At six years old, I was helping her raise my younger siblings and being the best comfort I could be. Because of this, I grew up a lot faster than the people around me. I was mature and immature at the same time. My maturity came from raising my younger siblings when my mum was working long night shifts, yet my immaturity came from the isolation. I had difficulty forming connections with people and felt so uncomfortable in social situations. I never knew how to make friends and open up to others around me. I was obsessed with reading to fill my spare time; it was calming, and it was an excuse to not make any friends my own age. It was a hobby my mum had forced down my throat because the public library was free, but also because she wanted me to be more educated than she ever was. I feel like when children of immigrants talk about their parents, it’s always with a touch of bitterness.
First generation people are often hurt that they couldn’t experience life like the people around them, stuck in a space with rules and expectations. I remember from a young age; I wasn’t able to experience life as a kid. I was forced to grow up, raise my siblings, and be there for my mum. I never got to be a child, not truly, and that disconnected me from the kids around me. Not to say that I completely despise the way I grew up, I like how strong I have become. I like how I always want to look after the people around me, how I am giving. That’s why, when my mum called me last year in August to tell me that she had a tumour in her breast, my heart dropped.
I remember the exact night. I was getting ready for my first date in months, Mum called me to check up on me as she always does. She likes to do this thing where she calls me just to hear my voice, our calls usually last 30 seconds. Recently she and I developed healthier boundaries, well, as healthy as boundaries can get with an immigrant parent. So, she doesn’t take it personally when I want to have dinner with my friends, or I can’t talk for too long. She lets me go. I didn’t tell her about the date though, I usually only talk about people I care about because she is sceptical of outsiders and tends not to trust them. My mum believes family is the most important thing, and that they are the only people you can rely on emotionally. Mum told me about how she had received a diagnosis after having a mammogram. I felt my body begin to panic, by that I mean it shut down, and it was almost like I wasn’t in my body anymore. I felt like I was outside of myself, almost like a dream. I was there, but not really. The way she recounted her diagnoses was nonchalant. Mum’s religious and believes God will always protect her. But I knew her better than anyone else, she was scared. I was scared. But because we are both stubborn people, especially with ourselves, we both dealt with it our way.
I did what I did best. I started googling what the doctors had told her, even though she didn’t remember exactly what they had said. During our conversation I had researched and studied everything about DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ), which was where abnormal cells formed in the milk duct. They were apparently benign, she would be okay, right? My mind started running, but to my mum I probably sounded eerily calm. Although I doubt she had intended to, throughout my childhood she had built me to be the perfect emotional support. The people pleaser in me also knew exactly how to talk to make her feel safe: I told her that she would be okay, I googled it, and it’s benign.
After the conversation with my mum, I still went on my date. It didn’t go well. Not surprisingly, I was distracted by other things. How could I be there for my mum when she was in Sydney, and I was in Canberra? As the months continued, it seemed like things only got worse, and I felt increasingly like a horrible daughter. I felt I was the only one that could be there for her the way she needed, to reassure and comfort her. I had my older cousin at home, but I could feel my mum’s disappointment that I wasn’t the one looking after her.
I went home two weeks ago. I went to a concert, and I was in a place where I felt safer staying at home with my family than in some random hotel. I only stayed for one night, and as we were dragging one of our old mattresses up from the garage to my mum’s bedroom, my cousin looked at me and said, “Mummy does not have hair anymore, do not act weird”. In my head, I thought she was messing with me. After all, my family has a habit of laughing in the face of such horrible things. When my mum took off her wig (which she wears often, by the way, we are a black family) her hair, which was usually in tight cornrows, was gone. She was also so tiny and looked fragile. The woman that had raised me, worked six days a week for years to take care of me and my siblings. In just six months, she looked unrecognisable. It was humbling seeing my mum like that. That night I slept in her room, and we just talked. She said something that hit my soul.
When she said that, I felt so guilty because she was right, this was my job. When I went back to uni, any motivation I had was gone. Part of me wanted to leave Canberra and move home, so I could fulfil the role that I had always had. However, I knew that to make her truly happy I had to finish what I had started and make her proud.
Sometimes I feel isolated at ANU because I feel as if no one understands who I am and where I have come from. I often think about what I have encountered in life, and how it has shaped who I am. I had always been so unkind to myself, comparing myself to students who had much easier upbringings. Wondering why I struggled to get out of bed some days, and form connections with other people. Why did I always feel slightly alone and out of place?
I wrote this to say that you are not alone, there are many first-generation university students like myself who feel this way. I know how isolating it can be, being separated from your family and your culture and I just want to say it’s okay. It’s okay to have days where it’s hard to connect with people and it’s okay to call your mum when you are feeling homesick.
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