Life of Sri Lankans in Australia

Identity, lifestyle, and dilemmas of living between two cultures


Dr. Siri Gamage, Armidale,


As many Sri Lankans have migrated and domiciled in Australia during the last five decades, primarily in major cities such as Sydney and Melbourne, it is useful to dwell upon the lifestyle and identity issues they face as the generation of migrants give way to the second generation, i.e. their children. Many of the immigrants from Sri Lanka who started to come in the 70s and 80s now have grown up children and in some cases even grand children. Thus the earlier immigrants from Sri Lanka have entered their 60s, 70s and even 80s giving them a taste of what elderly life is all about. Many others are about to enter this phase of life in the adopted country. Majority of Sri Lankan immigrants and their spouses were settled in major cities primarily due to the accessibility of employment, networks of friends, kith and kin, as well as modern amenities plus services. However, since the Australian government started to issue regional visas several years ago, some have found employment in rural and regional areas also. Among them are doctors,academics and engineers.

When immigrants arrive in Australia, they strive to establish their families in the new place, find suitable employment and housing, and make sense of the new place, people, institutions and norms of behaviour so that they can lead a normal life. As the immigrant families are relatively young or in their middle ages, they naturally have small children of schooling years. Some struggle to find suitable employment and as a result they are compelled to undertake bridging courses in a new or related field. Others find less than satisfactory work compared to their qualifications and experience in Sri Lanka or elsewhere but as they need an income to live they carry on irrespective. Some spouses also face similar challenges in that they often have to work in areas unfamiliar to them compared to life back home, e.g. processing work in factories, work in the childcare industry. A few find suitable employment to match their qualifications and experience.

In any case, a primary aim of immigrant families is to provide their children with an adequate level of education and lead them into a professional career. Parents make many sacrifices to achieve this goal. Some succeed in achieving it and others fail. However, as the Australian socio-economic system allows for further education and skill enhancement as mature aged students, and the vocational education is also highly regarded in the country, those who struggle to find employment initially also find suitable employment in time to come.

When the children are growing up and they become adults speaking English as their first language, parental generation whose first language was not English confront certain challenges. One such challenge is the lack of appreciation about Sri Lankan culture and norms of behaviour by their children – though in some families parents are able to inculcate Sri Lankan cultural idioms and norms of behaviour to a satisfactory degree. As a whole generation of young adults grow up with no significant exposure to the Sri Lankan way of life, language and culture, the parents of this generation are faced with the challenge of either coping with the challenges this brings or confronting it. Examples of both can be observed among Sri Lankan migrant families. Those who confront the challenges often do so without much help from the professional counsellors. They rather use the approaches they had learned from their home culture and country when they were growing up in Sri Lanka. For example, they try to act in an authoritarian manner in making decisions about children’s lives, which in turn lead to unpleasant confrontations with children. However, those parents who are familiar with the Australian idioms and norms of behaviour tend to adopt a more liberal attitude to their children’s way of life, which they have acquired from the land of their living.

For many Sri Lankan immigrants, it is impossible to give up their Sri Lankan identity. It is deeply engrained in their thinking, behaviour and worldview. As they have been socialised into their ethnic cultures and respective religions in the home country for 3-4 decades at least, one cannot expect them to put aside their home country identity overnight merely because they have migrated to another country. However, what is somewhat surprising is that even after living in Australia for 3-4 decades, some immigrants tend to live a highly Sri Lankan life in the new country. Such families mostly follow their religious idioms, cooking and eating styles, dressing styles, socialising ways, without breaking into the many spaces provided by the new country for interaction with multicultural others. They even tend to influence their children to follow the same life style, even though they do not succeed on this on many occasions. Such families also tend to travel to Sri Lanka almost annually if not every two or so years during their holidays. For them, the Australian life style is somewhat confronting. It is characterised by so many ills, e.g. drinking alcohol, promiscuous sexuality, racism and discrimination, work pressure. Though there are many weaknesses in the Sri Lankan society and the way the country is run, this type of Sri Lankans tend to appreciate the positive sides in life such as the ability to care for the elderly, help received from extended family at times of need, status afforded by others, networks of family and friends as well as the relatively leisurely life.

There are other Sri Lankan immigrants who have successfully integrated with the Australian way of life beyond their work places. They have absorbed elements of Australian way of life into their lives and homes. This is reflected in culinary habits, dressing styles, personal care, interactions with a cross section of other Australians, sporting and exercise regimes, clubs and societies and even engagement in voluntary work. Those with links to Christian and Catholic churches find such a transition easier than those who are adhering to other religions. However, this type of Sri Lankan immigrants who feel comfortable in the Australian way of life belong to Buddhist and Hindu backgrounds as well. Instead of trying to maintain a hierarchical relationship with children, parents in such families tend to approach children as friends and equals. A more liberal attitude is adopted toward children and their behaviour, satisfaction of children’s needs. Australian identity is not an issue for them and for that matter Sri Lankan identity is also not an issue.

However, there is a layer of early Sri Lankans who regard their Sri Lankan identity as problematic. They tend to refer to their home identity rather as Ceylonese corresponding to the period before 1956 when the language of administration was made Sinhala instead of English. English was the language of administration during the British colonial period (1796-1948).

Compared to the Anglo-Australian and other European majority in Australia, Sri Lankan immigrants of all ethnicities can be considered as minorities. Even the Sinhalese who form the majority in Sri Lanka become a minority in the Australian context. This is something that many find difficult to comprehend and accept. Yet as Australia is a country with a liberal democracy where individual rights are guaranteed, rule of law applies to everyone equally, and government services are also available irrespective of one’s national origin, ethnicity and race or language spoken, this does not pose many challenges in day to day living. Yet those who have been used to exercising power and authority over others back in Sri Lanka, or used to enjoying honour and status due to their social, economic or power positions find it hard to function normally at least for a while in Australian context. However, with the passing of time, they learn the ropes, the local idioms, and norms of behaviour while adapting to new circumstances. However, when they meet other Sri Lankans they tend to display their power, wealth and status as they are used to do back home. Other Sri Lankans resent this and often engage in ridiculing such people at least privately because in Australia even those who are not professionals or wealthy have a recognisable status as equals at a human level.

For the older generation, finding meaning in life becomes an issue with time. Children leave home after finding work and marriage partners. Fortunate ones live close to parents in the same city. When children move to distant places for work, it creates anxiety and loneliness among parents. The presence of extended family members or other community members including religio-cultural institutions fills this gap temporarily. The umbilical links between parents and children and even grand children tend to continue irrespective of the places of living. By and large, many adult children also care for their parents and look after their needs following Sri Lankan cultural expectations. For example they keep parents at their homes. Parents in turn become child carers for the grand children, a role they happily perform.

Some Sri Lankan immigrants experience culture loss as they live their lives in Australia. These are the ones who do not make an attempt to link up with Sri Lankan cultural and religious activities or for that matter Australian cultural activities. They experience a void in life as a result but they tend to fill this with consumerist culture and what it offers through shopping malls etc. Children of such families are also deprived of cultural input that normally parents offer their children.

Significant number of Sri Lankan immigrants is either immersed in Sri Lankan cultural and religious activities, which are found in abundance in major cities or in Australian cultural activities such as sports, arts, music, clubs and societies outside the work place. Many of those who tend to immerse in Sri Lankan cultural activities often criticise Australia as a country without a well developed culture compared to Britain or Sri Lanka. They praise Sri Lanka as a country with long and rich history, culture and traditions. On the other hand, those who enter Australian cultural activities tend to see a different meaning and value in them as they are based on mateship, respect for each other, equality, and non-partisanship. As Australia is considered a multicultural society where immigrants from many different countries have come and settled, different types of Sri Lankan immigrants as described here have found enough spaces to live side by side without conflict.

Yet there is another group of Sri Lankan immigrants who have found it difficult to link up adequately either with the Sri Lankan cultural idioms and activities or Australian ones. Thus they tend to live in between two cultures. Being a multicultural society there is no one single culture in Australia, even though there is one dominant culture, which is Anglo-Australian. Even the presence of a multiplicity of cultures has not helped such Sri Lankan immigrants to link up and find meaning from the multiculturalism. Some adult children are better in this because they have established close links with other Asian or European adult children through schooling, higher education or even work. Sometimes such links end up in cross-cultural marriages.

Living a life of in-betweenness is a common phenomenon experienced by many immigrants. In most cases, this leads to hybrid identities and life, meaning they adopt cultural features from both cultures. This can be quite enriching. By the same token, those who find themselves unable to fit in with either of the cultures and their idioms and norms of behaviour find living in Australia quite a challenging one.

At the end, what all Sri Lankan immigrants realise is that they can live only in one place at a time. They are reminded of this reality even though some choose to live part of the year in Sri Lanka after retirement. Material comforts available in Australia are not available in Sri Lanka to the same extent even though it is compensated by the availability of other comforts, e.g. extended family support, school and work networks, familiar flora and fauna, food, and culturally significant ceremonies. Being a large country Australia offers immigrants much more space in geographical terms. Its democratic institutions, norms of life and humane practices offer them even more spaces for the enjoyment of life. Sri Lanka –being a small island – is crowded, its hierarchical norms, politicised public practices and other nuances in day to day life make people highly angry and stressed to the point of many looking to migrate.

Sri Lankans in Australia tend to understand the generational differences and desires much better as the early immigrants grow older and the intricacies of life as well as the true meanings if life are brought home in a much more direct way. Some tend to travel in other countries like other Australians during their older years. Yet most tend to be concentrated in major cities for better or worse stuck in the households performing more mundane activities. A rare few tend religious activities in Buddhist temples etc. to improve their spirituality. Religious centres provide places of worship away from the pressures brought on by the secular demands of life.

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