As the whole theatre burst into laughter, I could feel my cheeks burning in humiliation. Our brown faces were a stain on the white mosaic which made up the audience. I was ready to storm out at any moment, flipping my middle fingers to the comedian onstage, shouting obscenities at him to show how I really felt. But I did none of that. I just sunk into my seat and let the laughter wash over me.
It was only the fourth night of a 14-night cruise around the islands of New Zealand, and my family and I were adhering to our routine of watching the evening performance before dinner. It was a comedy show tonight.
This was something I was really looking forward to considering the only comedians I had ever watched before were Russell Peters, Hasan Minhaj or “Fear of A Brown Planet” on YouTube. And those were from the comfort of my own bed, not in a theatre in the middle of the Tasman Sea.
But the comedy on this particular night wasn’t funny. In fact, it uneasily made me more conscious of the complexion of my skin than I would have liked.
“Sri Lankans probably can’t bowl in cricket because they suffer from malnutrition!”, he shouts. The laughter of the white crowd drowns out the faint “ooh” in the background.
After a few more minutes of his speech, he exclaims, “Morgan Freeman looks like he has fly shit on his face!”. Once again, the audience erupts, fueling the rage pulsating through my veins.
Apart from the one-off event when I was called a “f##kin curry” for being in some guy’s way at the train station, I have thankfully never really experienced blatant acts of racism in my life. It was only the subtle incidents like this that ever really got to me.
As we left the theatre, I was ready to march straight up to the concierge to file an official complaint against the comedian. Instead, my parents took me up to the open upper deck of the ship to cool down. Looking out over the vastness of the water, I felt a sense of trapped isolation like I had never experienced before.
My father broke the silence. “This is one of the consequences we will have to face for choosing to live in such a great country. You need to just accept it”, he told me in his mother tongue of Bangla. I was in disbelief as my mother nodded her head in agreement.
We definitely come from two very different generations, I thought to myself. I was adamant about speaking out in some way or another.
Over the coming days, my time on board the ship was marked with further moments of feeling like an outsider. The MC would stand at the door of the theatre every night and personally bid farewell passengers who came to the show. He refused to acknowledge our presence every single time. When my father asked for some onion with his food, the waiter, with a perplexed expression on his face, asked him why on earth he would want that considering that it would cost extra money.
Maybe we weren’t being singled out at all and perhaps it was all in my head. Even so, I was ready to confront any individual who had made me feel so alien.
However, I realise now it was the subtle actions of my parents that had the greatest impact in terms of challenging people’s perceptions.
My father probably knew that this was going to be a different type of experience before he even boarded the cruise, but it didn’t stop him from branching out of his comfort zone. The presence of his calm and friendly demeanor as a grown Muslim man in a white space was changing more hearts than my loud voice could ever do.
Wearing a crimson-coloured sari paired with a matching, glittery hijab, my mother could not have looked more out of place during the ‘formal night’ on board. Against a sea of men who wore nicely-fitted dinner suits and women in glamorous cocktail gowns, she strolled straight past them, completely oblivious to the mystified expressions her outfit drew from a few. Her confidence and love for her traditional attire was changing more minds than I realised then.
I was so sure about my outspoken nature that I had failed to see how my parents were actually fighting the same fight but silently. Their activism was more subtle.
While I was concerned about eating the bland food and dressing in a western suit, so that I wouldn’t stand out, my parents could not care less about how people perceived them. They quite literally wore their culture on their sleeves, making it the most profound form of protest.
It was on one of the last nights on the cruise when one of the waiters who I had never seen before, rushed over to our table. With a large grin on his face, he shook my hand and said “salaam”. A bit taken aback, I stared at him for a while before it occurred to me how he knew I was Muslim. It was because of my mother’s glittery scarf. She was the only hijabi on board and the man was probably one of the only other Muslims on there as well, so he was pleased to see us. The other passengers at dinner stared at us, trying to understand what had elicited such a random yet friendly response from the waiter. But the attention didn’t make me feel awkward this time.
Simply because of my mother’s glittery scarf, I didn’t feel as isolated as I had before. Even though we were miles away from home, amongst a pale pack of vacationers, in the middle of the Tasman Sea.
Masrur Joarder is a medical student and writer from the Gold Coast, Australia. Follow him on Twitter at @masrur_writer .