As anyone with an accent and/or who doesn’t quite conform to a thankfully fast-fading stereotype of what a “real” Australian looks like, that sequence of questions is familiar, often irritatingly so. It’s also one that I haven’t been asked for many years probably almost a decade now until one night at Burning Seed around the fire.
Sometimes the tone is of naive interest, other times it’s a line in a sand, it’s a denial of equality, it’s an assertion that only a certain type of person can have the privilege of never having to explain their personal origins and cultural identity in great detail to a stranger in order to justify their presence there.
I’m not sure if the questioner was of the former or the latter but she was pushy and so I bit her head off*.
I reduced her to a blubbering mess of uncertainty and regret.
It wasn’t a satisfying experience. It left me sad.
I don’t lightly say I’m from Melbourne and I’m Australian.
It’s not an attempt to fob off inquiries into my background. I sincerely mean it when I say those things. On the bare surface, to get to that place I had to apply. I had to really think about it**. There was a actual process. I took an oath FFS and I meant it (and still do). I gave up citizenship to my country of birth. There’s a photo somewhere of me with my arm over Phil Ruddock and I’m smiling as if I don’t mind touching that evil sonofabitch, that’s how happy I was on that day.
I’ve spent a lot of time all over Australia. I’ve cycled through a majority of it and then driven around the rest. To repeat a cliche: I’ve spoken with Australians of all types, from all backgrounds. I take a keen interest in the politics of our country, I actually understand much of how it works (or doesnt) and am an engaged part of the whole system. I’m an actual public servant in the Victorian government. Over the years, I’ve somehow assimilated and I can’t tell the difference between my values and what the occasional right-wing pundit likes to wave around as uniquely Australian ones.
I’ve spent the majority of my life here. More importantly, I can’t imagine dying anywhere else.
And still I get asked, “No, really, where are you from?”
* I explained the concept of white privilege and the othering line-in-the-sand nature of her line of questioning, I contextualised it within Australia’s troubled history of racism towards Asians and now towards Muslims, I pointed out that no-one except Indigenous Australians are actually from here and that any claims are ethically fraught until that is cleared. I pointed out her defensiveness in having to explain to me where she was really from, where her ancestors were from before I provided any answers myself. I explained that her assumption that she was of no interest because everyone who looked like her was 6th generation Irish-English basically denied the existence of non-British western european immigrants. I pointed out that most of all, she was being insufferably rude, especially in modern multi-cultural Melbourne where you would be expected to at least have formed a good connection and very likely a friendship before you ask that question – especially the second one – and that even me with my exotic looks and hard-to-place accent always opens with my own origin story before I ask it of someone else.
** part of the reason was that lovely red-head taking a twirl in the photo above