All families have their own special dynamics but in most Australian families elder siblings have a separate life from their younger brothers and sisters. It’s different in Indian culture. There elder siblings are often given the role of being a second parent to their younger siblings. It can levy a heavy emotional burden with unintended consequences and, among Indian students studying in Australia, can negatively affect their mental health. Despite Australian universities being aware of this phenomenon and providing assistance, this special cultural difference is not widely understood.
Studies have shown relationships between siblings in an Indian family play an important part in influencing their personalities and how they adapt to changes in their adulthood. Indian Society of Western Australia committee member Bithika Kastha explains.
“There is a certain added pressure on the elder sibling, to be well behaved, to do the right thing and to show the right pathway,” she says.
Kastha believes in university, the eldest sibling may sometimes feel the need to play the older sibling role around younger students indirectly or find it difficult to express themselves and be respectful towards older students. She suggests students find it difficult to avoid doing so as they feel like they are disrespecting a system they have been bought up in their whole life. Although there are no specific duties prescribed for the elder sibling, Kastha says they are very often put in the position of being the role model for their younger sibling.
“The elder sibling ends up playing the part of an adult at a young age or as someone the younger sibling looks up at,” Kastha says.
She explains this phenomenon is heavily influenced by culture as the idea of respecting elders, listening to elders and following them is important. This role is usually filled by the elder sibling in the family. Kastha says in Indian mythology most of the idols worshipped may have siblings in their stories from where the value of an elder sibling is derived.
For example, in the story of Ram and Laxman where Laxman is the younger sibling of Ram and looks up to Ram. The story shows how Ram is a role model for Laxman.
“I do not believe these aspects currently impact today’s generation; however, these values have been passed down through the generations rather than the religious elements,” says Kastha.
She suggests the way these values are passed down differs in each family and the way they are adapted depends on the individual. When international students come to Australia who are bought up in this environment, it can often take a toll on them.
Studies show that out of a chosen group of Indian people surveyed around 25% of elder siblings are extremely emotionally unstable due to these expectations put on them.
Jessa Joshy is a Curtin University student who studies actuarial science and is in her second year. She has two younger brothers who are both looking to come to Australia. Her parents had high expectations for her when she first came here.
“If anything went wrong, they mostly just blame us, the elder son or the elder daughter,” she says.
Joshy says this behaviour is very common in Indian society with elder siblings getting blamed for their younger sibling’s mistakes.
“I was a bit stressed when I first came to Perth, I was depressed last semester, so I normally just worked a lot to pass the time,” she says.
She says she really missed her family and would mostly just look at pictures to remind her of the good memories she had back in India.
“The homesickness I felt last semester severely affected my marks.”
She found it difficult to find friends in Australia and although most of her professors were understanding towards her situation with stress and expectations some professors were not understanding.
University of Western Australia Director of International Relations Anu Ramohan says
India and other Asian cultures tend to have a more family-oriented focus while Australian culture tends to be focussed on the individual.
“As students come from a more family-oriented background, when coming here they may feel lonely,” Ramohan says.
She says university has become easier to cope for international students with the introduction of career officers, student support teams, student guilds, and international student associations which make sure students have access to help for mental health and other aspects of student life. With the inclusion of staff from various ethnicities, the university can easily gauge some of the challenges faced by international students.
She says staff needs to be educated on various cultures and their differences to be more socially aware.
“If staff are not educated on this difference and how to help new students cope with the change it may lead to students feeling more vulnerable,” Ramohan says.
Ramohan states traditionally there is an incentive to educate the elder sibling in the family as the main expectation in India is the eldest children are well educated. They carry the responsibility of supporting their parents.
She says most Indian parents invest a lot of money in their children to go abroad which puts extra pressure on the child to do well in their studies and keep in contact with their parents.
“Although this is not clearly stated, most parents still expect high results,” she says.
Indian culture puts a lot of value on education, and as many international students are funded by their parents, they are pressured to achieve higher results, Ramohan says.
“If the elder sibling has come to Australia to study and if they are financially independent, they may try to help their parents fund their younger sibling’s education,” Ramohan says.
She says this is not always expected of the elder sibling but as it is a huge part of culture and society, they may feel the pressure to follow society, causing them more strife in university.
“Even if parents are financially independent, they do rely on their children for support.
“There is always a societal expectation that eldest typically the sons end up looking after the parents,” she says.
Ramohan says the main factor dominating this culture is the joint family idea where you can have the parents’ siblings and their children living in the same house. A household can have around three generations under the same roof.
She believes this sibling dynamic has been influenced by religion which affects many parts of Indian society.
For example, the Indian society or the Hindu society is more male-orientated, where you can see a big push for the male gender. This is seen with the sex ratios during the birth of children.
She says these ideas have been bought about by religion and have then become norms.
Sasha Borthwick is a current student at Edith Cowan University and comes from an Indian background. She has a younger brother who is in Australia.
“I felt from a young age, I had to be the example with good grades and accomplishments,” she says.
Borthwick says her parents were not traditional, but she was always told that she was the eldest and her younger brother looked up to her.
“He sees and he wants to do the same things as me or achieve the same things as me, so I did have a lot of expectations on me, and I still do.”
She says the pressure of having her family’s expectations were always in the back of her mind but the other challenges she faced when she first came to Australia outweighed it.
Borthwick says when she came here everything was different and she had to figure out how to support herself in Australia.
“I had to figure out how to work for my housing and later on my fees.”
She says this was a big part of the challenges she had when she first came to Australia.
Sasha says she was a bit frustrated when her parents told her about being the example, she found it difficult to live up to. This was very hard as she was a teenager at the time.
“I definitely had to become an adult quicker, as both my parents worked.”
She says even though she and her brother had a two year age gap she was made to take care of him.
“Even now, I joke around by saying that I am more his parents than my mum and dad.”
Not all tertiary students of Indian heritage face the same issues. Nishath Fatima is an international student who is currently studying mining at the Kalgoorlie Curtin campus. She spent her first semester on the Perth campus but was later moved. She is the eldest of two siblings who both stay in India.
Nishath says she was the most disciplined out of her siblings and she frequently helped out around the house growing up as both her parents worked.
She says her parents have not put any unrealistic expectations on her but as she supports herself, they have told her to prioritise her studies.
“Never, my parents never forced me into being the role model and I have never been a perfectionist to put myself in that position either.”
According to Nishath, her parents tell her siblings if they have goals and interests, they can be successful rather than putting expectations on them.
“My parents have always prioritised my happiness and have always been supportive even when it came to my degree as they did not like it at first.”
Indian Society of Western Australia committee member Bithika Kastha says this idea of the role model is starting to change as many children are brought up outside of India.
“My kids and my friends’ kids are bought up here in Australia and we teach them Indian values, but we also teach them about equal rights and being respectful to everyone,” she says.
In Australia, Kastha says no sibling roles such as elder or younger are imposed instead it is either good or bad and it is not always the elder one who becomes a role model maybe it could be the younger sibling.