My Beautiful Brown Skin
I haven’t always loved the skin I’m in…
When I first moved to New Zealand I was excited to arrive in my mum’s homeland and learn about the half of me that was so completely foreign and exotic. Growing up on a small tropical island called Penang (part of Malaysia) and being brown was normal, and it was my caucasian mother who stuck out like a sore thumb everywhere we went.
My mum first met my dad when he was a foreign student studying political science at Victoria University in Wellington and she was at teachers college. It was the 70’s and back then there were not many people that looked like my dad in New Zealand, a lanky, dark skinned, bold, outspoken, free thinking south Indian malaysian with a big afro and radical political views to match.
My mum on the other hand was this gentle, softly spoken young white kiwi woman with long straight brown hair down to her waist, and completely unaware of how beautiful she was – which is something everyone including her two sisters would later go on to tell me about her all the time. Mum was, and still is, the epitome of that rare kind of beauty that’s both innocent and pure and completely radiates from within, so I don’t blame dad for persistently pursuing her until she succumbed to his wacky sense of humour and charm.
But their love story was not an easy one and was met with constant disapproval from others including her parents. When my mum first introduced my dad to her white upper middle class parents they immediately could not look past the colour of his skin and refused to accept or embrace the man who was the keeper of their daughter’s heart. When my parents decided to get married a few years later my grandad gave mum an ultimatum, if she married “that man” they would cut all ties and she would no longer be accepted as part of the Thomas family. She chose love.
Prior to my mum first leaving New Zealand with my dad and newborn baby (me) in 1983 to head back to Dad’s birthplace of Malaysia, mum’s first time seeing her parents since making that choice was at the airport when they came to say goodbye and meet their first grandchild for what would be the very first and last time until they came to visit us in Malaysia 8 years later.
This is the day we left for Malaysia, look how sad mum looks, but dad on the other hand looks stoked!
I sometimes forget how hard and painful it must have been for mum to be forced to make those choices in order to honour and follow her heart. My parents and others like them where the brave young people of yesterday who fearlessly pursued their forbidden love in order to pave the way for my generation to pursue and love whomever we want. It is a freedom gifted to me by my parents that I often take for granted. For six years now I have loved a caucasian kiwi of pure Scottish decent whom my parents have grown to know and love like he is another son. When first introducing my partner Adam to my parents my concerns were not superficial and skin deep, I wanted them to see all the things that I loved about him and in turn I wanted them to love those things about him too. I love my family and it matters to me a great deal what they think of my partner and for my partner to feel accepted and welcomed into the family is crucial to me or else it just couldn’t work long term.
I am so lucky that my parents value my happiness and can see that the man I have chosen to love is someone who makes me genuinely happy. They taught me to value qualities like integrity, loyalty and honour and that how someone treats you and makes you feel matters more than anything superficial like how they look or what their cultural background is.
I was so used to being raised this way and as a child in Malaysia I attended an international school where everyone was different from one another. It was so culturally diverse that race, religion, and skin colour were differences that we were taught and encouraged to celebrate and embrace about one another.
My multicultural start at St. Christopher’s International School in Penang, Malaysia (excuse my amazing hair!)
It was 1995 when we first moved to a little coastal suburb called Paraparaumu beach on the Kapiti Coast, 45 minutes north of Wellington city. My mother had received news that my grandad had been diagnosed with a terminal illness called motor neurons disease and did not have long to live. Mum was one of three daughters all living as expats in South East Asia at the time which meant that my grandparents were completely alone with nobody to help out when they received the news. It was not until mum wanted to return to New Zealand to help look after her dying father that I learnt that not everybody celebrated being different.
As soon as we landed in New Zealand I suddenly became acutely aware that my brother and I were suddenly the ones that didn’t look like everyone else, that we didn’t fit in. For the first time I got a glimpse of what life in Malaysia must have been like for my 5’11” kiwi European mother for the 11 years she spent there raising my brother and I.
The first day I attended my new school in my small hometown I was excited to meet other kids my age and make new “kiwi” friends. When I arrived I soon discovered my brother and I were pretty much the only brown kids in the entire school, I’m not kidding. The fact we had strange accents and wore weird clothes (it was summer at the time but to my brother and I it was bloody freezing for two jungle kids fresh off the boat!) didn’t exactly help matters either. I learnt very quickly that my brown skin was something the other kids thought was ugly and that the way I looked, spoke, dressed and acted were very different and for the first time being different didn’t make me feel special, it made me feel ashamed.
My brother Ra and I totally blending in, our first year in NZ
I was teased and bullied everyday at that school. They say there are big life events that happen which shape you and my first year arriving in New Zealand changed the way I saw myself for a very long time.
I hated being different and so desperately wanted to be liked and to fit in and feel accepted. Kids can be so cruel and the sad thing is they learn a lot of their behavior from home and what they experience, witness, and hear their parents say and do is often then copied and repeated. I am so thankful to my parents for raising me the way they did and teaching me to treat others with kindness, respect, and compassion – regardless of their social status, race, colour, or religion.
After my first two years in New Zealand attending primary school I had managed to get rid of my accent and sound as kiwi as possible, I had learnt it wasn’t cool to be the smart kid in class so I dumbed myself down and completely turned my back on anything to do with my Malaysian culture and my Indian heritage. I distanced myself from Dad and pushed him away when any efforts were made by him to come along and support me at school events or weekend sports games. Typing this now I have tears streaming down my face and I have to keep blinking in order to see my computer screen properly because I feel so ashamed of myself for ever treating my Dad this way. I allowed other people’s ignorance to dictate and affect my precious relationship and bond I share with my Dad. I have always been a daddy’s girl and when I look back at that time in my life I feel a tremendous sense of grief and loss for all the years I spent self loathing, ashamed, and afraid to be different. I was robbed of a childhood too soon, I lost my sense of self and my innocence and I let other people’s projected fears and prejudice take these things from me that they had no right to take and I shouldn’t have given up so easily.
I spent so much time in high school staying out of the sun & slathering my entire body in SPF 50 sunscreen (which funnily enough my skin thanks me for now! haha) trying not to get darker. I would compare myself to my friends, the girls in magazines like Girlfriend and Cleo and the tv shows I enjoyed and they all had one thing in common – fair skin. Back then in a small NZ town like mine I had never seen any other girls that looked like me and ethnic diversity being represented in the media, well that just wasn’t even a thing yet, and to be honest, I feel like society still has a long way to go in that department but I’ll save that rant for another day! Boys would look straight past me in favour of my peers who looked more like the girls in the music videos (think Britney and Christina) and I became really good at being “friend zoned” and playing wingwoman. Total side note and I don’t mean to brag, but I’m actually still a terrific wingwoman if anyone needs one 😉
Clearly living my best life at Paraparaumu College, Kapiti Coast
Here’s the thing though, at the time I was so preoccupied and consumed by my own insecurities that I was too busy to notice that all around me were other young adults just like me who were self conscious, desperate to be liked and noticed, and just wanted to feel accepted. I was also too busy to actually see that the people going around bullying people like me and making mine and other’s lives miserable were actually miserable themselves. Ever heard the saying ‘hurt people hurt people’? It’s so true. Happy people are too preoccupied and content enjoying their own lives, feeling secure and good about themselves to ever feel threatened by someone else’s happiness and success. Children lash out at other children when they feel threatened, insecure or afraid and it doesn’t really change that much as adults either when you think about it.
Over the years I’ve experienced my fair share of prejudice and racism both verbally and physically. I’ve been called all sorts of racist things like sand nigger, curry muncher, black bitch, paki, darky and I could go on but you get the picture. I’ve been spat on, pushed, tripped, and had stuff physically and verbally hurled at me from a passing car.
I’ve endured some shit stuff all because some hateful, fearful, ignorant people in the world think that because my skin is brown they have the right to try and hurt me. How messed up and sad is that?! When I was a young girl it did hurt me. It crushed my spirit, took away my shine and made me hate myself. But one day I finally realised that I had been looking at it all wrong and that it wasn’t up to them how I saw myself or how I felt about myself, that was MY CHOICE. Nobody could tell me who I was if I knew my own self worth and celebrated the things that made me special. My skin did not define me but hell, how precious am I that my parents chose to love each other despite all the people that told them they weren’t allowed to and they created ME! I was born from struggle and forbidden love and I was wanted, cherished, and nurtured by my ebony and ivory creators who fought so that I would not have to endure the same pain that they went through. By allowing what these unhappy lost souls did to me dictate how I saw myself I was unknowingly disrespecting my parents and every other person who had gone before me who’d endured unimaginable injustice, violence, discrimination, and prejudice all in the hopes that progress and change would come if not for them, then for their children and children’s children to come.
So although the colour of my skin does not define me, I wear it with pride and I choose to honour all those that fought so hard for me to have the life I have. I can vote, I can love who I want to love, sit wherever I damn well want to sit when I ride the bus, use the same restroom as everyone else and guess what haters? I cook a mean curry and if I happen to smell like curry powder afterwards and you want to call me a curry muncher, go ahead, it’s a fucking compliment as far as I’m concerned!
My name is Jessie Gurunathan and I am half kiwi European, half Malaysian south Indian/Sri Lankan and I love my beautiful brown skin.