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The Problem With Where You’re “From”

Your Identity - Where You're From

“Where are you from?” I used to think this a very harmless question with a simple answer. Yet, now it’s a question that I struggle to respond to and, in fact, almost recoil at. It’s not that I don’t have an answer, it’s that the answer is complex, and the person asking is almost never interested in the truth. They are looking for a set answer. One that makes sense to them, one that fits what they “see” before them – be it skin colour, facial features or accent. To give a response that contradicts this expected answer only leads to the second and sometimes offensive question, “Where are you really from?” or “Where are you from, like, originally?”

I first started to struggle with the idea of where someone is “from” during my university days in Melbourne, when my world expanded with people from a range of different backgrounds – in my classes, at my part-time job, and in community circles. Many of my new friends were ethnically diverse; some were born and grew up overseas, while many were born and raised in Australia, just like me. It suddenly became a strange notion to say, for example, that one person was from Sri Lanka and the other from Australia, when in actuality, our everyday rituals were the same. We commuted using the same public transportation system, frequented the same coffee shops and had a shared understanding of local practices. To say simply that one is from Sri Lanka and the other Australia based on one’s ethnicity or birthplace, doesn’t get at the underlying complexity of the question, and fails to acknowledge the multiple layers of one’s identity.

When I first started dating Hai, the failings of defining someone by “nation” became even more apparent. Hai is ethnically Vietnamese. He was born in a small town along the Mekong Delta, but when he was just two years old became a refugee. He stayed in a refugee camp in Malaysia for six months, and spent another month in Singapore, before eventually settling with his family in Australia. Being so young when all of this happened, he doesn’t remember any of it. In fact, his first memories are of attending kindergarten in Perth, where his family first settled. Most of his formative years took place in Melbourne, where he lived until we moved to Japan together.

He went to Australian schools, just like me. He speaks English natively, just like me. His world was shaped by the Australian lifestyle, just like me. Yet, to simply say, “I’m from Australia,” was not a satisfactory answer to many who made the inquiry, “Where are you from?” Despite the Aboriginal heritage of our nation, the overwhelming stereotype of what it means to be an “Australian” is very much a Caucasian one. My physical appearance has undoubtedly given me access to privileges both in Australia and around the world that I wouldn’t have been granted otherwise.

I clearly remember the time when Hai and I travelled to Morocco, some 10 years ago now. On arrival in Marrakech, I handed over my passport, had it stamped and was let through within a matter of seconds. Hai, on the other hand, was made to wait because, according to the immigration officer, “he couldn’t possibly be Australian.” You see, his travel document and his physical appearance didn’t match the immigration officer’s imagined idea of Australia and subsequently what Australians look like. His perceived notion was that all Australians looked like some version of me.

He declared Hai’s Australian passport to be fraudulent and proceeded to take it away to analyze it. Nervous at seeing his passport go out of sight (something as seasoned travellers we always try to avoid as a security measure) and upset at the injustice I was seeing before my eyes, I went over there and demanded what the problem was. Why was I let through on the same passport, entering under the same conditions and with the same itinerary, yet he was stopped? I knew why, but wanted the immigration officer to reflect on the discrimination that was taking place. The immigration officer seemed genuinely surprised when I explained that Australia is a very ethnically diverse country so you could say that his actions were largely born of a lack of awareness rather than some deliberate attempt at racial stereotyping. Yet, at the same time, we still must use such incidents to help build awareness that such actions are for one, wrong, and secondly that this notion of what passport we hold or what we look like defines our identity as absolute.

That wasn’t the last time I have harnessed the power of my ethnicity to simply get something done, especially on our travels. We have become adept at using my Caucasian background in order for us both to be given the same basic consideration. We now make it general practice that whenever possible we approach immigration counters together. The alternative is often long lines of questioning, unnecessary baggage searches and an unapologetic demeanour from grounds staff. It saddens me to conclude that saying “he’s with me” makes all the difference.

When we had trouble making bookings for AirBnb or arranging housesitting assignments, we knew it couldn’t always be that they were already fully booked for any date we requested or that there were always better candidates – we knew we were more than qualified for the job. It was after yet another rejection that Hai suggested we make all inquiries under my name from then on – and how quickly the reaction changed. Even the same properties that were fully booked when Hai inquired, magically became available when I did. And people wonder why so many around the world give themselves “English names”.

Despite how ethnically diverse Australia is today, that doesn’t mean that the idea of what it means to be Australian has changed to the point of full integration or acceptance. Sure, many people are wise enough not to be openly racist, yet casual racism abounds. Among them are people who honestly have no comprehension of what they are actually saying to another person because they have never been on the other side of the fence, yet we can’t go on excusing it. Something’s gotta give.

On our last visit back to Australia, my Australian born niece of Vietnamese descent said something that really brought this issue home to me. She said, “You’re the most Australian person in my family.” The idea that she didn’t consider herself fully part of the Australian narrative broke my heart. Most days after school she would recount the day’s events, telling me about the games she’d played with her best friend during lunch time. But her stories instilled a twinge of sadness in me when she would sometimes add with a beaming smile, “My best friend’s Australian.” She’d sometimes do a similar thing when I’d take her to the playground. I would overhear her saying things like, “That lady’s my aunty; she’s Australian.” The reality is she is just as Australian as I am or as her best friend, yet the prevailing ideologies put before her told her otherwise. At the age of six she had already observed that being white meant something, and she wanted to be a part of it by association.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that everyone in Australia strip themselves of their ethnic identities and only refer to themselves as “Australian”. Everyone should be free to refer to themselves as they wish and most identify. Whether you want to say you are Chinese, Chinese-Australian or Australian should be a matter of personal choice. What I mean is that we shouldn’t be shocked when someone who doesn’t look Causasian says they are Australian and press for some underlying reason for their presence or citizenship.

Native custodians of the land aside, we can ask the same pressing questions of all of us. “Why are you here?” “Because of immigration.” That is the answer for each and every one of us. In a time when I see countless racist memes polluting the Internet claiming to be “saving” Australia from some evil foreign influence, I urge you to remember that. When I see people protesting the building of places of worship for our diverse communities, I urge you to remember that. And when you tuck into your favorite chow mein, kebab or pho, I urge you to remember that. “Australian” is not an ethnic group; Australians are made up of people of all ethnicities who choose to make a life in Australia, and the Australian way of life enjoyed now is because of this diversity.

It’s not easy feeling like you’re living on the edge of society, contributing all you have, yet never feeling like an equal. Now as a foreigner, let alone a Caucasian, living in Japan, I’m the one who stands out. And over the years,  I’ve had to become used to feeling like an outsider. I’m constantly stared at and have a hard time being trusted with anything – it took us a year to simply rent an apartment in Tokyo – not because we didn’t display a perfect track record, but because we aren’t Japanese. Unless he is having a conversation, Hai’s Asian features, though, generally make it much easier for him to blend in, in a physical sense, since most people assume he is Japanese.

When we visit Australia nowadays, on the other hand, it is I who fits in to the general surroundings until I speak. It seems my accent has changed somewhat on our travels and apparently that changes everything. Now when I go back and speak to a shop assistant, I’m quickly asked how my holiday to Australia is going and whether I like it. When I go to banks or official offices to apply for new accounts or cards, I’m usually told something like, “Sorry, this service is only available to Australian citizens.” I am an Australian citizen! It’s not that I’m angry at an individual for thinking I’m from elsewhere or to staff who are relaying their company policies; it’s the quick jumping to conclusions and the idea that Australia is some homogeneous place where everyone is expected to be some version of the same mould that got to me.

People in my own country couldn’t imagine an Australia with diversity, yet it is precisely this diversity that defines it, drives it and pumps the lifeblood through it. On my last visit, people scoffed at me when I spoke, saying things like, “American now, are you?” or “You’re not Australian at all anymore.” After three weeks of this at every lunch, every dinner, every event I went to, I grew completely tired of defending my “Australianness” at every turn. I can only imagine that many of those with varying backgrounds in Australia feel the same, only intensified when it extends over years or a lifetime.

When I’ve spent most of my life in Australia and the country so much a part of me, it hurts to be excluded, the drawbridge suddenly pulled up and the response cold, as if some kind of punishment for daring to spend my time exploring the world. While living in Japan I fear that I will never be truly considered Japanese. I don’t mean in an ethnic sense, but in being considered on equal footing as a Japanese person when it comes to the community and claiming rights within it.

I’ve travelled to many countries and had an amazing time doing it, but it’s a strange feeling to be considered a “guest” in all of them. When I came across a TED talk by Taiye Selasi entitled ‘Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask where I’m a local,’ I was literally in tears watching it because her speech so eloquently put into words what I had been feeling about the inadequacy of nations as a means to measure identity and offered a potential solution.

In it, she asks us to shift our focus from the language of nationality to where real life occurs. She suggests that instead of asking “Where are you from?” that we ask “Where are you a local?” You may think this change of little consequence but as Selasi notes, “The difference between “Where are you from?” and “Where are you a local?” isn’t the specificity of the answer; it’s the intention of the question.” Asking about locality acknowledges the multi-layered fabric of the human experience and looks beyond a boxed response that becomes increasingly difficult to answer in our globalized world.

If we really think about it, the nation-state as a whole does very little to convey our identities, since varying locales give us wildly differing human experiences, and Selasi shows exactly why with this poignant example of her own relationship to place.

See, “Taiye Selasi comes from the United States,” isn’t the truth. I have no relationship with the United States, all 50 of them, not really. My relationship is with Brookline, the town where I grew up; with New York City, where I started work; with Lawrenceville, where I spend Thanksgiving. What makes America home for me is not my passport or accent, but these very particular experiences and the places they occur. Despite my pride in Ewe culture, the Black Stars, and my love of Ghanaian food, I’ve never had a relationship with the Republic of Ghana, writ large. My relationship is with Accra, where my mother lives, where I go each year, with the little garden in Dzorwulu where my father and I talk for hours. These are the places that shape my experience. My experience is where I’m from.”

With this line of localized thought, we can more easily communicate who we really are – all stereotypes and boundaries of nationalism aside. These are the localities where my life takes place. With this we can stop looking at ethnicity as a mere measure of who belongs and who doesn’t, and we can paint a truer and more colourful portrait of our lives.

If Hai’s identity is shaped by his time in Melbourne, by his life experiences and relationships there, then he has just as much right to call himself a local as I do. Just as the both of us, having spent most of our married lives living in Tokyo, have the same right to call ourselves locals of this metropolis as any Japanese person who lives here.

Ethnicity and locality (or even nationality if we must) are not mutually exclusive because they are not the same thing. Saying Hai is “not really Vietnamese” doesn’t accurately portray his identity nor am I proposing that one’s “origins” be taken out of the equation simply because of birthplace or because one has made a life in a country where they fit in on all accounts bar their physical appearance. What I am saying is that he can be both a local of Melbourne (an Australian if we want to put it in nationalistic terms) and of Tokyo, and Vietnamese at the same time. To borrow Selasi’s similar sentiments, to eliminate his Vietnamese heritage denies his experiences in Tra Vinh, his connection with the Vietnamese language and culture, and his relationship with family and friends.

I feel a similar sense of denial whenever I visit Bendigo, the town where I was born and grew up, or Melbourne, where I attended university and began my working life. It amazes me the response I get from many people – those who feel that since I haven’t actually lived there for some years that this equates to having no right to a connection with these places. As if 24 years of my life in those cities, localities that shaped my very being and where some of most meaningful relationships occur, can and should be erased based on the grounds that I’m not up-to-date with the latest restaurant openings, or that my local accent isn’t as strong.

Places change, as do we all, and to say that some current version of a city’s existence is the only one that holds merit, denies both the city’s history and our own personal relationship to it. Apparently there is some kind of time limit for renewing your entry to places of personal significance and as such my visits are a long string of reminders that I no longer belong, at least as I am made to feel from the perspective of those who currently reside there. Try as one might to exclude me, you can’t break my relationship with a place, past or present. As Selasi says, “You can take away my passport, but you can’t take away my experience. That I carry within me. Where I’m from comes wherever I go.”

Then over in Japan, I have the opposite problem – you are here now but you didn’t grow up here or at least your physical appearance says otherwise. The “now” makes little difference when your ethnicity doesn’t match what is considered the “norm”. You’re not Japanese, therefore you’ll never be one of us. And it’s exactly the same line of thinking that lends itself to the Sri Lanka-Australia predicament I mentioned earlier. Or why Hai is almost never considered to be from Australia either.

We must stop this imagined exclusivity that nationality, ethnicity, and time and space place on our identities. Instead, I urge us to look beyond stereotypes, and to look more deeply at the multiple layers of our inner selves that merge together to create the intricate fabric of our lives. Acknowledging that we can have a place in multiple worlds not only better reflects the human experience, it also focuses on what we have in common, rather than what sets us apart. And I for one wish for a world in which we value our diversity, while never losing sight of the common experiences that make us the same.

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Stephen C

Tuesday 6th of September 2016

This a beautifully written article! Substitute the word Australian with American and it would ring just as true.

I'm an American who has lived and worked in Taiwan for the past eight years. Although I'm a permanent resident, and fully intend to retire here, I'm afraid I will never be thought of as a local, despite my increasing life connections here. The situation is exactly as you describe.

Yet, being Caucasian in appearance, I realize I generally receive better treatment and forgiveness for language and social blunders than my fellow Americans /Canadians/Australians who happen to be ethically Chinese. They may have never step foot in Asia nor can speak one word of Chinese, yet they're looked down upon by native Taiwanese, as if they're trying to "pass" for something they're not. As much as you try to explain that, yes, they're American and native English speakers, and no, they can't speak Chinese and don't have a strong cultural/patriotic connection to Taiwan, the locals will still not believe it and eye them with a sort of envious contempt.

I'm glad that you brought out that these views are also held in our multicultural nations as well. There's a great video by Ken Tanaka (David Ury) titled "What kind of Asian are you?" that drives home this point quite humorously.

Jessica Korteman

Tuesday 15th of August 2017

Hi Stephen, thank you for your insights and for suggesting that video! That's exactly the type of situation I was trying to get at in this post. I hope that more people watch it and see exactly how that line of questioning comes across to people who don't happen to be Caucasian in countries where Caucasian is considered the "default norm".

Thank you for sharing your experience in Taiwan too. It sounds like you've had a lot of similar experiences. As a Caucasian person in Japan, I too feel that I can get away with a lot of linguistic and social blunders, and that I'm not expected to adhere to the same societal norms as people who are Japanese. This becomes very difficult for Japanese people who don't "fit" Japan's very set idea of what it means to be Japanese. Those who have spent significant time abroad or aren't 100% ethnically Japanese, and who may identify with parts of other countries or cultures, are often looked down upon. Even if they do speak the Japanese language fluently and/or understand the culture. And if they can't or don't, then perhaps even more so.

It's strange that in Japan, many people glorify the idea of "half" Japanese - often citing them as "good looking" and "cool". That's fine for TV or modelling but, beyond that, they are not willing to accept them as one of them, in a true sense. Sometimes I think it is a type of envious contempt, as you described. If that person also happens to have foreign language abilities, then it can make some people feel uncomfortable with their own lack of understanding about communication and culture beyond Japan, of which there is increasing pressure from employers who want their employees to be proficient in at least English and to be able to conduct business internationally.

He who comes from Nowhere and Everywhere

Monday 29th of August 2016

There is another aspect that is confusing to people who spent their whole lives (more or less) in city and country of birth. That you can NOT be from a place where you lived for a long time even if you show some characteristics (accent etc) and for example graduated from school there. I don´t feel like a local or in any way "from" where I went to school, it´s the 5th place I lived and it doesn´t hold a special place for me or any of my parents, we were mostly there for practical reasons and ended up staying longer than planned but didn´t really connect or want to. In fact I never liked the place or most people there which is unusual for me. So it gets very awkward when someone recognizes the accent or remembers me from high school (a very big school so it happens) and all I can say is "yeah, I used to live there but it was decades ago"... some places just don´t leave that much of an impression if you have many others to compare with. A place where I lived for just over a year means much more to me for example.

Jessica Korteman

Tuesday 15th of August 2017

This is a very good point, and why I think it is so important to allow everyone the ability to decide on their own identity. Making assumptions based on one's physical appearance or accent doesn't actually tell us much, if anything, about the experiences that make a person who they are and those that are meaningful to them.

It can be hard to explain why this is so frustrating and sometimes hurtful to those who haven't had the experience of living in multiple locales, but I do hope this post and these comments do something to promote awareness and the importance of a broader worldview.

Thank you for sharing your experiences!

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