Where are you from?

I’d like to tell you about a common exchange that takes place when I meet someone new. We’ll be dancing through the dull steps of small talk – you can almost hear the show tune, ‘Getting To Know You’ from The King and I – and like clockwork, it happens. As if my name was not enough of an introduction, they broach the subject of my heritage.

Some people will ask, ‘What’s your background?’ Others, usually with a drunken drawl, will demand, ‘What’s your nationality?’ even if I’ve explained that I’m Australian. Some will put it simply by asking, ‘Where are you from?’ And this question, without fail, vacillates from the obvious to the awkward. Not Geelong, Blackburn or Carlton – no, these places do not suffice as places of origin. What they want to know is where my coloured skin comes from even if, in a locational sense, I’m not from there.

Earlier in July, Australian Olympian Dawn Fraser exclaimed on national television that tennis players Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic should ‘go back to where their parents came from.’ Later, Fraser apologised and insisted that she is not a racist. Ostensibly, what Fraser meant was that if they weren’t proud to represent this country with an attitude she deemed fit, they should just leave. It was a riff on Abbott’s ‘whose side are you on?’ making moral absolutes out of a minor indiscretion. Perhaps there’s context to Fraser’s comments – perhaps she honestly didn’t see it this way – but on the whole, her statement was racist. It suggested that if you’re a good ethnic, if you play along with how we want the other to be, then you can stay. Otherwise, we’re full.

For Australians with parents who are migrants, Fraser’s statement was a reminder that even if you were born in Australia, there is still a space in which you will have to justify your existence in regards to your lineage. Growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne, my Caucasian mother brought up my brother and me as a single parent. I wore my Indonesian half on my face, and as if her genes were unperceivable, I remember being asked by strangers if I was adopted. I was once told, in earnest, to ‘get the midnight train back to your own country.’ I’d crashed an undergraduate house party of people I didn’t know, and yet it hurt. I remember leaving that party in tears thinking about how unfair Australia is – because where I can go? ‘This is my country,’ I thought. ‘Plus I’m very tall and I don’t speak Bahasa.’

From my experience as the daughter of a Caucasian-Australian and an Indonesian, Fraser’s reminder to the young sportsmen that they were different, other, was all too familiar. I don’t doubt that Kyrgios and Tomic are proud of their heritage, as am I, but Fraser’s statement cut deep. Child migrants, children of mixed ethnicity and third-culture kids naturally teeter between thoughts of being here and being there. We have an acute awareness of identity, of where we belong or if we belong at all. But if our Australianness dictates our values and way of life, how could we ever fly back to the land of our parents and fit in?

We know that in modern day Australia that racism exists. We can see it everywhere: on Facebook, on talkback radio, on the train. We see it on TV: the SBS series, Go Back To Where You Came From details the journey of refugees in reverse, with a small group of Australians sent off to countries refugees typically flee for fear of persecution. We all hear the racist taunts espoused by participants on this show. We all remember the Cronulla riots – my first memory of the ‘us versus them’, ‘Australia versus foreigners’ sequence, ‘I grew here and you flew here’. Yes, you grew here, but in many cases those you are opposing did too. The youth involved in those riots are now adults. Those moments will forever be in our history. As Tim Rogers sings in You Am I’s ‘Hourly, Daily’:

Don’t let there be
Something sour in my coffee
There’s fourteen year olds
Screaming get out of my country

In Australia, we constantly celebrate the migrant story. We congratulate ourselves on our attempt to create a multicultural nation. These familiar tropes help us mollify underlying issues of racism. For anyone with a migrant heritage, there’s the perennial exhaustion of being asked to explain where you’re from, let alone being told to go back there.

It’s evident that Fraser’s words were ignorant, just as the words of those who ask where I come from. Perhaps both intend to be harmless, but they aren’t.

Zoe Simbolon

Zoe Simbolon is a writer from Melbourne. She edits Offset Journal and was a Creative Producer at this year's Emerging Writers' Festival.

More by Zoe Simbolon ›

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  1. Zoe, your words describe the ignorance of those people who still believe in their ‘white’ superiority. They are all for acceptance and multiculturalism, so long as you play by their ‘Aussie’ rules. As a child of Italian immigrants, I too, have felt the ‘otherness’, and it hurts. For the record, I am tall and I come form Yarraville.

  2. On point. A salient article given the current attention surrounding Adam oodes and the more important issue which is that dirty undercurrent of intolerant, ignorant racism that still needs to be addressed.

  3. I’m genuinely interested in where people have come from. I find that most people who ask me that same question are genuinely interested too. I don’t see it as racist and I’m happy to share my Chinese heritage with them especially as it goes back to the days of the Victorian Gold Rush. After I’ve explained my heritage I ask them about theirs. It’s amazing how easily the conversation flows after that. I imagine that most people whose ethnicity is not obvious by the colour of their skin are never asked that question.

    1. I agree that how that question is asked makes all the difference. I get asked about my name, and feel a reflex instinct to assure the hearer when telling them that it is German that we came over when the French were the mutual enemy of Britain and Germany, so as to assure them that I am not descended from Nazis. A lot of people also tell me how to pronounce my name, despite the fact that we took the umlaut off to anglicize it during the first world war.
      Genuine engagement with a person and wanting to share in their heritage while also sharing ones own is not racist. Demanding to know where someone came from so that you can attack them for their ethnic background or race is always wrong.
      Dawn Fraser should have known better than to sound off like she did, I was horrified when I heard her say that and ashamed of all who gave a platform for her to say things like that.

  4. im in my 60s. I have been asked that question all my life. I take it as a great opportunity to engage, educate and get to know people. Challenge others, and yourself, to bring the best out. I find it works.

  5. Whenever and wherever anybody has ever lived they have been migrants. Take the current travel vogue – that is not so distanced from refugee status – try showing up at some border minus a visa or passport and see how you fare. Borders are regulated by the language of official discourse, and unofficially by emotion (fear, more particularly, of those perceived not to be one of us).

  6. It sounds like you use your heritage when it suits you. If somebody is taking an interest in it, how are they being racist? How are they tarnishing your background by asking what it is? Tell me how that works? And then you’re “exhausted” from explaining where you’re from? If you’re proud of it, like you say, then tell people. Own it. Try to relate and help them understand by talking to them about it. It’s a good opportunity, don’t be so cynical and hypocritical just because you can’t be bothered and throw the baby out with the dishwater.

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