Malayalis in Canada: Part-time Students, Full-time Breadwinners

My friend Ramesh walked by with a dazed look, the KFC cap still on his head. It was 8 PM, and he looked like he’d just finished a gruelling shift at the nearby outlet. My classmate Jeffrey eyed him and whispered. “I think Ramesh is using drugs.”

“Why?” I asked, thinking the fellow’s eyes were red simply because of several all-nighters spent catching up on college work.

“Well, he makes just as much as I do through part-time work,” Jeffrey explained, “but he never seems to have money left for hanging out on the weekends.”

I thought about it for a moment and then laughed. “Oh, Ramesh is not on drugs. He’s just a Malayali!”

Jeffrey scowled. “Dude….that’s racist!”

I sighed. “What did you think I was referring to?”

He shrugged, looking a little unsure. “I don’t know…..that he’s a miser?”

“Dude!” I cried in mock outrage, “that’s racist! And well, that’s not what I mean anyway,” I added, thinking of what Ramesh was probably doing with his money.

*

Three days later, over a cup of coffee, Ramesh confirmed what I’d suspected. He looked relieved to be able to talk about it.

He was a 25-year-old Master’s student who’d arrived in Canada a few months ago. Originally from Cochin, the quiet, bespectacled fellow talked to his parents back home in Kalamassery every day.

“Oh, my mom gets worried if I don’t call her every 24 hours!” He joked. I laughed, though we both knew it wasn’t really a joke.

After a few weeks of searching, Ramesh landed a part-time job at the KFC outlet next to the college. He worked 20 hours a week, at 15 dollars an hour. A total monthly income of 1,200 Canadian dollars.

“Are you happy?” I asked. It was a vague question meant to elicit a response rather than prompt any kind of introspection. And he had his answer ready.

“It’s certainly hectic man, that’s for sure. I mean, the course I’m in is kinda difficult. End up having to spend a lot of hours in the library just on research and stuff. Plus the part-time work…”

Ramesh was a humble fellow, the kind who keeps his head down and assumes everyone else’s life is just as difficult if not more than his. My coffee cup was almost empty before I finally got to hear the real reason why he didn’t hang out much on weekends. It had very little to do with time constraints or fatigue. It was all because of his wallet.

“Yeah, I do,” he finally admitted.

“How much money do you send back home?” I asked, hoping my curiosity wasn’t offending him.

He sighed and seemed to consider his answer. “Most of the time it’s around 400 dollars. Last month it was 350 because I had to buy a winter jacket, you know?”

I wanted to grab his hands, wring them reassuringly, tell him I admired him for what he was doing.

But I didn’t. Because Ramesh wouldn’t have seen it as something admirable. Just something that was necessary.

Partly because of the sensitivity of the topic, and partly because I’m not an extremely social person, I’ve not been able to find anyone else on campus who does what Ramesh does. Of course, there are probably less than two dozen Malayalis in the entire campus, so it was never going to be easy to get more voices for this article.

However, I wasn’t surprised by Ramesh’s actions. After all, over the past year, as an IELTS trainer in Thrissur, I’ve heard many students talk about their hypothetical plans once they reach Canada. All of them hoped to send money back home.

These students came from poor or lower-middle-class families. Families that sometimes put up their ancestral home as collateral with the bank just so that they’d get a loan for their child to study in Canada.

So when such Malayali guys and girls land in Canada, they aren’t explorers or adventurers. They aren’t here for life experiences and cultural appreciation. They can’t afford those luxuries. They are the lifeboats that need to set about scooping up their family members from an ocean of debt and poverty.

That’s why they don’t drop 10 dollars for a plate of shawarma poutine (which, just as an aside, is a great example of the fusion of Canadian and Middle Eastern cuisine). Instead, they have an entire day’s worth of meals in less than 5 dollars. A cup of coffee from Tim Hortons is a decadent luxury. Walking two kilometres lugging grocery bags from Walmart than paying for bus fare is a no-brainer.

As we left the coffee shop, Ramesh looked a little flustered. It took me a moment to understand why. He’d insisted on paying for the two cups of coffee, but I’d dismissed his protest and instead swiftly tapped my credit card.

“Does it bother you?” I asked suddenly.

Ramesh and I were little more than acquaintances, and the bluntness of the question surprised him. He tried to fake a smile but I had an article to write. “How does all of this affect your social life?”

He slowly warmed up to the subject, one that he’d shelved in his mind over the past few months. He told me about how he stopped hanging out with a group of classmates. “They’d always make plans to go to the cafeteria after class or stop by St. Louis for beers and chicken wings. Man, I could buy a bottle back home for the money I’d have to spend on that terrible mug of beer!”

I told him about how I’d observed Malayalis hanging out with other Malayalis all the time. Till now I’d chalked it all up to the language barrier and a sort of crab mentality. “Oh, I haven’t read your articles,” he muttered, rubbing his chin. I made a mental note to spam him on WhatsApp later.

“Yeah, I generally hang out with Mallus too,” he answered, reminding me that I should probably send the article about the use of the word “Mallus” as well. But for now, I’d have to focus on writing a new article than gaining a reader for my older ones.

“Do you think money is a part of the problem?”

Ramesh thought back to all the times he’d stayed home due to 10 dollar tickets for Diwali and Christmas parties, all the times he ignored concerts and trips to Niagara Falls. He’d never considered how his budget limited his social experiences.

“Now you’re making me feel bad,” he joked, and I could see there was a grain of sadness behind his chuckle. “But it’ll all go away the next time I talk to my folks.”

And that’s exactly what happened. I might have left him with ideas about visiting Montreal, a vibrant city five hours away by train, or skiing down Blue Mountain next month to take advantage of the snow. But when he called his mother that night, his mind snapped back to reality.

His mother told him about the whopping cost of onions and the inverter that unexpectedly blew out during a night of heavy rains and thunder. His mother mentioned how his sister wanted to join for entrance coaching at Riju and PSK, the tuition centre that apparently guaranteed admission to the best medical colleges in the state. And by the end of the twenty-minute conversation, Ramesh wasn’t thinking about travelling or skiing or celebrating Christmas. He was wondering when he’d get promoted to manager of the KFC outlet. He was calculating how much he’d earn in the next six months.

Two days later, as I was drafting this article, my classmate Santosh asked me what I was writing. After I told him about Ramesh, he smiled and shook his head. “That’s the problem with us Indians, bro!”

I didn’t tell him about Pink Lungi and how it primarily targetted a Malayali audience. If a Mumbaikar like Santosh could relate to Ramesh, who was I to interrupt him? 

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s just this vicious cycle, right?” He remarked, waving his hand dismissively. “I mean, our parents spend all their money on us when we are growing up, putting us in the best schools and paying through the nose for us to get admission to the best colleges. For what? So that when we become adults and start our own lives, we can take care of them.”

As I nodded along, I tried to figure out where Santosh was coming from. His parents were relatively well off; his dad was a lawyer and his mother an architect. They sent him money every month for his expenses. He had a part-time job, and enough money to relax at the mall and the movie theatre every other week as well. Compared to Ramesh, his life was relatively comfortable.

“What do you mean by ‘take care of them’?” I asked.

“You know what I mean,” he said with a hint of irritation, as though I was playing dumb. “I’m 24 years old. My parents will send me money until I graduate and get a job. But within a few years, they’re gonna retire and then expect me to take care of them.”

He saw the expression on my face and quickly added. “Listen, I don’t mean to sound like an ungrateful asshole! It’s just….I wish we followed the western system instead, you know?”

Over the course of thirty minutes, I learnt what he meant by the “western system”. Santosh had a lot of friends in college. And talking to them made him envious of their lifestyle. Many of his classmates who were born and raised in Canada didn’t have to take care of their parents financially. All they had to worry about was their own bills.

“So you wish you could be like them?” I asked.

“Obviously! I mean, who wouldn’t want that kind of freedom, man? My friends can spend their money on whatever they want. They don’t have to stop themselves just because of their parents. Isn’t that how it should be? I mean, aren’t we tied down by our parents? They spend all their money on us instead of doing what they want, and then we spend all our money on them and our kids instead of doing what we want. It’s such a dumb, pointless cycle!”

I wondered why Ramesh and Santosh’s mindsets were so different. Some might quip that Ramesh was a good son and Santosh an ungrateful one. But putting aside considerations of virtue, how did their experiences shape their thoughts?

Ramesh had grown up seeing his family struggle financially. From an early age, he knew he was their ticket out of a terrible situation. Every exam he attempted, every course he applied for, every decision he took was guided by that thought. How can he help his family?

But for Santosh, life was more about exploring than escaping. His house didn’t have a perpetual air of concern weighing on it. He was told to excel for the sake of excellence rather than to escape poverty, debt and societal pressure.

Ramesh never got a taste of independence and luxury. Santosh did. And once he tasted how it felt to chase his own goals, he became aware of the anchor that would one day drag him down.

“That’s why I envy Jeffrey, you know?” Santosh said bitterly, as we sat on a bench outside the college. I looked up and saw Jeffrey in the distance, animatedly talking about his visit to Mexico over the holidays.

“He doesn’t have to worry about anyone apart from himself. That’s….that’s so unfair! This is why we should be following the western system.”

I cleared my throat and prepared myself. I wanted to tell Santosh that his view of the so-called western system was flawed. In his mind, every Indian took care of his or her parents financially, and no “westerner” did. But the truth was far more complex and nuanced.

And he was ignorant of Jeffrey’s past. While he saw Jeffrey spending money on holidays and food without worrying about saving for someone else, he wasn’t considering how the fellow grew up. He didn’t know the downside of being a child who didn’t have to take care of parents. He didn’t understand how quickly Jeffrey had to stand on his own two feet. He didn’t consider that there were pros and cons to both the “Indian model” and the “western model”.

“Ah damn!” I exclaimed suddenly, prompting Santosh to turn around and look at me.

“What happened?” He asked.

I shrugged. “Ah, nothing. I just realized my article needs Part Two.”

“Huh?”

“Forget it. You’ll understand next week.”

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