This is a selection of pieces from Sumithri’s series, ‘So, I was Talking to a Friend’, published in Woroni throughout Semester Two 2017.
So, I Was Talking to a Friend
I want to tell you about my best friend. We met by chance a few years back, when Cupid (aka social media) brought us together. She lives on the other side of the world; sometimes we go months communicating only via memes, sometimes we talk for days on end. I recently had a three-hour phone call with her and, every time we hang up, I feel so much more alive than before. We laugh at everything, but we talk about things so thoroughly that I feel I learn so much with every conversation. I don’t realise the depth of our conversations until I talk to other people, and find myself saying, ‘Oh yeah, I was talking to a friend about this …’ over and over and over.
There is knowledge within every interaction. The way we see the world is, more often than not, shaped by things people have said, written, and felt. Yes, we go to school/uni to study, but things mould us outside of that. People we meet out of the blue can have such a profound impact on our lives. We have mini revelations all the time, and our worldviews are sensitive and perpetually shifting. Oftentimes, it’s not until we take a step back and think about how much we’ve grown that we realise this.
Words are important. They tell us stories from perspectives that we otherwise would never have experienced. While it may never be possible to understand where someone else is coming from truly, because we would never have experienced what they have, words – written, spoken, sung, shouted from the rooftops – can give us a little taste. I am immensely grateful to those who take the time to share their stories for all I have learnt and will continue to learn throughout my life.
I started writing, really, when I was 19. I was on my gap year, with an exceedingly boring desk job, and lots of thoughts about many things. It was a period where, having copious amounts of time on my hands, I began to read more about social issues, politics and just generally the world beyond my textbooks. I found myself forming new opinions, and raising questions to myself that I felt were important to discuss. I went through a particularly obnoxious vegan phase, where I watched documentaries on end and got caught up with some Vegan YouTuber Drama™. I had questions about identity, social justice, and privilege. I had so many thoughts, but nobody to hash them out with. So I wrote.
I saved in my Tumblr drafts topic items that I would come back to and write about. My desk job wasn’t so dreadful anymore; I had something to look forward to. I was expressing myself, and could feel my writing improving. I hadn’t realised at the time, but expressing myself through words to articulate an opinion often required me to educate myself further on a topic. That involved finding articles about, say, male privilege, which I could link up when I talked about those issues, with detailed definitions and explanations.
I’ve found, through writing, my place in the movements I care about. I’ve helped draft statements at conferences, released articles about social justice concepts, and shared #relatable content about my experiences with my race, gender and queerness*. I love to write, and to hear that someone can relate to something I have written is one of the most validating and heartwarming things.
This column is called ‘So I was talking to a friend …’ because it’s inspired by conversations I have with people in my life. Some of these chats are really casual, and some serious. The world isn’t just made up of Big Ideas, but also little snippets of experiences that make us laugh, cry and see things the way we see them. There’ll be cute anecdotes and broken-down jargony concepts, but most of all, a conversation.
I love my friends and our relationships with each other so much, and this is my way of sharing how formative they’ve been for me in understanding and observing the world. I’m excited to unlearn, learn and write. And I’m excited for this column.
I write this on a flight home to Singapore, to surprise my mum for her 50th birthday and spend time with my family. I’ll be coming home in a few days, to Canberra, where I’ll have assignments to do, dishes to clean and sheets to change. There’s a part of my heart in the excellent public transport system, good food and childhood memories of the country that I spent the first two decades of my life in. And there’s a comfort and warmth associated with spending winter nights bundled up in three blankets, independence and some the most fulfilling relationships I’ve made in my entire life of the place I’ve been granted a temporary visa to study in.
Each of these places defines a specific stage of my life. I lived most of my life in the same house in Singapore, and that physical space extended across many formative parts of my growing up, from the various schools I went to, through to my gap year. My room, shared with my sister for many years until she moved into the basement, keeps secrets nobody knows, and hosts stories even I can’t remember anymore. The same 5.44km running route around my neighbourhood I’ve been doing since I was 15 has seen me grow more confident and change the way I see the world, in conversations I have with myself on those gradual hills. The Chinese vegetarian restaurant my family frequents at least once a month has seen me through countless food cravings, appetite changes and family bickers.
Yet, when I go back during my uni breaks, it doesn’t feel whole anymore. It feels like a visit (which it is), and after the catch-ups with friends and family get-togethers, I long to come back to Australia. Nothing has changed dramatically with the situation in Singapore, except that my life – for now – isn’t there anymore. Everything I have going for me at this stage is here.
This is something many parents whose children have moved out struggle with: we continue to grow, and will be different people when we return. But to them, nothing has changed. They miss us because a part of their world is missing; it can be tough for my mum’s work to not be disturbed by me sticking my face up against the glass of the study door, or for my absence so crucial to the depletion of household peanut butter to be noticed. But on our end, our lives are whole, as we’ve moved away and developed support networks sans our families. It doesn’t mean we don’t value our parents and siblings anymore; it’s just that we’re making up our worlds from what is available to us, and that’s natural.
No matter how ‘whole’ my worlds are, my entire life, the feeling of ‘home’ hasn’t been the simple warm and fuzzies I’d expect. As someone of a minority race, my experiences of racism and marginalisation through other aspects of my identity are inextricable from growing up in both Chinese-majority Singapore and white-dominated Australia. It’s difficult to call a place home while knowing that that place isn’t made for and doesn’t privilege you. But even if I were to go to Tamil Nadu, India, to find myself and ‘connect to my roots’, it wouldn’t feel like home. Although I would be of a majority, I am not as fluent in the language as I’d like, and having been inevitably influenced by values and norms associated with the places I’ve lived in, fitting in wouldn’t be seamless. I’m generations removed from that place, and while it bears some cultural familiarity, it’s not home in all its entirety.
And then, there’s the ‘home’ of the places that we’ve never been to or lived in. We derive them from people so important to us in our lives, but who are usually absent from our everyday lives. It’s the seamless comfort of spending time in a close friend’s house with their family halfway across the world, and the spaces we’re so accustomed to hearing about that we’ve formed our own pictures of them in our minds.
Whether it’s Singapore, Canberra, or someplace I don’t know yet, my heart will always be in different places that I consider home. And, I’ll always be missing people no matter where I am. While it would be pleasant to have everyone in one place, and maybe then my idea of ‘home’ will be complete. But, I know that those relationships being where they makes them so beautiful. ‘Home’ isn’t just one city or country for me, but the comfort, memories and hopes of all of the places I’ve lived and known.
As the middle child, young Sumi was always a little attention-seeking. But the one thing she wasn’t was patient. Ballet, Bharathanatyam, Carnatic singing – you name it; she’s dropped out of it. She had been taking drama lessons for a while, which was promising, but racist microaggressions – from not just her peers but the teacher as well – led to her dropping that, too. Her pursuit of the arts wasn’t looking too great.
Things picked up after a couple of years, from a high school play (in which I played an aborted baby, fun fact), to annual family musicals alongside my siblings and cousins, to becoming a choir nerd by the end of my school days.
Back in 2012, my high school choir had a trip to Olomouc, Czech Republic for a choral festival and competition. We were there in the ‘summertime’ – I remember getting caught in the freezing rain with only a light jacket on me multiple times – and those five short days were some of my most intense, fulfilling days. We’d wake up, have breakfast, rehearse until lunch, have lunch, rehearse until dinner, and sometimes even rehearse after that; on some days there was some sightseeing sprinkled in here and there, but there was a lot of singing – in parks, outside our lodging, in the town square.
I absolutely love the crunch period right before a big performance, whether it’s dress rehearsals before a theatre performance or mumbling lyrics in our sleep. Over those days or weeks, I can feel myself improving in my art at a rate so much greater than when practices are peppers amongst the other hundred-and-one commitments I have in my life. Applying myself solely to a particular task is such an exciting feeling, and to see how far the performers have come in such a short span of time is impressive. Also, being surrounded by others who are in the same boat, cracking inside jokes and whining about how annoying tech run-throughs are, is great for making some pretty strong relationships. Many of those relationships don’t continue on as the years pass, but to have made such specific memories with them is something that I hold dear.
Getting on stage, facing an audience expecting to be impressed can feel like a lot of pressure. All eyes on us, the attention is flattering and intimidating. But I absolutely love it.
There’s a rush of adrenaline when the curtains open and the lights come on, and a pride in expressing the emotions and meanings of our art. We can all take ownership of our collective efforts, time, and stress. When it comes to performing, that process would have started some time back from nothing but a script, a score or even just a concept. Now, to be able to present to the world something concrete, which can be seen and heard, is such an achievement and it’s all thanks to the people involved.
Some may label pride and passion for performing as arrogance or self-absorption, but there is absolutely no shame in proclaiming one’s love for being on stage, for sharing their work with the world. There is so much more to performing than just the final product, and the entire process – all the ups and downs, the memories and friendships made, and dragging ourselves to day after day of early morning rehearsals – just keeps me coming back over and over again.