I have often wondered what my co-students thought of me when I walked through the school gates wearing brown shoes with white socks that were pulled right up to my knees, black pottu on my forehead and well-oiled hair that was tied back. My hair must have looked very greasy and possibly smelt too since I was using Dabur Amala hair oil just like how I used to back home! I probably looked hideous to them but as far as I was concerned, I looked beautiful – after all that is how we dressed for school back home. Why would I change the way I dressed simply because I was in a foreign land? I was fortunate enough to understand English very well, so I did not have any fear. I was confident, and they do say that confidence in a woman is far more beautiful than anything that is out there.
I didn’t feel I had to change in anyway and I certainly didn’t want to be like the others until I was bullied one day.
I was not aware that such a word existed until I was bullied. I have heard of the term "ragging" back home but that happened in universities and colleges, but not in grade school. As such, I was genuinely taken back when two girls in my history class who sat opposite to me began making fun of me. I was naive and confused to why they looked at me as if I was an alien. They kept looking at my legs. I looked at their legs and then it dawned on me – maybe it was because I have hairy legs! Now, for the first time in my life I wanted to hide my hairy legs. I pulled my socks even higher – above the knee to hide this. The girls would throw things at me from behind and say mean things that I didn't understand. I didn’t feel beautiful anymore and I felt there was something seriously wrong with me. I so badly wanted to blend in, but I just didn’t know how. I began to suffer in silence. I couldn’t discuss about this at home because all the women and girls I knew in Sri Lanka had hairy legs and it certainly didn’t bother anyone. I had no idea about hair removers. Why would I?
The bullying carried on until one day some girls began throwing chips and other food items at me and my friend in the cafeteria. This made me furious. The fighter in me arose and I remember marching up to see the principal with my friend. I complained. I was quite proud of myself for doing this and I lived to tell the tale.
Now when I look back and ask the question – was it just "normal" school bullying or bullying predicated on racist? I would say that what I was subjected to was racist bullying. I was bullied because I was the wrong colour, wore the wrong clothes and spoke with a wrong accent – I was bullied for being me and not them.
Slowly, I began to realize that I had to change to fit in I took the plunge and shaved my legs! It was very rewarding to look at my clean-shaven legs without any black hair. Of course, then came the realisation that the hair would grow back much thicker and worse than before. I would have to repeatedly shave to maintain my hair-free legs.
Today, after 28 years I would say that I have blended in quite remarkably. No more greasy hair – the hair is let out wild, so I could run my fingers through it. The pottu is long gone. White socks are nowhere to be seen. I am constantly watching out for the trend!
So all this should have made my life easier right? Yes and no. Yes - I do blend in and the society likes the fact that this Asian woman is making the effort to assimiliate. No – it doesn’t make it any easier. You still must shave your legs, people would not be happy if I went to work in my traditional saree or salwar kameez. In order to look the part, I do have to make sacrifices. I must give up on my traditions and cultures so that I could fit in and not be bullied.
It doesn’t matter how hard I try, nothing is going to change the fact that I am a Sri Lankan and I have dark skin! I may blend in, but iron and clay will never mix together.
Now I have stop trying too hard and learn to be myself. There will always be bullies. I have learnt the art of survival. The secret to survival is to stand up for yourself. I am not that bothered about what others think of me any more. I am quite happy to stand out. It doesn’t matter how long you have lived in this country, people will always ask you simply because of the colour of your skin – "so where are you from?" I answer back and proudly say – I am from Sri Lanka and that they should visit Sri Lanka as it is a beautiful country. I was victim of racist bullying once and I that’s it. It will only be once. I refuse to be a lifelong victim. I can carry on living on British soil as a Tamil woman………with occasionally shaven legs, long black non-greasy hair and wearing a saree infrequently but eating rice and curry every day!