“Where were you born?”
“Oh, I was born here in Sydney”
“But you don’t look Australian?”
“Yes, um my parents are originally from India.”
“So you’re Indian?”
“No. I’m Australian”
“But then where are you from?”
“From Sydney. I was born here and I’ve lived here all my life.”
“No, where are you really from?”
How am I meant to respond to “where are you really from”?
I had this conversation last week with an elderly lady while on a train to the city. And while I’m sure she meant no harm with her questions, I couldn’t stop the self doubt and that little stab of pain and shame from blooming onto my cheeks, albeit hidden by the olive tone of my skin, because I did not know how to answer her.
And I think it was a blessing that my stop arrived and I could politely excuse myself and leave the situation, and pretend it never happened.
The elderly lady I was conversing with may not have had any intention of being racist or narrow minded, but every question about my identity was another reminder that no matter how hard I try to portray myself as an Australian, I will never be accepted as one.
As much as I know I have patience and tolerance to deal with obtuse questions, there is a limit. Having a different culture to the “norm” – if something like the norm even exists in a multicultural, secular nation like Australia – is something that’s extremely difficult to accept. When you’re constantly asked shallow questions like if you’re part of the caste system, if you’re vegetarian because of religion and whether you’d like a piece of beef (really classy attempts at humour here), you begin to distance yourself from the thing that provides the fuel for aggression.
People may mean no harm when they ask questions like this, but micro-aggression has been a source of the externalised and internalised racism I’ve been subjected to. And it’s a source of the psychological and emotional struggles many bicultural Australians like myself are going through. Micro-aggression or passive-aggressive racism is still rampant in our multicultural society. I noticed that I worked so much harder to perfect this “true Australian” image of myself. I spent hours trying to cultivate the perfect image to please society. I spent so much of my childhood trying to create two versions of myself. I tried to separate my cultural dichotomy into two different beings so I could try and erase the shame that was inflicted by the classic passive-aggressive rhetoric of our society: “But where are you really from?”
And that has gotten me nowhere.
And it saddens me to say that I know I’m not the only one. I’m not the only child of a migrant family, who hosts a bicultural identity she should be proud of, but spent so lon trying to sever ties to one in order to be accepted in another.
It saddens me to think that I’ve had to take these measures because in 2016, living in a secular multicultural nation means nothing when you don’t have fair skin, light hair and light coloured eyes.
It’s a bit distressing when there is so much emphasis on one’s place of origin as a discerning factor of how valuable, worthy and prominent they are in society. It’s distressing when race and where someone is from is a key political issue and the backdrop to many racist and bigoted campaigns.
Micro-aggression has reached a point where I’ve armed myself with the long explanation that my parents are from India but my sister and I were born abroad, and I was born here as an answer to “Where are you from?”
But I do look to the future with hope. Because I know that we don’t have time to focus on the pettiness of such trivial matters like where someone is from. One day, maybe I won’t need to arm myself with the defensive rhetoric I use right now. Maybe one day, I’ll be able to say that I’m Indian-Australian. And maybe one day, I’ll be proud of that little element of my bicultural identity.