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When I joined the University of Melbourne back in 2017, a lot of friends warned me that Australia was racist to Indians. I took their comments into consideration, but at the back of my mind, I wondered: surely a multicultural city like Melbourne would not be so prejudiced?
Sadly, it seems to be part and parcel of life as a person of colour in Australia. It manifests differently, but it exists. “Go back to where you came from!” “Do you have microwaves in India?” “How do you speak such good English?”
Don’t get me wrong, Melbourne has a special place in my heart from my university years, and I love what it has to offer. But it’s difficult to ignore racism when you’re exposed to it on your weekly grocery run, on your morning jog, and especially when you are in class.
On the last day of the past semester, I had the misfortune of hearing my fellow classmates make fun of the COVID situation in India over Zoom.
It started with introductions in the breakout room. We took turns sharing a little bit about ourselves, and when it was my turn, I told them that I’m currently studying from India.
Someone asked about the recent COVID wave. Before I could answer, they all burst out laughing.
“I hear everyone’s dropping dead like flies”
“You guys are so poor. Look at how well we’ve brought this under control”
“Serves you right for trapping our cricketers there”
When I told them that it wasn’t funny and I had lost some people I’d known for years, they brought out the cringeworthy Apu impression. I was shocked, and even worse, helpless in the situation. All I could do was disconnect my audio and try to pretend this wasn’t happening.
It was my worst fears coming true. When I moved to Melbourne, I began to introduce myself simply as “Ash”. From a beautiful Sanskrit name that meant horse-rider, I went to being the grey-black powdery left after burning something. After my roommate complained about the smell of my spices, I stopped cooking Indian food every day. Much to the chagrin of my parents, I even cut off the red thread on my wrist meant to protect me from evil, from fear of being recognised as an Indian man of faith.
I had shed my layers to portray a brown Australian to try to fit in, but clearly there was no point. Now added to the burden of border closures was the discomfort of racist classmates.
Ever since I returned home last year ahead of lockdowns, I have hoped and prayed for Australia to reopen its borders. My friends and I tune into every press briefing by the government, in the hopes that they’ll finally announce a roadmap to bring us back.
I’ve tried to remain hopeful that if not on humanitarian grounds, surely we’d be called back because of the thousands of dollars we pour into the economy? After all, we are one of Australia’s biggest exports. But at every press briefing, it is always one hollow promise after the other.
As international students, we pay up to $25,000 every semester. When I was on-campus, this cost was justified by the university experience of interacting with the teaching faculty and accessing university services like libraries and student union facilities. But how do you justify paying thousands of dollars for Zoom classes? If I wanted my learning to be limited to a laptop screen, I might just have enrolled for classes on Coursera. It is also unfair to get us to pay thousands of dollars for Zoom University just because hotel quarantine is flawed.
On a slightly better note, I’ve felt empowered by the outpour of support online to go ahead and file a complaint at the university about this incident. University had always been a safe, inclusive bubble for me, and hopefully I can make sure the bubble isn’t burst for anybody else.
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