So I’m standing at the bus stop - the trains aren’t running - he comes up, crinkled face; harmless, a smile and a nod. I can always feel it coming.
Small talk, chit chat... how can I already feel different inside? I can’t put my finger on it. And then, like clock work, he asks: 'so...where are you from?'
Today it was him, yesterday it was her, and tomorrow it will be someone else. Maybe three others: some curious, some flirting, some fearful.
I’ve been asked this question on a daily basis and since the first time I started observing people’s curiosity. I wondered: why?
Why do you feel this is an appropriate way to start a conversation? It presumes that the person you ask is the 'other', potentially without you realising. But you are creating a divide: 'You don’t look like me, so who are you really?'
Are you really interested in the answer? I’m not sure that you are. Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
What I can guarantee is that you are almost always never satisfied with my response, and so the interrogation continues. I am always nice, always smiling, always willing to provide you answers. But I am also always left lost, left deflated, and left alienated; sometimes it is a chance to educate.
My answer always comes out through feeling a mixture of pride and fear. Because growing up, when I was yet to become comfortable enough in my own self, everyone I explained my heritage to had the audacity to tell me what they think I am.
I would say: 'I’m East African', but this never satisfied anyone. So they would keep searching and asking, insistent: 'oh but you must have something else in you'.
These questions led me to question where I was actually from. I was plagued with feeling like an imposter, a liar, a fake... 'who the fuck am I?'
How do you put in words the feeling of being displaced?
The feeling of being lost, even like an outcast at times, is something you can't shake, and it is one of the saddest feelings you can experience.
Only I know the deep stir in my body that I feel when I land on African soil, in the motherland. Only I know that I started school in Mombasa, spent every year there on my grandmothers lap, eating and laughing and living with friends and family in our family home. Only I know the feeling of running through those dusty busy streets, with music blasting from the Matatus and smiles as big as the ocean. But, in the face of this question, I am still left confused. I am still left torn and displaced, my heart split in four; four pieces, four countries.
I have planted seeds across so many places, and I have been cut down in all of them - but each day I grow.
Then I come to providing an explanation - like I owe it to those people - before they know a thing about me. Before they know my name I have to prove myself. I have to prove to a stranger who I am, and then it begins again.
I explain that my ancestors are from East India, Gujarat, but we got sent to East Africa to build the railways and remained. I have five generations in East Africa, Kenya and Tanzania, but I have lived in Australia all of my life, since I was one, visiting overseas here and there.
'Oh so you’re not African, you are Indian!' They usually exclaim.
'Excuse me?' And internally the confusion seeps through, no matter how outwardly calm I try to be.
Yes I have been to India five times, but we have no blood relatives there. We are treated like tourists.
The displacement begins.
And then the next question comes like a domino, crashing me down and pulling me further away: 'So were you born here?'
I explain that I was born in Manchester, England - this is always key. Maybe they will be a football fan, or a fan of Oasis—surely. Let me try to find some common ground so that they can feel comfortable in my interrogation, so that they can feel comfortable while I feel odd and exposed.
Back at the bus stop, the man has been sweet. He is a little old, and he is interested, so he will listen; I tell myself: here it goes again
I give him all the details he is probably not that interested in, but still feel the need - always - to explain.
He says:'oh so interesting, your English is so good!'
All I can hear is the blood pulsing in my ears. It is such a juxtaposition because all I can do is laugh as my insides wilt - I am tired.
Did I hear him correctly? My inside voice screams: why the fuck wouldn’t it be?
But I continue to smile. He is stating this with so much innocence (ignorance) can those two things be the same?
I say: 'Well yes, I was born in England and have lived in Australia my whole life, so of course my English is good.
He continues: 'Yes, you don’t have an Indian accent!'
An Indian accent? I think.
I have flash backs, to each time someone has mimicked my father using an Indian accent. My Aboo, who was born and brought up in Kenya, who went to study in England, who lived in Canada for 14 years and who has spent the last 28 years in Australia. Of course, my ancestors, my practices, our traditions - they are from an Indian community - but one that lives in Africa. So which one is home? Where do I belong? Hold on... Australia is my home - is it not?
It has taken me a lifetime - literally - to finally accept where I am from, and everything that comes with that, and it is not one place. It will always feel disjointed but I am so proud, and I am so happy.
What was I scared of for all of those years? I do have a history rich with different cultures, languages, practices and traditions, and I'm also as 'Aussie as they come'. There are still people who will belittle me and put me in a box according to what they think I am, but fuck those people. I know who I am, and I feel sad for them. I am so thankful that the majority of people in my life have never made me feel like I don't belong. If anything the people around me are intelligent, curious people who celebrate diversity for all that it is. They don't see colour and they are amazed, rather than scared, of the differences between us - everything I have tried to reject they accept.
This story has been jumbled, it has gone back and forth, up and down and back full circle, and that is how my mind works when you ask: 'where are you from?' It scrambles, attempting to find the most suitable answer, dependent on the most suitable audience. It is exhausting but it has become a part of my day. Finally, I myself have come to a place in my life that I can celebrate who I am with no fear, and it feels like freedom.