I got into a chat with a lifeguard at my local pool a while back and he asked me where I was from. I was in a cheeky mood so I said I was from Carlton (that’s why I’m at the Carlton Baths - duh). But I knew what he really meant, I have get question plenty of times; from total strangers who reckon they deserve to know. Still, I was adamant to stick with my ‘ignorant’ response - it was my New Year’s Resolution. He asked me again and I said, ‘Okay fine, I’m from Melbourne, but my parents live in Canberra’. Then he asked me again, but this time, he pointed at his face, as if to say: ‘You saying you’re Australian, but your features say otherwise’. I was so shocked but at the same time felt like laughing. Eventually I buckled because while I was eager to keep resisting, I realised then that this guy really wasn’t going anywhere, and I didn’t have it in me to turn my daily swim into a full-blown political conference. So I told him: ‘I’m Indonesian-Australian’.
He was white, and I just find it so annoying that if I asked him the same question, with the same amount of intensity, that he just wouldn’t get it and he’d probably end up trying to explain which rural town or suburb his grandparents lived in, back in the 50’s. I hate that my PoC friends get pestered by random strangers, as if we owe it to them to tell them why we aren’t white. That when my white friends are asked the same question they only have to say ‘Aw yeah my family is from Queensland originally’, and that’s legitimate enough.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love myself and where I come from. It’s just that when these strangers, who feel like they have the right to ask you a question as personal as ‘Where are you from?’ - usually out of nowhere - it feels less like Where are you from? And more like ‘Why aren’t you white?
I think Australia is still very white-centric culturally. So many of my mates overseas think ‘Aussies’ look like the tanned, blonde and caucasian archetype and wouldn’t immediately think there are Australians who are PoC - let alone First Nations people - It’s ridiculous. Why does our nation project this conservative-white identity? That’s not who we are.
First Nations people are the only people who are truly from this land and as soon as we can all accept and celebrate that (I’m looking at you white people) the sooner we can accept the fact that the contemporary Australian identity is complex; it’s layered and it’s not homogenous.
The most recent time I got asked ‘Where are you from?’ by a stranger it was a much nicer interaction and it came from an unlikely candidate too. I was eating in the dining area out the front of an Ethiopian restaurant with my older-sister and Dad when two teenage girls walked past. One of them looked at us and excitedly blurted out, ‘You guys are eating Ethiopian food? That’s the food of my people!’ We started chatting about how stoked we all were on the food, and the girl told us about how her background is Ethiopian. Then she looked at the three of us (including my white dad!) and casually asked: ‘so anyway, where are you guys from?’ I looked at my dad and my sister and we said we were Australian-Indonesian. She didn’t bat an eyelid—her friend said she was Filipino-Aussie. Then they said bye, and kept walking; we kept eating. It was one of the few ‘Where are you from? moments’ that I was happy to answer. She was acknowledging that none of us, including my white Dad, are originally from here. And yet we all live on this land and call it home.
I vowed to myself at the start of this year that next time someone asked me where I was from that I would ask them where they were from in return. It’s sad that when a PoC Aussie asks me that, I find it easy to return the question, but when a white person asks me that, I suddenly feel a little uneasy and it becomes something political for me to ask them where they’re from. They get that unspoken privilege. To acknowledge that they’re not from here would be to acknowledge that this nation was founded on colonialism and white supremacy. But for us, whether you’re just in line at Aldi to buy some milk, or meeting your white friend’s otherwise lovely Mum (who just loves your exotic look) or doing your daily swim at your local swimming pool - it’s always an awkward interaction.
But I have started asking more white people where they’re from when they ask me. It’s important for them to be reminded that their heritage is also foreign, and important for us all to acknowledge that none of us are really ‘from here’ except First Nations. In fact, if ‘Where are you from?’ wasn’t just a weird rephrasing of ‘why aren’t you white?’ or ‘why are you different?’, it would be quite a beautiful and important question to ask - an opportunity for us to remember our histories together. I want to remind white people that they aren’t from here either, but either way, that we are here now, and it’s our responsibility to work together with First Nations Australians to dismantle structures that still allow this weird-white-world to reign supreme.