Words || James Booth
At some point in my teens, I stopped wearing shoes altogether – much to the protests of my Mum, who was convinced I’d step on glass and cut my foot open.
Not wearing shoes makes me feel free. It makes me feel a little bit more connected to the world around me. All these different textures and temperatures of the ground, it kind of makes my wandering that much more interesting.
Since then my Mum has gotten very used to me not wearing shoes around. The clash over shoes was an old one – I was determined to go to university without shoes, and Mum was determined that I go with them.
I bought a pair of thongs in my 2nd year of university as a compromise.
She’ll say “some mothers have them” when I tell her I’m not wearing shoes to the shops, and protest when I go driving barefoot. I guess she puts it best when she says, “It’s not my fault I’ve got a Gay Hippie son”.
It is kind of funny, since my Mum grew up barefoot everywhere but school.
When I asked her about this she told me, “I remember I’d walk barefoot on the tar roads to the temple and back”. When I tell her I’m just following in her footsteps, she said, “I grew up in a country where that was done…we were a third world country James, I’ve bought you shoes and you won’t wear them!”
For the record, I have bought all of my own shoes since I got a part time job in my teens, but I still can’t stop laughing about this comment.
My mum was born in Kandy, a central province city which had been the capital of Sri Lanka during colonial Dutch rule. She was born two decades after Ceylon had gained independence and renamed itself Sri Lanka. She was not born into wealth, rather she was born into poverty within a developing nation.
Some of the common stories she’ll tell me of growing up are of her eating cinnamon bark off the tree, unripened mangoes, and mangosteens she would find on her walks throughout town. An attempt to overcome malnourishment.
I’d love nothing more but to tell you that Slumdog Millionaire style, my mother is a heroine who has natural gifts and works hard to get out of third world poverty. The unfortunate story is that children born into poverty almost never get the chance to escape from it, and in a bizarre stroke of luck my mother was able to.
It is kind of ironic to think of the illness, which struck my mother at 8 and rendered her abandoned in a hospital, as pure luck – but in a way it was.
Unable to afford the hospital bills, my mother’s parents put her in every dress she owned on her way to the hospital, and never returned for her. She would spend a year in the hospital as they built an orphanage. She was renamed Kanthi.
She was adopted before her 10th birthday by my grandparents. She grew up in Canberra, met my father, and after having her second child (me) moved to Sydney.
There is a lot more to this story, which I may unpack at another time. The general takeaway from my mother’s story, is that my direct understanding of Sri Lankan culture pretty much ends with my mother’s adoption in the 1970s. Which as you may have guessed makes my cultural understanding of who I am and where I come from quite limited at best.
I don’t speak my language. I don’t practice the Buddhist religion my mother grew up with. I don’t really know many of the cultural traditions.
All my grandparents are white. Most of my cousins are white. Of my siblings I seem to be the most interested in even exploring that side of ourselves. It really is disheartening to say the least.
My grandparents did try to keep mum connected to her cultural roots through dance classes, and they kept in contact with other children adopted from the same orphanage. But it’s not surprising that growing up in a western nation, she never really prioritised this knowledge. We were raised Christian like my white side identifies, and largely followed the traditions of our white selves.
Discussions on culture make me uncomfortable. My South Asian friends joke that “I’m not really a Curry”, and it reminds me that I know so little about my culture and our traditions. It is hard to navigate a space when you don’t even really know where to start. By and large my cultural understandings come from independent research, folklore stories I’ve read and recipes I’ve learnt off my mother and the internet.
On the flipside, I’ve grown up as a visible person of colour. I have tan skin, black hair and dark brown eyes. I’ve endured far too many “where are you froms?”, and have been told I’m “not REALLY Australian” by white friends and strangers. People are desperate to find out what is the magical secret in my genetics, and I regularly have to navigate the awkward explanations as to why I’ve got no accent / don’t act Sri Lankan enough / don’t really look Sri Lankan.
I guess it is because when people ask that question to me, it sparks all the anxiety I face in feeling whether I’m “really” a person of colour if I don’t understand my culture. Instead, I regularly erase my own identity, and awkwardly have to answer all these follow up questions that dissect my connection to culture. Usually I end up just describing myself as a white boy, who happens to have brown skin.
At the end of the day, regardless of my cultural disconnect – I’m incredibly lucky. Without that mystery illness, my mother would not have been adopted, she would not have moved here, and I wouldn’t have been born or have grown up in Australia. I’m trying more and more to explore my culture, and am trying to convince her to relearn Sinhala with me.
That way she can protest me going barefoot, but this time in our native tongue.