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It was Ramadan when I moved out of home. The weather was hot and humid. The buzz of cicadas mingled with the suburban sound of lawnmowers and the smell of freshly cut grass, sliced mango and crispy fried Iftar samosas.

I still have the entry dated in my journal: 23 October 2004. I was twenty years old. The day is noted with a single line, I can’t believe what just happened, scrawled in fading ink. It was an interruption in the humdrum, a shift like a planetary realignment, lining up a new future, a terrifying and exhilarating unknown.

I had been surreptitiously organising my belongings into boxes in my room for days. My heart thudded in my chest and my mouth was dry as I paced the room of my parents’ single-storey four-bedroom house in the tree-lined suburb of St Clair in western Sydney. I was the middle of five siblings with ages spanning two decades who had grown up here in Australian suburbia. It’s where we sucked on Warhead lollies that made our heads spin, in grassy backyards where clothes flapped on a sturdy Hills Hoist and where we cooled down by spraying each other with the hose as the asphalt sizzled in summer.

I was the middle of five siblings with ages spanning two decades who had grown up here in Australian suburbia.

My dad was one of eight children and my mother was one of five who survived to adulthood. They had immigrated from Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi to what they imagined was the glittering west in the late seventies, with two Pakistan-born children, my older brother and sister, in tow. America was the golden goose, the Hollywood dream of palatial homes and first-world extravagance. I was born in Cook County, Chicago, in the private Swedish Covenant Hospital. Later, we went back resigned to Pakistan, and then to my parents’ plan B: Australia, an underpopulated island afterthought in the corner of the globe that was giving away visas at the time.

My grandfather had prophesised it. As my mother walked home exhausted carrying a clay pot of water from the local well on her head, her father-in-law had told her, ‘One day you will live in a country surrounded by water.’

My father was one of the rare ones from his part of Karachi, fluent in English and holding a degree, poised and ready to shed his home town like a skin and make a fortune in the west. In Australia, where my two other siblings – a younger sister and brother – were born, we crammed into a seventies yellow brick walk-up in Sydney’s south-western suburb of Lakemba. It was a two-bedroom flat furnished with second-hand furniture and bunk beds, fenced by a highway and acres of grass littered with abandoned cement construction tubes. New immigrants poured into the area. Men who shook hands at Lakemba Mosque and enquired where you could get a job, and women in shalwar kameez who nervously befriended each other in playgrounds as they rolled their prams, overloaded with plastic bags full of groceries from the budget supermarket Franklins.

The house we moved into in St Clair was bought with the savings from America. It had a huge backyard and front lawn and four whole rooms. It was a palace in comparison to the Lakemba flat. In those days houses in Newtown were going for forty thousand dollars, my parents later moaned. Unaware of the stigma of western Sydney, they plucked an area like a dart on a map and made their home there for the next twenty-four years. Perhaps it’s exhaustion that glued them to the nearest affordable spot after traversing the globe.

My parents filled the house with what my friends and I recognise as a kind of common immigrant currency. There was Islamic calligraphy in golden frames and on wall rugs, velvet-covered tissue boxes and Royal Dansk biscuit tins repurposed as sewing storage. Shami kebabs were packed in freezer ice-cream containers. The showcase was filled with gold-embellished serving dishes, and floral weighted blankets were stored in plastic suitcases.

St Clair was then a green, leafy, working-class white area in a traditionally Labor electorate that veered right over two decades, seduced by the conservative parties as the demographic became browner.

I survived the local co-ed St Clair High School by wearing Adidas, learning to punctuate every sentence with f-bombs and skipping classes to walk around the park aimlessly. I wore pants even in the searing summer and in PE the white girls stared at me with their bare hairless legs in cool shorts, drawling, ‘Aren’t you hot, Sarah?’ Sometimes we’d wait in the quad for subs who never arrived. Other classes were a battle between temps and wild teenagers, peppering everything with a wail of ‘Miss! Miss!’ or ‘Siiiir!’ It was eat or be eaten.

Some teachers ruled quiet, industrious classes, respect earned from a look that said, ‘Do not cross me.’ Most were overworked, exhausted from dealing with our sweaty uniforms and potty mouths. They dampened any hopes we might have had by advising us to go for TAFE or apprenticeships rather than university and professions.

After school, clad in dark-maroon uniforms and glued in groups, we seeped like a grape-juice stain into the local shopping centre to buy Slurpees at the Quix servo or roam the air-conditioned Woolies aimlessly when it was hot. We leafed through Marie Claire, Dolly and TV Hits as newsagents eyed us warily, and tried on make-up testers at the pharmacist, buying time as a buffer between school and home.

We leafed through Marie Claire, Dolly and TV Hits as newsagents eyed us warily, and tried on make-up testers at the pharmacist, buying time as a buffer between school and home.

I spent most of my time hiding novels behind textbooks in class, staring out of windows, and trapping myself in the small shopping-centre library after school, reading contraband romances, vampire stories and copies of MAD magazine.

My second high school, St Marys High, was a rarity in the west: an experimental selective-style senior college on a green campus, full of students of colour who wore what they wanted and called teachers by their first names. The dux of our class ended up going to Cambridge. But the school’s location – St Marys, a bus ride from home – was one of the lowest socio- economic areas in Sydney. I internalised the class sting, the shame of the dilapidated storefronts, the methadone clinic, the massage parlours and the strange men that hung around the train station when I was on my way to campus. But I was elated to be selected to go there. The school was a bridge to a better world that was out there, daring me to experience it.

At home, I had finally been given my own room, but the one bathroom in the house created a morning queue. My father took the primary slot. His briefcase on the dining table contained a striped cotton handkerchief, a bottle of Old Spice aftershave, a thick silver watch and Tupperware of rice and leftovers for lunch. After he was done in the bathroom, my siblings hastily alternated or brushed their teeth in the laundry or kitchen sink, with the chaotic sounds of slammed doors and slurped cereal. There was usually someone contorted in pain in the hallway, banging on the door yelling, ‘Hurry up already!’

The school was a bridge to a better world that was out there, daring me to experience it.

In my bedroom was a built-in wardrobe, a bookshelf, and a desk with a world map painted on it that sat under a window. I had confidently pasted my HSC aim of 98.00 above the desk two years earlier, motivated by my secret addiction to American self-help (‘See it! Believe it! Visualise it!’). Despite barely remembering the year, I was astonished to receive a mark of 97.95, 0.05 off my prediction.

After my last exam I sleepwalked into a hairdresser on Queen Street in St Marys, chopped my waist-length plait into a bob, and exhaled. It was over. The exams, the notes, the deadlines. I would no longer have to type assignments on the one humpback computer we shared in the front lounge, where I had to tune out the noise, the blaring TV and rotating guests.

The HSC was the passport, the tunnel that transported me to my dream degree – law and journalism at one of the best schools in the country, the University of Technology Sydney – like a Dorothy-esque kicking of heels.

At uni, I felt the rush of the city in the day and crashed back to reality when I went home each night. I carried my books for the hour-long commute in rush hour, through the cavernous Central Station tunnel that sucked me in like a mystic transportation vortex, reversing me back to a place I felt I had outgrown – Strathfield, Parramatta, Blacktown, Toongabbie, Seven Hills, Rooty Hill, Mt Druitt, St Marys. The future that beckoned receded, along with the bright lights and skyscrapers, Darling Harbour fountains and Chinatown.

I got my eyebrows done for the first time, but still I felt like I was wearing a mask, out of step with the lives of the people around me. It took me years before I realised someone asking, ‘Want to grab drink?’ could be a friendship or romantic overture that didn’t need to involve drinking. I would always mutter I didn’t drink and flee. I had no idea what the boundaries of a normal interaction in western society was. The world I grew up in had no real sex education besides the unstated ‘Don’t do it!’, which was implied in everything.


This is an extract from Desi Girl by Sarah Malik (UQP), available now at your local independent bookseller.