Karori, the name of the neighbourhood where I first lived when I arrived in Wellington, comes from the word Kauri — a native tree which once grew abundantly on the land where this suburb now stands. This was before the Europeans arrived and decimated the native bush to plant European trees for timber. As a newcomer, I was charmed by the Maori place names, taking it as a sign that the old and the new, the native and the foreign, coexisted happily here, or at least tried. I had just flown in from the Philippines to begin a PhD in Creative Writing in New Zealand, and in this country where I knew no one, the possibilities seemed immense.
For a while, at least, it felt that way. On my first night in my new home, my landlady, a slight, graceful woman who taught ballet at the local school, made me dinner, poured me wine, and clinked her glass against mine as we toasted “to my new life”. Picture the opening dinner scene in Jordan Peele’s Get Out — only my host’s home was also my only home in this country.
At the time, landing the flat in Karori felt particularly serendipitous. Since most international students don’t have rental references, we’re often only able to secure the worst of the market. Damp, mouldy or uninsulated flats were the norm. In contrast, the ensuite room my landlady advertised in the university newsletter looked bright and clean. Upon my arrival, the room turned out to be exactly as she described. The only surprise was that she preferred not to provide an official lease. And even though it meant having little protection as a tenant — the alternative of settling for a dilapidated home also meant I was wary of raising a fuss.
The first hint that things weren’t exactly as they seemed came shortly after breakfast the next day. “I don’t know how it is in your country,” said my landlady, “but here we open the windows to let in fresh air.” Spiked with an oddly microaggressive touch, her request to leave my room’s windows open set the tone for many of our exchanges to come.
This stress is compounded when there is no one around to witness private acts of bullying or oppression
I’d learned quickly after the first morning that there were unspoken rules in her house. Some rules from her ever-growing list were: not to fry fish or anything that smelled ‘offensive’ to her (she would check my cooking every once in a while, lifting the lid to inspect what was inside); not to switch on the hallway light if I had to use the bathroom in the middle of the night (which meant feeling my way down a dark corridor); to hose down, squeegee, and towel down my shower stall after every shower; and to “smile more” while cleaning up her kitchen (“Monica, don’t look so glum.”).
These ‘rules’ I would discover by accident, whenever my actions peeled back the layers of her politeness to reveal a hidden hostility. I dreaded coming home at the end of the day— feeling judged for every movement I made in her house. At night, I could barely sleep. That sense of endless possibilities I felt at the start was soon replaced by the feeling that each daily task was a minefield.
Racism can be insidious like this. It can happen behind closed doors even in the most liberal or accepting of countries. For most overseas students, who often find themselves at the mercy of a competitive rental market, with no real means of seeking recourse from living situations gone wrong — your home away from home can suddenly feel like a ‘sunken place’.
I still wonder what my landlady saw in me on the first evening that prompted her to say, “You seem perfect.”
This stress is compounded when there is no one around to witness private acts of bullying or oppression. After all, what do you do when your landlady starts locking your bathroom door, asks you to walk her dog, or hides your food containers like an office bully straight out of a bad sitcom?
The turning point came when I found out the rent I was being charged for a single bedroom was the same amount I would have spent if I’d rented an entire apartment in the CBD. This came up after I shared my story with university colleagues. Even as a PhD student, who had lived overseas in the past, I was struck by how easy it was to be caught up in a nightmarish living situation in a new country. As I searched for a new place, it was devastating to imagine what it would’ve been like for others who had never lived overseas or who might have trouble getting out of a similar scenario without full command of English.
I still wonder what my landlady saw in me on the first evening that prompted her to say, “You seem perfect.” Did she see a human being before her, a young woman who was frightened yet excited about living in a strange land, or was this all irrelevant to her as she searched for the perfect tenant? For a few days, at least, that was who I appeared to be. Until I refused to play along with the old storyline of staying quiet and frightened. Until I seized the chance to get out.
Monica Macansantos's writings about the Filipino immigrant experience have appeared in failbetter, Hypertrophic Literary, Takahe, and The New Filipino Kitchen, among others. She is currently working on a novel about the Marcos dictatorship. Follow Monica on twitter @missmacansantos.
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_.