‘WHERE ARE YOU FROM?!’ is a question I am quite literally asked on a week to week basis. Some might think I’m exaggerating, but the sad truth is that it is, indeed, reality. A reality that affects me deeply, on many levels.
Here is a quick breakdown of how people ask this invasive question:
What’s ya nash-o?
Where are you from?
Yeah… but where are you really from?
Why are you brown?
There are so many stories to share on this topic, from throughout my brief 26 years of life (all lived in Australia). But I will only share the ones that I feel are most the poignant and relevant to contemporary Australia - the ‘all-inclusive, multicultural hub’ we call home.
Most of my encounters with the question have occurred while I have been working in hospitality… I was once offered sponsorship in a job interview. I respectfully declined the man who remarked on how fortunate I was to have ‘assimilated so quickly to the Australian culture’ and who was ‘impressed that I was able to pick up English so well.’ I embarrassed him in front of the entire café when as I left, I said: ‘I was born and raised in Brunswick!’ The incident made me feel a number of emotions, of course, but the most harrowing was that it made me feel that somehow I was different.
Travelling through India with my white-Australian partner: we ran into many other Australian tourists. He was often greeted warmly and asked ‘Where in Australia are you from?’ Once, I was greeted with ‘Namaste’ and a bowing head by a girl who was from small-town Brisbane. She looked at me directly in the eye as I spoke to her in perfect Australian english, and responded to me in words that were ‘occa’ and broken. That story makes me laugh - she looked pretty stupid.
As a child I assumed that ‘where are you from?’ was a question you just asked; harmless, all part of being Australian—right? The older I get the more I observe my tolerance diminishing. I constantly feel like I’ve lost my place; lost my sense of identity in my own country of birth. Seems stupid right? Aren’t we meant to let these things go and become better at dealing with situations like this? Yes—maybe? Until it becomes the same dialogue every week, the only difference is the the way people ask. The question alters slightly, or the person asking doesn’t seem as ignorant as the last so it doesn’t feel as as offensive. But nonetheless, it all carries the same sentiment: to be Australian you must be ‘WHITE’.
That brings me to my final story, one that I feel really solidifies the way I feel when I am asked this question. Recently, I got fired because of an encounter with this very question...
‘What’s ya nash-o?’ My manager’s girlfriend asked me, leaning over the bar with a mouthful of food while I was trying to finish my job; pack-up and go home. I won’t lie: my response was quick, abrupt and short—but wouldn’t yours be?
The weirdest thing was that I found myself apologising for the way I responded and when I realised that it only fuelled my rage. My manager sat, idly, by. Shooting me ‘death stares’ until he eventually said ‘I was being rude’. Her intention was to compliment me on my beauty... as most any moron’s are when they freely ask this question of absolutely no, fucking, relevance.
I explained that the question made me feel uncomfortable and that I was tired of constantly being asked, and that only three weeks prior to the moment in question I was asked, straight-up ‘Why are you brown?’ Twice - on the same day! I was in Torquay, so I let that one slide…
I wish it had ended right there…. But she went on: I just didn’t know ‘how to receive a compliment’ after all, and she doesn’t think there’s anything ‘wrong with that question’. Then, to really antagonise me, she added: ‘It’s a free country’; ‘people can say whatever they like’; ‘I’ve never found that question offensive!’.
My responses quickly grew from short, into a long breakdown of why the question bothers me and why the entire situation had been inappropriate. All the while knowing it was futile to keep trying to have an intellectual discussion with a brick wall. I knew by then that the conversation was probably going to result in the end of my job. My manager did not diffuse the situation nor did he agree that the situation was inappropriate. So I ended it, stating: ‘I do not have to explain myself or defend my personality’. I left.
As I was walking home I thought of all the best comebacks I could have shamed her with — ‘damn, why didn’t I say that!’ I thought. Either way I still believe I handled the shit storm with some grace… well sort of.
I am so tired of being asked that question; of being put on the spot… I mean, look around you live in fucking Melbourne! Now I just ask right back: ‘WHERE ARE YOU FROM?’ ‘WHY ARE YOU WHITE?!!!’