We’re only two episodes into the latest season of The Bachelor Australia (known as The Bachelors this year), and contestant Aarthi has already established herself as a frontrunner in the competition.
The 29-year-old health projects manager from NSW landed a Bach-pad date with Luke Bateman in the second episode tonight, which not only led to a passionate kiss, but also an important conversation about the challenges of being on a dating show as a South Asian woman.
Aarthi explained to Luke that her single mum and grandmother didn’t approve of her looking for love on national television.
“My family’s not happy that I’m here,” she said. “You don’t see a lot of brown girls coming on here – like Sri Lankan or Indian girls – doing what I’m doing.”
Similarly to Sandy, Aarthi faced disapproval from her family, which weighed heavily on her decision to seize the reality TV opportunity.
“My family and the cultural values were the biggest fork in the road for me in either saying yes to this opportunity or running in the other direction and pretending it never happened,” Aarthi told Draw Your Box. “I knew there was going to be backlash, so I was either just going to have to face it head-on or be a coward.”
After being approached for the show, Aarthi waited until she had “100% confirmation” from producers before telling her loved ones just two days before that she’d be jetting from Sydney to Melbourne to film the Channel 10 program. She tried to “avoid any negativity or guilt-tripping” and didn’t want to be talked into turning the opportunity down.
“I didn’t go into the experience with the love and support that a majority of the girls did, which was unfortunate, but that’s South Asian culture for you and what people think of you is ingrained in us generationally,” she said. “Doing anything that is out of the norm or can bring ‘shame’ on your family is taboo… so I didn't want to engage in that until I was sure.”
Aarthi acknowledges that some of her family’s concerns about her Bachelors appearance is linked to the wider South Asian community’s cultural expectations around how women present themselves in not only relationships, but in their professional, social and family lives. Part of it is conservative – ahem, no kissing on TV – but the other element is linked to paying your dues. As children of South Asian immigrants, you often feel the pressure to make your parents proud after they’ve made huge sacrifices to move to a foreign country in order to give their children a better life.
“We are meant to do ‘the right thing’, study hard, go to university, do well, get a great job, marry well, then travel with your partner, have a house, have kids and live happily ever after,” she explained. “This is what your life is because you owe it to your parents. We all want to make our parents proud, but someone like me has always been different [and] it wasn’t celebrated.”
One of the biggest motivators in Aarthi accepting the reality TV gig and risking backlash from her family was the opportunity to break cultural barriers in the media world.
“I never grew up seeing any South Asian women on TV, especially on reality TV, due to the conservative nature of the South Asian community,” she said. “I was sure that the world needed to see more South Asian representation in mainstream media, so I made the decision then and there that I will deal with any consequence that comes my way with as much grace, respect and understanding for my family and culture as possible. I just felt it was something I had to do.”
Up until now, Aarthi’s been in two serious relationships, the last one being a seven-year romance.
“I have only ever had two long-term partners (one was Sri Lankan and one was Australian) and they were both my best friends that kind of just fell into a relationship very quickly and organically,” she said.
Navigating the dating scene as a woman is hard enough, and the challenges are sometimes amplified for women of colour thanks to racism and fetishisation.
Aarthi said "being a woman of colour didn’t really play a part” in impacting her prior relationships, and her family hasn’t necessarily taken issue with her dating people from other cultures.
“Fortunately, my family has no problem with interracial relationships but they are very strong in their cultural beliefs, so that is something that needs to be navigated delicately as a second-generation Sri Lankan Australian,” she explained.
“My family has a standard for what they expect of me and what they think is right for me, whether I feel the same or not. They just want the best for me in their eyes. Added to that is the cultural aspect of ‘What are people going to think’ or ‘What are they going to say?’.
"As children in the South Asian community, everything we do unfortunately is taken as an immediate reflection of our parents and grandparents, and scrutinised. So, I have always had to be careful about what I say and do (which is exhausting).”
Growing up feeling caught between two cultures is a common experience amongst many children of immigrants. Reconciling one’s Australian identity with their connection to their cultural heritage is challenging. Reflecting on this, Aarthi said that “trying to find a respectable balance is hard, but it needs to be done sooner rather than later as representation for future generations”.
“I believe that is something that I have been drawn to do my whole life, but I have not quite figured out how to do so in a manner that incorporates the values instilled in me from my culture, and the western world I have grown up in. It is a lot to wear on someone's shoulders, but conversations and bridging the gap need to start somewhere.”
Aarthi hopes appearing on The Bachelor sparks a productive conversation in itself.
“I just hope there is a shift, more understanding and acceptance moving forward,” she said. “I definitely had to hold myself differently and not speak on certain parts and things in my life knowing what I am representing, but it is a start and I am very privileged to be a part of this journey for South Asians in this space.
“I hope I made all the second-generation South Asian Australian community proud. It is a step in the right direction.”
The Bachelors continues 7:30pm on Channel 10 and 10 Play.