A few days ago Mum and I were standing in an i-SITE in Whakatāne, Aotearoa. i-SITEs are small information centres scattered across the country, that provide information to visitors, and Whakatāne is a town in the North Island’s Bay of Plenty region, about an hour South-ish of the ever popular Rotorua. We were after recommendations for a leisurely, scenic drive. Something that would take us along the East Cape for an hour while my Aunty (whom we were staying with) finished her day as the local school’s librarian.
Hine, the woman working at the i-SITE was brown like us. She was friendly and patient as she tried to find out more about us and why we were here, to match us with the perfect route.
‘We want to see more of the ocean’, I explained, ‘we’re staying inland at the moment’.
‘Oh, where are you staying?’
‘Oh, are you from there?!’
After that, the way she looked at us changed. The whole conversation changed. Instead of politely suggesting scenic look outs we could pass by, Hine boldly told us: ‘you’ve gotta go up to Te Kaha. See here – yeah, my cousin works there, he’s the manager actually, drive up there, and LOOK at this view!’
Despite our difference in appearance; our different shades of brown, our Australian accents, ‘Rūatoki’ meant that we were the same; that we are a part of here, that we belong and our history ties us to this place and, in one way or another, ties us to her, to each other. Hine didn’t need to ask us any more questions – though if she wanted to, I would’ve happily answered. We could’ve talked about our Whakapapa/heritage, undertaken a Mihimihi – a Māori greeting process – and determined whether or not our ancestors came on the same Waka (canoe). But we didn’t. It wasn’t the right time, and that was okay too. Instead, we recognised each other’s Mana and moved on knowing we could go back to our respective Whanaus and to see what we could find out about the other if we chose to.
That’s the kind of ‘Where are you from?’ that I’m about. The kind that serves as a form of positive recognition, a discovery of similarity in difference. One that doesn’t pull at your identity to simply serve someone else’s curiosity. I’m done with that. If you are white and you ask me where I’m from I’m going to say Brisbane, and that’s all you’re getting. That should be enough. And if you think that I’m answering unfairly, that you’re not asking the same way as every white person before you, that the ‘Where are you REALLY from?’ is an innocent way to get to know me, or any other Person of Colour – I’m here to tell you that a) I’m not, b) you are and c) it isn’t. You’re not entitled to know everything about my heritage. Some things are not for you. Some things are just for us.