Patiala, Punjab, India
New Delhi, India on 13 September 1998
Sydney on 15 September 1998
I initially stayed with friends in Seven Hills and Liverpool, then shared a rental unit in Carlton. These places were in different parts of suburban Sydney.
2.5 days per week as Computer Support Officer, NSW Department of Education in the city (Sydney).
Network Support Officer at NSW Anti-Discrimination Board and Manager of Business Applications at NSW Trustee and Guardian – both in Sydney city.
I’m from north of India, Punjab state. I was born in the city Patiala in 1964, the youngest of four siblings. I have two sisters and one brother. We were a close knit family.
My family background is Sikh. It is a very young religion, only 600 years old. Mostly my religion is in north India, [but originated in what is now] Pakistan. Sikhs were forced to move. My dad and mum left behind everything; their house and all their belongings. My mum’s dad was a village head. They had big land.
Partition [resulting from Indian independence] wasn’t handled well by government or British consultation. Muslims want a separate nation, their own country. In August 1947 they said this part is India; this part is Pakistan. They just announced Hindus should be living here, Sikhs should be living here and Muslims would be living there. They didn’t care about people living on the other sides. Thousands were killed [while migrating].
My dad’s dad was a shopkeeper. He was very, very upset witnessing these killings. He lost his mental balance. After coming to India he passed away [due to depression]. My dad had to start from scratch. He tried to find other family members [which] took him years.
My dad’s job was in Delhi [the Indian capital]. I did my early schooling there. Then I went back to Punjab where my dad had [another] job in a small township. Nangal was very beautiful. It’s hilly [with] Satluj River flowing through and Bhakra Dam about 20 kilometres [away]. [It] was a remote, quieter area but at that age you adjust quickly.
I did my high school there [but] wasn’t very good actually. From Year 11, [aged] 16, something changed. I was coming in the top band and graduated in science. Then I moved back to Patiala [but] there was some [disturbances in Punjab so] I had to go to Jaipur [in Rajasthan]. There I started doing computer studies. I studied in English medium. In India [this] means you write and take your exams in English but the spoken medium is Punjabi.
I became a computer science teacher in Patiala and wr[o]te a book on the syllabus, dedicated to my elder sister. It took me about one-and-a-half years to write it by hand.
Computers at that time were new. It was hard [to get] another job in India. I was feeling stuck. I can’t stand corruption. That was the main reason [to leave India]. [It] was in every part of living and working, even where I was teaching. I was resisting [corruption] so I had not very good relations with my supervisors.
Before applying I researched going to the UK or Canada or USA but I found the weather is mild here. My wife feels very, very cold in winter and very hot in summer. So I thought Australia will be better for her.
I went to the Embassy a couple of times to make enquiries about where Indians were living and the lifestyle [in Australia]. How much is the rent, travelling and even how much a loaf of bread costs so I take with me enough money.
We were living in a combined family. My parents and brother were on the ground floor. I was living on the first floor. They were always looking after my son and wife [but] very, very supportive [about migrating]. It took about two years [before] I got my Australian visa, [then] I waited for about three months. My dad said, “People die to get the visa, what’s the problem?” I said, “I will miss you guys”.
My wife [is from industrial] Punjab [and] had less exposure to English. She was taking leaving the family very, very hard and she wasn’t prepared for that. I tried hard and convinced her [to leave] but it wasn’t from her heart. Whatever we were watching on TV, or movies about Western culture, they were showing life was very, very different. My wife was thinking, “Why are we going there? Nobody cares for anybody; we have no family ties.” I said to her, “We are different. We don’t need to change. We are not going forever. If things don’t work out well, we’ll come back. Just like a long holiday.”
I bought this clock just before coming here. I thought if I overslept, I can’t go to my job. My parents would always tell me to get up! India is very, very different. I can rely on my family. Here, it’s very independent. You don’t know who your neighbours are.
At that time we had very old computers that used floppy drives. I brought my resume and applications so I can start work here.
That’s a special traditional kind of glass, pure silver. This is given at the time of birth. My [eldest] sister thought I am migrating to a new country so I’m going to start my life from scratch, just like a new birth. She gave me that special glass.
I brought bedsheets, blankets, heavy utensils, plates and glasses. Things I would need on a daily basis [for] six months.
It was my first flight [and] the first time I left my country so I was very, very cautious. That’s my [travel] pouch [for] my passport and important documents, money and travellers’ cheques. I kept it with me all the time. I came by Malaysian Airlines on 13th of September 1998 and asked them to give vegetarian food. But leaving family behind was very emotional. We didn’t feel like eating or drinking most of the journey. My wife was crying most of the time from Delhi to Kuala Lumpur. Even my son, he’s very connected to my parents. I told him we are going for a few days like a holiday. Kuala Lumpur, we got a very good hotel. We relaxed there. After coming to Australia, my son was always asking, “I want to go to grandpa, I want to go to grandma. When are we going back?” He took longer to settle down.
I reached Sydney on the 15th of September. A friend [collecting us] was stuck in traffic. As I said, I’m very, very careful. I had a ‘Plan B’. Another friend came to pick me up.
From Sydney Airport, we went to Seven Hills [in western Sydney where] he was living but he was in a students’ house. It wasn’t very comfortable [but] I slept because we were so tired. When I got up I started making calls back to India to say we arrived safely. My parents were so worried. The first friend called India to say [we] weren’t at the airport.
Then I called that guy. He felt very bad. He was living in Liverpool [in Sydney’s south-west and] came to Seven Hills. When he saw students he took me to his house in Liverpool with his wife and a son, exactly the same age as my son. My wife also got along with his wife.
I lived there about two or three days. His wife was very, very helpful. She took us to Centrelink, the Tax Office [and] banks. She did the initial induction for us. They [wanted us to] live there until we found a job. But I [thought] it will be too much for them.
My Seven Hills friend said [we] can move with he and his wife in an apartment somewhere. We hired a car and started looking around Carlton and Kogarah in the St George area [in Sydney’s south]. He had a job [nearby] and said it’s close to the city.
It was a big difference from Punjab to a Western country. The main difference was the cleanliness. It’s very neat, very organised, the trains on time. I didn’t find any difference whether Seven Hills, Liverpool or Kogarah because everything looked similar. All the stations have Railway Parade on one side and Railway Street on the other side. You will see similar shops. You will see McDonalds everywhere.
We looked around many properties. I didn’t know we needed references to get a rental house so I paid the [hefty] bond [instead]. That was a three bedroom unit in Carlton. I had to take it because only that one was offered.
The rent was quite high. They were very, very hard times. We were sleeping on the floor, not having proper bedding, just the blankets we brought. I didn’t get a job for six months. I was determined to do my IT career job. I had about 12 years experience. I tried everywhere.
I almost spent all my money, [mostly on rent and food]. I was thinking to go back. I was very worried, very tense. I got into a slight depression, like I started getting pains [in my neck and shoulders]. I wasn’t telling my wife and my son, I was keeping it to myself. I was always smiling, “Things will be better, don’t worry”.
Centrelink [said] one of the charities might give me some furniture. They came to my [home]. We were sleeping and sitting on the floor. They refused to help. They said, “In your culture, mostly people sit on floors”. I said, “No, it’s not true, I can show you [life in Punjab is much better]. Give us at least a dining table.” But one of the ladies said, “I have been to India many times, I know the cultures. You people always sit and eat on the floor.”
Centrelink [also] told me where to find jobs. You can make free phone calls there. I was applying for ten IT jobs a day. They were saying I have too much experience. I got very frustrated. So what if I am over qualified? I will do the job even better. That will benefit the company. But they [declined].
I used to go to Kogarah Library to do my resume, check newspapers, apply for jobs and come home during lunchtime. Penshurst is quite far [but] I used to walk [there] because [an] organisation offered faxes for free.
Two things I found hard were the rent and travelling. In my migration contract, I wasn’t supposed to get any assistance for the first two years. That is really the time when a person will require assistance. I found this policy very unfair. Centrelink’s advice was to go to the library [for] an Indian staff member to tell me about social life here. I thought there should be some kind of counselling or guidelines on how to find a job, write an application, modify your resume.
I [knew] Indian students. They were doing odd jobs like working for a petrol station and Pizza Hut deliver[ies]. They can find me a job but said I will have to cut my hair and remove my turban. They were from Sikh families. Before migrating, [some] cut their hair [for] a Western country. Some were influence[ed] here. They tried the same thing to me. They had a mentality like it’s not easy to get a job in a Western country with a turban. They have misconceptions. I know many working in Woolies, Coles, cleaning cars with turbans. But I said I would rather go back than that. I’m happy how I look. I was very, very firm and had a strong belief. I thought if my communication skills are good, these things are irrelevant.
I like my religion. It came into being when there were two main religions in India, about 600 years back: Hinduism and Muslims. The ladies were not treated equally. Women were lifted to come at par with men. Our founder [previously gave] uniform surnames. Men have ‘Singh’ surname and women have ‘Kaur’ surname. The distinction for caste was coming from the surname. In our religion they said everybody’s the same [and] it is fundamental to genuinely donate ten per cent of my earnings [that] shouldn’t [necessarily] go to my religion or community [but to the really needy]. I am in this very modern religion that is very practical, helping others.
Then I met a Sikh person. I didn’t know him before. I was on Kogarah station and he was going to work. Whenever a turbaned person [sees] another turbaned person, we always say sat sri akal; we always wish. He gave me job application tips. Getting a job here is very, very different [to India]. It’s not entirely on the resume. You have to address the selection criteria properly.
He told his office he’s coming late and spent 40 minutes with me at the station. From those tips, I applied for the Department of Education and Training as a Computer Support Officer. That was a part-time job and I got [it].
The same as in India, [Australian] people are very helpful. The difference was no connections. If my wife is all by herself or my son is going to school, and we had the language barrier also, who to ask [for help]? We were living by ourselves in a kind of a desert, a remote area.
Initially I felt the [culture] is very dry, formal here. Whenever I see neighbours, I try to smile, say hello or something like that. That was the biggest difference. They were not stopping unless you ask something specifically. Eventually I got used to it. If you start dialogue, yes, they are very friendly.
The people over here looked at me a little bit different. I understand they haven’t seen any person with a turban. This was a[nother] big change I noticed. India is very, very colourful. There’s no distinction between boys and girls, what they wear. I used to wear pink turbans and shirts, yellow shirts and turbans. [Australians] were looking back and staring, why I’m wearing pink?! When I started working, I found it’s more formal. I made some enquiries and switch[ed] over to mostly office black and whites.
I have my full cupboard [in Patiala]. All that colourful stuff is there because I can’t go to a wedding wearing a black or plain turban. It’s a bad omen. It’s a cultural thing.
Back in India, my wife was always wearing salwaar kameez but one year down the track she is comfortable wearing Western clothes.
Immediately after September 11, the attacks on the World Trade Centre, I found people were reluctant to talk to me; [people thought every turbaned person is Muslim]. Things definitely changed after that. Many people from my community felt like that.
My wife and I are vegetarian by choice. Back in India, we cook dinner at home. We cook all sorts of traditional Indian food: lentils, vegetables, sweet rice. That’s why I brought some suitable utensils.
[At first], we had to go to Auburn to buy Indian groceries. Then there was a very good shop in Kogarah, very close, but we didn’t have a car and the stuff was very heavy. The guy was very nice. He was delivering to us at home, free of cost. But now things are very different, even in Hurstville where about 97% of the population is Asian community like Chinese, Malaysian, Koreans, Hong Kong.
Not many [Sikhs] in the St George area [but] there are about three or four Indian shops. Anything that’s available in India, we can get here now.
We started from Seven Hills that had a lot of Indian community. When we came to Kogarah, there was mostly a Chinese community. Because India had two major wars with China I [didn’t] want to live here. But I find they are the most easy type of community. They are not troublemakers. Their culture is quite similar to Indian culture. We talk loudly, they talk loudly. We cook at home, they cook at home. They are very family oriented, they look after their family, their kids, older people. It’s a quite similar culture. They are very friendly. Some live in their own groups, yes, but if you get into their groups they’re very open. I never had any problems. Both of my boys went to Hurstville Public School. They were the only Sikh students and the others were [mostly] Chinese. No problems at all.
I have been living in this area about 13 out of 14 years. I moved [away] one year when I [bought a home]; it’s a bit expensive [to buy] here.
I feel part of the local community. I’m a member of Hurstville Council committees and my wife is a Council childcare assistant. My older son, who’s 20 now, he’s a Council library assistant. My younger son, who’s 12 years, goes to Blakehurst High School nearby.
I’m also well connected with my community. We call our religious place gurdwara, it means ‘door to the God’. [The] gurdwara in Revesby, near Bankstown, was the first [Sikh] religious place in Sydney. But we have many others now. I feel lucky to live where there are so many. Now, all over Australia, would be around 26,000 Sikhs.
I never worked in Hurstville, mostly in the city. I also work for SBS. I produce and present programs [for] my community radio [show] every Thursday night. Anything to do with the Indian community, Punjabi community, I cover it.
Over the years I have realised life is much better here than India, but it’s hard. If you’re a hard worker, yes it’s for you. I enjoy it. I like working under pressure, try[ing] different things. This has a lot of opportunities for me.
MOHINDER PAL (MP) SINGH was interviewed on 25 May 2012.
Interview, research, text edit, photography and film production by Andrea Fernandes, NSW Migration Heritage Centre
Film editing by Jessica Tyrrell
Web layout by Annette Loudon, NSW Migration Heritage Centre and Jessica Tyrrell