Assimilation was my form of survival; my attempt to reconcile my existence within white Australia. I have spent so much energy approximating myself to whiteness by covering up the traces that give away my ethnicity. Frequently finding myself on the receiving end of the question: ‘Where are you from?’ reminds me of the failed efforts I have made to integrate into a society that was never made for me.
By the time I was able to understand how othering this question is, I was already fed up with answering it. When I look at myself, the only type of ‘other’ that I see is the ‘settler’. My interrogators correct me: ‘Oh, well, if you were born in Australia, you can’t be Afghan’; ‘Your parents are
Afghan, then so are you’; ‘Well which is it? Afghan or Australian?’. I have stopped entertaining these conversations. For me, an eye roll is often the most satisfying answer to this question. Sometimes it’s just white-curiosity wanting to spark up a conversation; maybe to add some entertainment to their day, maybe to categorise me for their own sense of safety, or maybe to exercise some sort of power play.
I have grown resistant to this question when it comes from someone who is caucasian. Their entitlement works as a gatekeeper to a warped ideal of ‘normal’. Years of being inundated with questions about my origin have brought me to the conclusion that belonging within this ideal is absurd. I have been trying to find acceptance into a normal that is maintained by exclusion.
The effects of this question have the greatest weight and meaning when it is posed by another Afghan, especially from within the diaspora. From within the third culture, ‘Where are you from?’ feels loaded with layers of judgement and jealousy: ‘You look more *insert the name of another country*’; ‘You don’t act Afghan’; ‘Can you even speak Farsi?’. With only a few words I am erased from my watan (homeland), my reference is point removed, and my hopes to return threatened.
This question stems from an attempt to protect their own sense of identity, a homogenised identity formed by holding on tightly to what has been lost through generations of war and decades of restricted freedom. This protection ostracises those of us who make sense of our history and identity through individual expression.
My adolescent efforts to assimilate were a direct by-product of conditioning, which has indirectly ousted me from the two communities that make up my identity. ‘Where are you from?’ is a reminder that my hybrid of Afghan-Australian has allowed me to navigate cross-cultural borders, while at the same time preventing me from being recognised as belonging to either.