As a Sri Lankan New Zealander, I know my adopted country can find compassion amid terror

Despite revulsion at the Auckland attacker, New Zealanders have the capacity to recognise that we all have a complex identity decluttering. They politely declined the items, citing their policy against selling anything that could be used as a weapon.

This shop’s policy now seems prescient. On a sunny spring afternoon, while West Auckland shoppers took pains to protect themselves against the coronavirus in a locked-down city, a terribly visible threat grabbed some sharp steel from the shelves, ran screaming down the aisles, and started stabbing random shoppers in the name of an invisible cloud of hate, alienation, radicalisation, distrust, anger, violence.

Reports that the terrorist was a brown man, a Sri Lankan national twisted by Islamic State ideology, ignited a maelstrom of emotion within me. Disbelief – what else could possibly go wrong, in a world wracked by pandemic? Horror for the victims and others, as they scrambled to flee. Pity for our Muslim New Zealanders, for the ripping apart of unhealed wounds from the events in Christchurch in March 2019. Pity, too, for our diligent police – what reckoning would come over their actions or possible inaction?

Mostly, I felt overcome with shame. Three decades of my own lawful, productive, abiding-by-all-the-rules (apart from the rules around dog-leashing in public) Kiwi citizenship came into sharp, questionable focus. The photo of the man, crouched on bare earth and pointing a gun off-camera, looked so awfully familiar. The honey-brown flesh of his arms, the cut of his chin: they reminded me of uncles and brothers and cousins and friends. My own face is so very Sri Lankan in its attributes, and I suddenly felt naked and responsible. Strangers might recognise my ethnicity, and perhaps a rogue element might hold me accountable for the actions of someone I did not know but with whom I had some genetic commonalities.

I have long felt uncomfortable with being Sri Lankan. As a child, I loved visiting the land of my birth, and felt a strong connection to my cousins and grandparents. What is there not to love about delicious crab curries, pineapples so sweet they were crystallised heaven, the gold flesh of jackfruit, the savoury crisp of egg hoppers melting on the tongue? We climbed guava trees, clambered over the logs in my grandfather’s sawmill, dug holes in the sandy soil of Colombo. My parents, my brother and I lived overseas – in Malaysia, then in Papua New Guinea, and finally New Zealand – but Sri Lanka was always “home”, the place that I planned to return to one day as an adult.