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Sanjay Kumarasingham

My full name’s Sanjay Kumarasingham. My family is originally from Sri Lanka and my father immigrated to New Zealand in 1986. My dad was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

He was an accountant, a very confident man and he looked after his parents until they passed away in Sri Lanka. And then he decided he would leave because Sri Lanka was probably not the best place to be Tamil.

My father moved and worked in the Middle East in the 1980s. In 1983 after the war in Sri Lanka broke out, we decided to move. So my father thought the best place to learn about Tamil culture would be Tamil Nadu so he sent us to India. From there, we eventually moved to New Zealand.

I speak a little bit of Sinhalese, Tamil, my mother tongue, and English. I have pleasant memories of Sri Lanka – a good place and good people – though I’ve not been back for 33 years. The way the civil war ended, there was never any reason to go back.

I was a 9-year-old school student when the war started. On that day, I was told that it was not going to be a school day and within hours, literally, mobs took over the streets and houses were burned. We were fortunate. We were only about four days away from a trip to Bahrain so we left, never to go back.

So that trip to Bahrain was meant to be just a temporary trip but it turned into a permanent one; it was very unsafe being Tamil in Sri Lanka at that time. I mean I was young enough to not be really scarred by it, but old enough to remember it.

When we moved to New Zealand years ago, this chess set came with us.

It belongs to my father and the chess pieces were a gift from  my grandfather. My father made the board when he lived in Sri Lanka. He started playing chess when he was very young and he was a very good player. We used to play a lot of games, but later in life   he ended up having a slight issue with his memory and that’s how I knew his memory was failing. Until then I couldn’t beat him because he was so good. The only way I could prove to the doctors at the hospital that he was okay to come back home was using chess. Because they were convinced that he couldn’t.

The chess pieces travelled with us in a container from Sri Lanka to India and then to New Zealand and the only thing that probably made it with us were these chess pieces. We moved to so many places.

I still play with anyone who would be interested in a game. I believe that there was an ancient game called chaturanga played in ancient India, which is the modern day chess.

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When we moved to New Zealand, I attended Wellington College. It was good but it was a big change in approach to education. It was a big culture shock. Sri Lanka to India was easy. India to New Zealand was very hard, very, very different..

There were about 200 Sri Lankan families in Wellington those days maybe? We always had a community around us, which was good. We were heavily involved in some of the Wellington Tamil society activities like drama, making plays, and things like that.

I don't feel like I’m a typical Sri Lankan Tamil. I’m not. I can relate to them, but I don’t think I can be a stereotypical Sri Lankan Tamil.

So, for instance, even though I speak Tamil, my flow is limited, I think, because I’m more fluent in English. My parent’s generation used to speak English. So Tamil for me was a language I learnt to speak, but I’m not fluent in it. So if I meet someone from Sri Lanka who does not know English, my language skills in Tamil have to be used, however they will immediately figure out my fluency They may even think I’m Indian because of my accent and things may sound Indian. I have been mistaken to be an Indian. So the Tamil people who are new here, they will wonder a while before thinking, ‘Where does he fit in?’

I am a person who does not believe in arms and weapons and things like that. That’s my personal view. So that comes from my outlook on life.

When I see people from Sri Lanka now moving to New Zealand, they have had a lot of tragedy in their life. They are children of circumstances. And because of that, the way they view the world is based on things they have experienced as well. It’s very hard to say someone’s view is right or wrong. It’s just what it is.

Some people have been in army camps. I meet them at the Mangere refugee centre along with some of my friends. It’s very hard for them, especially if they haven’t had a formal education or if they are considered to be classified as terrorists as well by certain governments.

When communities from a difficult place come to New Zealand they bring with them a bit of strife, a bit of stereotyping, and a few walls, you know?

So it is due to people’s exposure to different things that they form a worldview. That is going to be independent of where you are from. You could be living in New Zealand in, say, South Auckland. You may have a different exposure to life. You may have lived in Remuera and you may have a different exposure to life. So, at the end of the day it just means what you have been exposed to and how you perceive the world to be.

Today, I have no reason to visit Sri Lanka. A few extended family members still live there. There has to be a very good reason to visit, otherwise, I do not want to expose myself to risk.

Home is New Zealand. I mean, it’s been nearly 30 years that I’ve lived here. I figured that out when I was coming back from a trip, I think it was India, and just as I was  passing through NZ  customs, the  officer said, ‘Welcome home.’

That’s when I figured out that, actually, this is home. It never dawned on me that the biggest question I had was, what was home? I felt a strong connection to India. I used to think yeah, India maybe actually be the best place to live. I have a sense of belonging here now though, because I’m involved with so many different things. There’s still a connection with India but it’s to do more with a spiritual connection.

I guess home is where your friends and family are. And that’s New Zealand for me.

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