Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

Where Am I Really From?

Credit: Untangle by Véra Ada

I can always see this question coming.

Why? Because I am a brown girl living in Australia. My features are not immediately identifiable to a particular country and my moderately strong Australian accent does not give any clues.

This rather self-indulgent post came a week before the opening of my first curatorial effort, Diaspora, held at The Mill earlier this year.

“Diaspora is an exploration of true multiculturalism in Australia.

Diaspora asks the artists to explore their cultural background and identities, examine it, place it up against life in Australia and show us whether they fit together, can coexist or clash miserably.

Diaspora questions the mentality that encourages people to ask “Where are you really from?”

I am lucky (and grateful) because while I have been teased, harassed and offended based upon the colour of my skin, I do not believe that I have experienced the true ugliness that is outright racism. ((I identify very strongly with this article on casual racism – check it out My issue is with multiculturalism.

Australia seems to pride itself on being very multicultural. We hold Greek, Italian, Indian, Malaysian, Indonesian festivals in our parklands and acknowledge our presence on the land of Indigenous Australians. We even have the opportunity to learn a second language in school. I mean, most of the world knows at least two languages, but if you can count to three in Indonesian then I guess we’re doing alright.

Yet somehow, on the edge of one of our parklands one afternoon a man asked me for directions and, as a local, I stopped to help him. After giving the man directions for where he needed to go, he still didn’t move. He was looking at me very seriously

“Where are you from?”

“…here, I’m Australian”

“Nah, but where are you from?”

“I’m mixed, I guess”

At this point the man can tell I’m getting irritated and decides to back off

“Oh… ‘cause you’re quite dark, that’s all”

This is very not OK with me. I know perfectly well how to answer that question in order to please the person asking, but here’s the thing, I can identify as whatever I want. If you don’t already know, here is why. First and foremost, I am Malaysian. I was born there, I can speak a bit of the language, I visit the country frequently and lived there until I was 8. I am also half Saudi-Arabian. I don’t visit, I don’t know the language, I don’t know the family, but technically I am as much Saudi as I am Malay. Visually, I am none of these things, I seem to have inherited some looks from my grandmother who was half Sri-Lankan and consequently, everyone assumes I am Indian. Secondly, I am Australian. I live here in Australia, my passport is Australian, I speak Australian, I understand the ‘culture’, I have lots and lots of family here and my father is sixth-generation Australian. This makes going out with just him so much fun and incredibly perplexing to the general public, but I digress.

Ultimately, I am Australian AND Malaysian and I am now proud to be that way, but it also took so much work and I had to reach a level of acceptance before I even felt I had the right to get upset at such statements. I had to accept my own cultural background, religion and upbringing – something I now see as a significant part of who I am – before I realised so much of this behaviour is not okay and that took a really, really, really long time. Longer than it should have because sometimes it was just easier to pretend I am not different. Just a few years ago, I had a boyfriend who’s friends were so close-minded that upon discovering the fact I was part Arab and Muslim, referred to me behind my back as “the terrorist” and I felt too uncomfortable to be angry. I hid parts of myself in order to fit in to a ‘multicultural’ society because I worked out very quickly which parts people were interested in and which parts scared them. So, for reasons you might gather from that little outburst, sometimes I just don’t want to give you my life story and quite honestly, you shouldn’t ask for it.

On a less personal level, why is my heritage more interesting than my friend from England who has been living in Australia 5 years less than I have. (Sorry Nat) He has an accent, I do not. We went to the same high school and now the same university. In fact, there is no actual way of knowing that I wasn’t born here unless I tell you. Oh wait, I am brown and he is not. That’s right, because people can look at me and immediately decide “You’re not from here” and harass me until I answer the dreaded question in the way they desire. This is not the mentality of a true multicultural society. True multiculturalism would mean that people who feel the need to ask this horrible question would stop themselves and go “No, hang on. This is that whole ‘Australia is a melting pot of cultures’ thing I keep hearing about and that’s cool”

…because the thing is, you can’t just throw a whole bunch of different races and cultures on to an island and call it a ‘melting pot’, you have to learn to accept that everyone is different and that that is OK. It took me over 10 years to realise that I could embrace my Malaysian and Muslim culture and still be an active Australian citizen. I really, truly hope that process of acceptance gets shorter and we as a people develop a little bit faster, because it hurts to realise so many other people are going through this too.

I’m not trying to say that is awful to enquire about a person’s background, but much like trying to pick someone up, it’s all about how you go about it. Coincidentally, if you try to pick me up by stopping me and going “Oi, oi, where are you from, love?”, you will be unsuccessful because you are probably boring and a tad racist. Not a great combo. Unfortunately, there is no right way to ask about someone’s cultural background which works for everyone, but you could try a little tact. Try being interested in what we have to say if we take the time to answer you and please, PLEASE just be part of a more forward thinking Australia and just accept that Australians can have different cultural backgrounds, be different colours, speak different languages and I am begging here, please do not tell us how good our English is.


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