Born: Colombo, Sri Lanka
Grew up: Melbourne, Australia
Lives: Dhaka, Bangladesh
You know you’re speaking to someone pretty extraordinary when you have the constant urge to write most of what they say down.Lucky for me, I’m recording my conversation with lawyer-turned child-rights-advocate, Suralini Fernando.
I realise pretty quickly that Suralini’s journey to Bangladesh—via Sri Lanka, Australia, India and the UK—is a lot more than an amazing career path. It’s also enabled her to rethink her idea of female friendships after a testing experience at a law firm and try on the title of writer for size (she’s a wordsmith deep down).
Then, there are the bigger life questions she’s begun to ask herself and is getting ready to ask the world through her writing. Things like: What do we mean when we use the words work and love? Does international development have a real impact? And if you grew up in Australia with a South Asian upbringing, what values are you likely to hold?
These are big questions and they’re getting impressive answers from the sparkling mind of Suralini Fernando.
Check out Suralini’s blog at www.journeyhome.me
How have the women you grew up with influenced your life?
I think growing up I was really lucky to have strong female relationships in my life and, I mean, not even strong but just good women. The vast majority of my closest friends are women, not for any reason but just because that’s the way it’s turned out. It’s interesting with my female friendships and the positive energy they have been in my life. It really came into question when I was at the law firm [in Melbourne] where I just had the opposite experience: It was women who were undermining me and who were bullying me and making me feel awful. It was such a shock to have experiences like that with women in a professional work environment.
You’re constantly pitted against your peers, and trying to get ahead. It’s a rat race.
Did you ever figure out where that mindset came from? My feeling has always been that it doesn’t start like that, but things change.
Yes, I think you’re right. It definitely doesn’t start like that. I think it’s the particular dynamics of the workplace. It’s a very competitive, cut throat environment; the majority of those with power are men. One of my difficult female supervisors was the leader of a team made completely of men and me, and she was very flirty, loved to joke and get along with the boys. I think I tried to find some common ground with her, you know, ‘Oh you have a sister, I have a sister. Oh, you like Harry Potter! I love Harry Potter!’ It was just like nothing was coming my way. She was the only female partner in that entire team. She was also a junior partner, so she was still trying to prove herself, I guess. You’re constantly pitted against your peers, and trying to get ahead. It’s a rat race.
A big part of you also loves to write. What made you decide to go down the path of Law?
I wanted to be a teacher, I wanted to be a journalist and I also wanted to be a ballerina. But I guess when you love words, and you’re good at using them, Law is the pinnacle of being able to use those talents. I initially started off doing an Arts / Education double degree and then I transferred over to Law and that was only because I had this instinct that I wanted to be able to do it and I knew that it would open a lot of doors. You didn’t necessarily have to practise as a lawyer.
So at what point then did you make the decision to leave Law in search of something else?
I felt like it happened kind of slowly, and then suddenly; like it had been building up and suddenly I just knew that I had to leave. I had a pretty distressing experience in May or June of 2011 and I really wanted to leave then but it was my mother who said, ‘No, you have to stick it out. You need to leave with your head held high.’ And it was very good advice because that meant that I stayed on, worked on a really large transaction and learned a lot more both personally and professionally. I came out of it in December of that year and I made up my mind to leave in March of the following year. Staying on taught me that I can survive anything, which is a crucial life lesson. I had no choice but to overcome my fears head on.
I was not mentally or physically prepared for what India asked of me.
You traded in Melbourne’s law precinct for a teaching stint in India. What was the experience like?
It was absolutely overwhelming in the very first few days. I had been so backward looking, so wrapped up in ending up my career at the law firm that I was not mentally or physically prepared for what India asked of me. There were three major challenges. Firstly, there are people everywhere, but it’s mostly just men, men, men, men, men, men. So that was very confronting.
The second thing was the heat. 45 degrees every day is really something. People would say it’s going to be hot and I’d say,‘Of course it’s going to be hot. It’s summer. I’m from Australia—I know summer!’
And the third thing was just being in a foreign environment and doing something that I was pretty underprepared for: teaching English to kids living in a slum community. But I feel like I’ve only told you negative things! The biggest positive—I know it’s a cliché—would be that India also helped me rediscover my faith in humanity.
‘Where are you from?’ is always difficult. I was born in Sri Lanka but I’ve lived in Australia, so it’s got this explanation. ‘What do you do?’ didn’t need an explanation. It just was.
I can also imagine that after having worked so hard to become a lawyer, you might feel a bit bare without a title. Did you feel like you had to find a new name?
It kind of comes back to your identity thing: What’s your name? Where are you from? And what do you do? Those are how we put people into boxes. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing but that’s how we make sense of people. And for me the ‘Where are you from?’ is always difficult. I was born in Sri Lanka but I’ve lived in Australia, so it’s got this explanation. ‘What do you do?’ didn’t need an explanation. It just was. I’m a lawyer. So to give that very clear element of my identity up was something that was really difficult.
It’s been almost three years and now I see that I can still say I’m a lawyer. Once a lawyer always a lawyer even if it’s not something I’m doing every day.
I think claiming it is the thing. If I say I am, then I am.
That’s a really good point. One of the things I’ve realised in making Friday Best is that you can’t just wait around for someone to say you are this person. You could be waiting around forever!
Yeah, I think claiming it is the thing. If I say I am, then I am. And maybe the way that I kind of say I’m a writer, I still feel like a bit of a fraud. But then I think, Well, if I say I’m a writer then who can question me on that? If you’ve got the credentials to back it up, it’s not like you’re just saying you’re a doctor without any basis for it!
I also think this is probably a more female quandary. We’re more prone to doubt and I don’t want to generalise too much, but maybe we don’t have as much of a sense of entitlement or claim that men might feel.
In changing your career completely, have you become more at ease with that?
I think so, yeah. Now I say that I’m a child rights advocate, which to me is just someone who is passionate and working towards the rights of children. But it’s funny, on the immigration forms I’ll still write lawyer because it’s easiest and it’s still true.
Can you tell me a bit more about the path that led you to where you are today, in Bangladesh?
So after I left the law firm, I went to India and I knew that I had to up-skill to change careers. I had only a vague intuition that I wanted to work in international development. I did a Masters in Brighton, in the UK, and then I came home to Melbourne and at that stage I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to stay there or go overseas. I had six months in Melbourne and they were a pretty unsettling six months. I kind of had reverse culture shock. Probably reverse life shock.
What unsettled you?
I just felt really out of sync with my friends. A lot of my friends were going through the babies, marriage and buying a house life stage, which is great, and I don’t mean to sound critical of that at all. They’re things that I want for myself one day but they’re not where I’m at right now.
People say, ‘Why did you choose Bangladesh?’ and I kind of didn’t, but I chose the job. And it’s been great from day one almost. Looking back, it probably was the right place to come to for my first foray into this new career. It’s not too far from my other homeland, Sri Lanka, it’s another country in South Asia, so it made sense to try a new place in this region.
It’s not given to us to know by which acts, or by whom, will be the tipping point of those collective efforts in bringing about change.
Do you feel a sense of impact in what you do?
These are discussions I have here with my friends all the time. Things like does development do anything good? Do we even have an impact? I guess where I’m at in that process right now is accepting that social change takes time. Progress takes time. And it’s not given to us to know by which acts, or by whom, will be the tipping point of those collective efforts in bringing about change. But what I do know is that I want to somehow be a part of that process. I want to use my skills, strengths and education—all of the good things that I have had in my life—to contribute to that process.
Work aside, what do you see your role as in your family? I know you’re an older sister and you’re also pretty close with your mum.
My mum and I have had a very tumultuous relationship. When I was younger we would have these really awful fights. I remember packing my bags and things like that, and when I say younger I probably mean early twenties! I think the problem is that we both love each other and care for each other so much that sometimes it blinds us to reason. She’s convinced that she always knows best for me, even as a 31-year-old. And I can see how sometimes I can be like that as well with her.
What do you think are the best things that you’ve learnt from your mum?
She’s incredibly generous. She just gives without counting, even if she doesn’t have enough for herself. She’s also really smart and strong, and I’m not saying I’m like that but it’s what I would aspire to be.
She’ll be what my best self will say and I will listen to her.
What do you see your role as in your sister’s life?
It’s changed as we’ve gotten older. The background context is that as she’s started something, I’ve finished something. So I finished high school, she started, I finished uni and she started. We’ve been playing this kind of life-tag. She’s a lawyer as well and now that we’re both adult the way that we support each other is to be each other’s voice of hope and reason. She’ll be what my best self will say and I will listen to her.
And I think it’s vice versa.
That’s really lovely. I often ask people what advice they’d give their younger selves and it kind of sounds like you play that out in real life.
It’s true. She has me as a resource that I never had. She’s going through some doubts and I’ve been giving her advice on who to talk to, some things she can do right now and there’s no competition between us—only the benefit of having been in the same position a few years earlier!
I think it’s so important to have people in your life who are just that one step ahead of you. Who has been that person for you?
I’ve only sort of met her recently. She’s my current boss and I like to think that she’s me in ten years time. She also started her career as a banking and finance lawyer, strangely enough. She’s English and really sharp and smart but also human. I suppose that it’s a nice squaring of the circle. This professional female relationship has redeemed a lot of the ugly ones I had at the law firm.
She knows what she’s talking about and I see that’s how to get my confidence.
What traits do you really admire in her?
She’s confident. We’ll often have meetings in a room full of men or really high up officials but she’s confident without being macho or pushy. She knows what she’s talking about and I see that’s how to get my confidence. If you know your subject material then that kind of gives you immediate confidence to be able to talk about it.
The second thing is that human element. She takes her work very seriously but she’ll make a joke about something or she’ll do something light-hearted or silly. We had this meeting with a V.I.P. and at one stage he had his minions come in and put drops in his eyes while he lay back with arms splayed and afterwards we just lost it about how hilarious that moment was.
It’s not that you have to be an expert on everything all the time. It’s about breaking it down into bite-sized pieces so you can identify what you do know.
I completely agree about knowing your stuff as a pathway to confidence but I also can’t help but think that a lot of your twenties are actually underpinned by the realisation that you don’t know all that much. How do you go about growing a sense of confidence when you’re still on a huge learning curve?
So at one end of the spectrum there is feeling like a fraud, and that’s something I struggled with at the law firm (even though I had a first class honours degree from one of Australia’s best universities). Again, this is probably a bit of a female problem. At the other end of the spectrum is overconfidence which is pretty unattractive. There is a wide range between those two positions and it’s not that you have to be an expert on everything all the time. It’s about breaking it down into bite-sized pieces so you can identify what you do know and be proud of what you know. That’s something.
It’s important to find someone who loves like you do, and I just haven’t yet.
And are you content with where you are now?
I think in my professional life, yes. This is where I want to be. I want to be forging a career as a child rights specialist. I do really interesting work, am given a lot of responsibility and I’m pushed and challenged but not in oppressive ways.
Personally, probably not as much. I think turning 30 has made me think, Oh I really do want to find a partner. Maybe not settle down but feel fulfilled in my life more than I have been. But that’s something I find out of my control. Obviously you can do internet dating but sometimes I think the best thing you can do is keep doing what you love and hopefully you meet like-minded people who also love what you’re doing. I think it’s also important to find someone who loves like you do, and I just haven’t yet.
That’s one thing I’m kind of dreading about going home. It will be like, ‘So, any interesting men in Bangladesh?’ And just seeing the disappointment on their faces. My dad in my birthday card this year was like, ‘Happy birthday darling, I hope you meet the man of your dreams this year.’ It’s kind of on everybody’s mind, the awareness of my singleness.
What do you think makes people uncomfortable about singleness in your 30s? I feel like there’s a flipping point, where people feel like there is something missing if you don’t have a partner.
Yes, it’s true, and especially in the context of my Sri Lankan culture where marriage and family is such an institution, and more broadly, in this part of the world, South Asia. It’s seen as the highest way to achieve emotional stability and happiness. My family just understand it as the best way for me to be happy and emotionally settled and that’s what they want for me—even though it may not be true.
What do you wish we spoke more about in the world?
Well, I guess there are two things that I’m thinking about right now and they’ve just come out of one recent conversation and one kind of thought process. So the first thing was over dinner last night with my friend. She’s Muslim Bangladeshi and was raised in Australia in quite a religious household. For her, coming back here [to Bangladesh] to work has been a real sense of relief and homecoming.
I was trying to think, What are my values? Well, yes, western liberal, but also very grounded in this South Asian sentimentality.
We were having the conversation that even though we have different values and different frames of reference we’re still close friends. I was thinking about that and said, ‘Well what does that mean?’ and she said, ‘Oh well, your values are all very western liberal, I guess.’
I was trying to think, What are my values? Well, yes, western liberal, but also very grounded in this South Asian sentimentality: a sense of strong loyalty and duty to your family, like trying to make my mum happy, even though it isn’t always exactly what I want. So these frames of reference and values, what do they mean?
And the second thing I’ve been thinking about is this work/love relationship. There’s this quote, Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. Well, what does that mean? I have this job that I say that I love but it’s still a job. Yet, I feel driven by this sense of connection to the people that I’m trying to serve. Some of those conversations I would like to see happen more.
Wow, there’s a lot to unpack there!
And this coming year, what’s next? You’ll be in Bangladesh working and writing?
Yes, in Bangladesh, improving my technical knowledge of the work I’m doing is the main priority. It takes time and practise. But I’d also love to have more articles published. Then I can feel more of a claim to calling myself a writer. I’m still trying it on for practise. The first step for me was including it in a bio at the end of my first published article.
I’m going to try and keep the grass greenest right where I stand.
I was actually researching for a piece of writing recently and came across this quote by Barbara Kingsolver, ‘The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.’ I just love that. For me it means having less of that grass-may-be-greener-on-the-other-side type envy for other places, jobs, or people and trying to cultivate really wanting what I do have. So this year I’m going to try and keep the grass greenest right where I stand.
Check out Suralini’s blog at www.journeyhome.me
Things I Love
Living overseas is more bearable knowing my loved ones are only a flight or two away. I love the feeling you get just before a plane heading home takes off and lands. Heart aflutter!
Whether spoken or written, they are the most interesting matter in the universe to me. My BFF will often say ‘I’ve got a great story for you!’, and she also knows that I’ll pursue things for their ‘anecdotal value’.
I came to this party only in my mid-20s and I’m still figuring out how I embrace it. Roxane Gay’s book ‘Bad Feminist’ resonates most with me, and also Maya Angelou’s point that any revolution must allow love.