‘Where are you from?’
This question always feels so loaded to me.
I’m never sure what answer the person asking wants. I was born in Perth, spent my childhood in Bali and my adolescence back in Perth. I’ve lived in Canada and currently live in Melbourne. So where am I from? Saying I’m from Perth with a thick Australian accent never seems to satisfy anyone, though I’ve learnt that what the question really means is: ‘why are you brown?’
Once I avoided the ‘where are you from’ question for so long a woman just flat out asked me why I was brown out of sheer frustration. As though the secret of my ethnic ambiguity was slowly filling the room, like a gas leak and no one could relax until I explained my heritage to them. I almost expect collective sigh of relief from the people around when I clarify that my father is Balinese and my mother is white.
The worst experience I’ve had with the question was, surprisingly, at university last year. My tutor asked, me in front of my classmates: ‘Now, Tara; where are you actually from?’ He explained that he had been trying to work it out all semester, and that my surname wasn’t giving away any clues. He said it annoyed him while he was marking my assignment.
Usually I respond by side stepping the question, but when it comes from people in a position of power, It makes me feel helpless. I answered his question about the brownness of my appearance: I’m Balinese.
What followed was a five-minute pantomime of Balinese stereotypes: did I want to sell him a dodgy watch? Did I want to take him to the beach? Did I want to pester him to come into my shop? Did I want to give him a massage? Did I want to eat his dog?
Before that incident Academia had always been some kind of safe-haven for me. I found solace in that my intelligence made me equal, but that day it all came tumbling down and all I saw was the colour of my skin in a sea of white. I wanted very much to leave, or speak back, but I couldn’t and it continued until another student spoke out on my behalf—it was horrible. My grades plummeted that semester, and I became incredibly depressed.