Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The long answer

'Where are you from?' is at once an assumption and an accusation. The assumption that you are not from here and the accusation that you are from somewhere else. When you've grown up in a country different to the one you or your parents were born in, you will be asked this question over and over as your accent, dress, word choice, assimilation and right to belong are put on trial. The trial will take place in seemingly innocuous conversations with everybody you will ever meet, in between half-smiling faces and tilted heads leaning on fists leaning on elbows on the table.

Like most people the world over I have trouble answering this question. Perhaps due to the traumatic experience of having to answer this in primary school and constantly getting the answer 'wrong'. You're not Australian, You're Asian! the playground logic went. As I got older this question was asked in round about ways Where are you from originally? What's your background? This is a fair question in itself. It's rudimentary conversation. I ask this all the time, I get asked this all the time. Yet it doesn't erase the heaviness it takes to respond.

Answering this question and having it asked in many ways throughout my life I have learned a lot about people, society and myself. I learned that from a young age I came to associate being Australian with being white because that definition came from the indelible conversation I had in primary school and the way people would ask again, after I would tell them I was Australian, No, I mean where are you from? I learned later that it also meant what suburb you lived in, which was another way to judge somebody altogether. Mostly I learned to answer or avoid answering what it was I realised people were really asking me. Questions about race, class, inclusion, identity, the right to belong.  

I've learned that some people take pride in telling you where you are from. At a house party in Spain a group of moroccan guys confidently informed me I was indeed from the Philippines and not from Australia because I was born there, as if the location of my birth directly excluded the twenty years I'd spent in a different country. They reinforced the life I'd spent feeling I had to prove my Australianess and in subtle ways deny or circumvent the reality of my filipino heritage. I was infuriated and a little drunk and so less than articulately and in spanish tried to explain what I am explaining here.

Which is that of course, you've heard it all before, definitions are important, the way we ask and answer and frame questions is important. These little everyday things that happen over and over again are imprescindible because they provide insight into what society values or assumes about those that make it up. This conversation is not so much about the question Where Are You From as it is about what that question is really asking, why we ask it and what the answer is.

People say where you're from is whatever you identify with. This doesn't make things easier necessarily. As an immigrant you are without roots in the country you're in. You grow up feeling your way through the culture you are in, trying to connect to it, be part of it. It feels almost as if you are a limb, amputated from a seamlessly connected body and placed rather hastily onto a new one. You imagine what it would be like had you not been torn from the original but cannot keep but growing into the one you are part of now. The phantom of the old comes back every now and then to remind you that you are not completely from here.

At the same time your adopted body excludes you, however unconsciously. You are conveniently forgotten in the image it paints of itself, often overlooked in a casual way only to later be held up as some token of difference and plurality. Where do you belong, if anywhere? At once the question about where you come from is less and less about the actual state of your birth and more and more about how you define yourself as a being.

On paper I was born in the Philippines and raised in Australia. I live in Sydney's west. Yes, The West. That's the answer I give, the short answer. The long answer is that I feel every day a little more drawn to know the country of my birth - its tongue, its tastes, its chatter - to create a connection that I do not feel deeply, that was severed the moment I left and has not had enough time to grow into anything other than an awkward nod to my ethnicity. On the other hand there is the irrefutable will I have to put down roots in Australia, the country of my first cubby house, my scarred knees, my accent that always leaves out the Rs. I know this is the place I want to continue to write on forms as my Country of Residence. I will also always feel for Spain and Bolivia and look longingly on their progress as I would a sibling in whose life I am merely a spectator.

The long answer is that I feel at home in many places, the two countries who have defined me all my life continue to play a role in shaping who I am despite a few years living outside of both of them. Being cut off from one and replanted in the other endows in me the wondrous luck of being able to be a tourist and a local at the same time; to look into an identical face speak a foreign language and at the same time take pride in introducing other travellers to aussie slang. To be many parts of a whole that cannot be fractioned nicely, that will always have something left over from somewhere else.

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