Sunday, 12 February 2012

Where are you really from?

Remember when I wrote about the frustration non-white people from the West feel when asked by others where they're from? And how I said that I, personally, didn't find it all that frustrating? Well, I still don't find it frustrating. But I was forced to reflect on it a little more during a recent visit to Indonesia. I was with a group of cousins and friends, all of us visibly not Anglo-Celtic, and we were constantly asked by locals where we were from. We, of course, told them that we were Australian. But not a single local accepted 'Australian' as an answer. We were met with baffled and confused faces, followed by: "What?! Where are you really from?"

After a bit of talking back and forth, some locals finally reconciled with the fact that it was possible to be not white and Australian. 

But the probing was frustrating several in the group, who started to lie about their ethnic backgrounds to throw locals off a bit. Instead of tiredly explaining their Arab heritage, a few of my cousins were saying "Well, my parents are Chinese..." and "I'm really from India", which had some locals laughing and some scratching their heads. 

I had finally understood and sympathised with the irritation that non-white Westerners harboured toward being asked about where they were really from. But though I felt for the others, I was the only person who actually enjoyed the inquiries and I was more than happy to share with locals my ethnic background. I came to several conclusions as to why I wasn't affected by such questioning. Firstly, I accepted that, for most locals, an 'Australian-looking' person would be a Caucasian one, since they came across white Australians more often than they did Arab Australians. 

But more importantly, it dawned on me that when given the opportunity, I emphasise my Palestinianness because I try to dissociate myself with being Australian, or rather, just Australian. Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful to have been born and raised in Australia - it's who I am and it's all I've ever known. But the term, and the very concept of 'Australian' is associated with, and rooted in, colonialism and ethnic cleansing. There is pain and normalisation of Indigenous suffering attached to it. I feel that adding that I'm Palestinian, and making it clear that I'm Palestinian-Australian, somehow counteracts the negative connotations of the term Australian and Australia's tragic past and present, given that there are many similarities between the Palestinian plight and the plight of Indigenous Australians.

Australia is also a land abound with nationalism, xenophobia and a bogan culture. There are plenty of racists here - working class bogans, elite bogans, those who don Aussie flag thongs, those who are members of Parliament - that believe non-white immigrants can never, and will never, attain 'true' Australian status. The Cronulla riots said something. Our asylum seeker policies say something.

I also realised I elaborate on my nationality and ethnicity to keep Palestine well and alive. The 64th anniversary of the Nakba is approaching soon. The Nakba, which means The Catastrophe, marks the dispossession of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel. By saying that I am Palestinian, I am making our presence louder. I am declaring that my ancestors are Palestinian, that I am Palestinian, and that we are not going anywhere.

Your geographical origins, where you were born - for some of us, that's only part of the story we wish to tell.

Putting this into words has made me realise the complexities of cultural and national identy. I find that many young Arab, South East Asian and African Australians, walk a tricky path. We're children of immigrants, we're native Westerners and our communities are often demonised. It's not a tragedy, and to cry 'identity crisis' is far-fetched, however it is confusing when it comes to decision-making. About lots of things. There are more boxes to tick and there are more people around you with different expectations. It's a juggling act and the balls are different sizes. 


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I went through a frustrating trial of figuring out my identity. I've come to terms with the fact I'm Canadian. I guess it's more of my home than "back home" is supposed to be.

oh and interestingly enough my uncle is getting married to a palestinian girl. Arab multiculturalism eh?

George Voulgaropoulos said...

I'm 2nd Generation Aussie after my grandparents arrived from Greece in 1954 and I still get asked where I'm from!

Anonymous said...

nice follow up

Anonymous said...

Saying you're Palestinian is a badge of honour!

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