Shaneel Lal, 23, is a prominent queer rights activist. In 2019, their speech at the Youth Parliament led to the formation of the Conversion Therapy Action Group — the organisation which spearheaded the movement to ban conversion practices in Aotearoa.
Shaneel was born in Fiji to a Fijian-Indian father and Indigenous Fijian mother, and grew up in a small village about an hour’s drive from Suva. They are a survivor of conversion therapies which were carried out throughout their childhood in Fiji.
In 2014, Shaneel moved to Aotearoa with their family. In this extract from their recently released book One of them, Shaneel writes about the move to South Auckland and the struggle to fit in — despite coming from a Pacific nation to a Pacific-dominated school.
I wake to a loud siren. I roll out of my bed and hurry to look at what is happening outside. It is a car driving by and they are playing loud music. A wave of foreignism hits me as I look down the street. I hear a soft meow, but the cat is gone before I spin around.
“Ahh,” I scream. I have walked into broken glass from empty beer bottles on the sidewalk. I need to tell my sister Sweta about them. We have to keep our shoes on whenever we go outside.
Our house is in Ōtara, opposite the Ōtara pools, in the heart of South Auckland. Before we settle in, people are telling my parents to be careful in this suburb. They warn us that someone will break into our car and house and that people will steal from us on the streets. I grew up in a ghetto. Living in an impoverished and disenfranchised community is nothing new to me or my family. In the most lucrative week of the year in Fiji, our family income was $150, and those weeks were very rare. We had to pay for school fees, uniforms and shoes, schoolbooks, bus fares, groceries, water and electricity bills, food for Tuffy and Buzzo, our dog, and plenty of other essentials. I grew up in entrenched poverty.
Living in Ōtara is a dream come true. It is so much materially better than where I grew up. The house is made of cement, there are tiles on the kitchen floor and carpet in the rest of the house, warm water in the shower and a lot of junk food in the pantry. We didn’t have any of these things in Fiji. I feel no fear, but my wider family wants me to be careful. They don’t realise that my family falls into the category of people they are telling me to be fearful of.
Ma grew up in rural Fiji, in Rakiraki. Nana, Ma’s father, had the mindset that there was not much value in educating girls because one day they get married into another family and the investment you made in them goes with them. Rakiraki is an impoverished farming area.
Nana and Nani — Ma’s ma — were farmers by profession, but it didn’t make them much money. They had very limited resources, and Nana wanted to secure his future by investing in his sons. Ma had two brothers and was the middle child. She lost her older brother to heart disease quite young. Nana sent Mama to school. Ma completed primary school in Rakiraki and did well but wasn’t given the opportunity to study further. She was expected to stay at home and learn the ropes of running a household for when she got married. She learnt the household chores from a very young age, while Mama was at high school. Her life was planned out for her.
Pa grew up near the city. He has four siblings: two older brothers and two younger sisters. Aja and Aji, Pa’s Pa and Ma, did not discriminate between the boys and girls when it came to education, although they were very traditional people. When Pa was in high school, Aja injured his eye and was unable to work for a long time, so Pa left his education and started working to support his family.
When we move to New Zealand, we have very little money. Pa’s job doesn’t pay well. In Fiji, Ma did not speak English, work outside home or drive. It quickly becomes very tense around home. We have rent and bills to pay, groceries to buy and school to prepare for. Ma decides that she is going to enter the workforce after spending all her life not being allowed to work. It takes her a few months to get a job because she does not have any formal qualifications or speak English well. But she is persistent and eventually finds a job. She spends time learning English and gets her driver’s licence. It is a very triumphant moment in her life.
Aja picks up Ma, Sweta and me and drives us to Ōtāhuhu College. We lie that we live at Mama’s place in Ōtāhuhu. The school is outside our zone. Ōtāhuhu College looks like something out of Harry Potter.
I show up in my bright blue skinny jeans and green T-shirt. I quickly learn it was not the right choice. I stand out like a sore thumb. Everyone is looking at me like I am a clown at the circus. We meet some of the senior leadership team to get enrolled in the school. I pretend that English is my first language. I don’t want anything to set me back, and a mother tongue that is not English could portray me as less educated in the colonial education system.
I don’t stand out because of the colour of my skin. I stand out for doing brown things, though. I speak with a cultured accent. My accent is the talk of the school. I have the FOB (fresh off the boat) accent that both white and brown students find funny. They take the mickey out of it. My accent easily makes me a target of bullying.
My first class is science with Ms Singh.
“Boring,” a student yells from the back as Ms Singh is teaching a class on mitochondria.
“We learn nothing in this class,” another student adds.
That takes me by surprise. Students are not afraid of talking back to the teachers. In fact they are rude, and the teachers cannot do much in return.
The seats in our science class are ordered based on our surnames. I sit next to Maanyata Krishna, my surname being Lal. We sit at the back of column one. Maanyata is remarkably short. I couldn’t rest my arms on her shoulders if we were both standing. She cannot see the board very well from the back, but Ms Singh doesn’t seem to notice. Ms Singh erases things off the board before anyone can copy them. As she is rubbing the board off, I say: “Oh, Madam, we aren’t done copying it.”
“What the fuck is Madam?” a boy next to us in the back screams out. Everyone turns around and looks at me. I pull my head into my desk. I want to disappear.
The boys sitting at the back of the class make a habit of yelling out things in my accent after I speak in class. I stop speaking in class. I did not speak any English till I was six, and now because of my accent, students and teachers assume that I am dumb.
My parents speak Fiji-Hindi at home. Pa is fluent in Fiji-Hindi and Fijian. I learnt to speak Fiji-Hindi and Urdu before English. I learnt to read and write and later speak Fijian before English. I spoke three languages before I was introduced to English. Of course, I will have an accent. My accent is a sign that I know more than one language.
I am more intelligent than anyone who bullies me for speaking with an accent. But I am so ashamed of speaking with an accent, I make an intentional effort to train myself out of how I speak. I give up every pronunciation that signifies my culture or ancestry.
I look Indian. The Pacific, Maōri and Pākehā students call me a “curry muncher”. That kind of racism is normalised even within communities that experience racism themselves. Many students find that kind of racism hilarious. They are never challenged for it. But they are never challenged for anything. There is such a lack of interest in making students good humans. It is racism, nonetheless.
Despite moving from Fiji, a Pacific nation, to a Pacific-dominated school in Aotearoa, I don’t fit in. The young Pacific people who grew up in Aotearoa were taught that to be intelligent, you have to behave and speak like white people. They punish Pacific students like me who don’t behave like white people. That internalised racism and projection of self-hatred is exasperating. I grew up in Fiji and I know that intelligence is not synonymous with whiteness.
While I am waiting outside my dance class, a boy, Tee Jay, runs into me and pushes me into a wall. I weigh less than 50 kilograms. I fly and my body slams against the wall. Everything becomes dark. My chest feels like it is stuck to my back. When I open my eyes, there are a lot of faces goggling at me. A Tongan girl, Cathrine Mafi, steps in to protect me. She picks me up from the ground and brushes off the dry leaves and dust.
Cathrine and I become friends. We are nerds. We spend a lot of our time studying, participating in extracurricular activities to build strong CVs, and doing assignments during break times in our digital technology class. We become librarians and student peace ambassadors. We do enjoy watching The Real Housewives of Melbourne too. Our favourites are Gina Liano and Pettifleur Berenger.
After the students are done teasing me for my accent, they tell me I act like a white person because I perform well academically. I can’t win. It is dehumanising to be told that I am a plastic Indian and a plastic Fijian because I am doing well academically. That only perpetuates the stereotype that you cannot be brown and smart.
The internalised racism in many of the brown students plays out in many ways. They believe the negative things they are told about brown people, and they use them as ammunition against other brown people. Our ancestors navigated the oceans using stars — heck, our ancestors were brilliant! They exemplified the epitome of skill and intelligence.
The bullying is just starting. A senior student, Adam, targets me for being feminine. I have not come out as gay to anyone in Ōtāhuhu College, but I have gay written all over me. I am overtly feminine. I walk in a modelesque way, treating every walk like a runway. I only hang out with girls, I have been excelling in my drama and dance classes, and I avoid PE. My gayness precedes me.
The bell rings for us to go to second period. I am leaving for my science class when Adam throws a punch at me. He hits me on my jaw and lip. The left side of my lip bursts open. My mouth fills up with blood. I touch my lip and feel faint at the sight of the blood on my fingers. He runs away immediately after hitting me. I go to the sick bay. I sit there waiting for the nurse to see me. The smell of the room makes me nauseous. The nurse gives me Panadol and sends me to my next class. She says there is nothing else she can do. The lip is still open on the inside and Adam is still roaming the school grounds.
Does no one care that I was just violently attacked by a senior student?
I go home that day. I avoid talking, and when I do, I fold my bottom lip inwards so no one can see the blood and my burst lips. It stings when I try to eat, drink and brush the next morning. I arrive at school early to make a complaint to my dean.
Before I can, I discover that Adam has complained about me to the Senior Dean. The Senior Dean accuses me of instigating the attack. I have no idea what story Adam has fed her, but he is not willing to listen to me. She has made up her mind, and I am the bad guy.
Extracted with permission from One of Them by Shaneel Lal. RRP$36.99. Published by Allen & Unwin NZ. Shaneel is appearing at WORD Christchurch on August 26. More information is available here.
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