of Colour living in Western Sydney, Sonali is currently focused on transiting to teaching within Special Education, diving deeper down the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ rabbit hole and quietly contemplating learning another Martial Arts form. As an aspiring Writer, Sonali Sharma’s pieces of writing aim to highlight the lived perspective of growing up as a migrant in Western Sydney, confront systematic racism with purposeful humour and expose the absurdity of expectations placed on the oldest female child of a Brown family in the migrant community.