“Where are you from?” is a question that people ask me all the time. Not just white people. All people.
The other day an Indian man scanned my bag at the airport and asked me where I was from. I didn’t know how to reply, just like every other time this question is asked.
Do I say I’m Australian because I have an Australian passport? Do I say I’m Malay because that is the culture I’ve been brought up in? Do I say I’m Singaporean because that’s where I was born? Or do I say that my heritage is half Javanese and quarter Indian and Chinese?
If I say I’m Malay, people think that means I’m Malaysian. If I say I’m Australian people think I’m a wannabe white person who is rejecting my heritage. If I say I’m Singaporean, people don’t get how someone can be ‘Singaporean’ and ‘Malay’ so I end up explaining Singapore’s history and split from Malaysia. If I say my heritage is Javanese/ Indian/ Chinese people say, “oh Java, how exotic! So you’re Indonesian?”
On the one hand, I’m incredibly privileged to have such a diverse background. I have lived in multiple countries and I speak three languages. On the other hand, it creates an internal identity conflict – I genuinely don’t know where I’m from. And I’m reminded of this every time I’m asked the question.
I know that often, people are just genuinely interested and they mean well. But underlying the question there seems to be an assumption that if you’re not white, Australia is not your home. Or that you haven’t been here very long. Yesterday a woman asked me: “Where are you from? Are you Indonesian?” I said “No, I was born in Singapore,” and she said: “Oh I have a friend that has been living in Singapore for 16 years! Welcome to Australia!” She had a friendly tone, but it felt patronising.
This is an example of how, in Australia, we are trained to think that whiteness is “original” and everything else is new or foreign. During the years when I was growing up in Australia, I felt ashamed that I didn’t look like everyone else. At school I would always hear racist jokes about Asians. It made me embarrassed about where I was from. When I was growing up in Singapore, white people were always put on a pedestal. Even in 2019, when I walk down the street with my partner, who is white, people treat me differently compared to when I walk alone. They call me “ma’am” and they are much more polite.
Today I feel absolutely proud of who I am. The world is changing but there’s still a lot of work to do in order to shift perceptions. I want to get to the stage where I don’t actually have to explain or justify my identity anymore. Australia is not white. It never has been and it never will be.