“Where are you from?”
This seems to be an innocuous question, but it was one I became increasingly wary of during my time travelling in Europe.
Even under the best of circumstances, it is difficult to choose between saying “Australia”, where I am currently living, and “New Zealand”, where I grew up. But for a number of the people who asked, neither of these answers proved satisfactory. Most people looked confused, some accused me of lying, others started rattling off a list of Asian countries until I gave in and admitted to being from one of them. One even implied I must be a mail order bride – clearly the only reasonable explanation as to why an Asian woman might live in Australia.
For the most part, I am able to dismiss casual racism with a snappy retort or an icy glare. But a constant battery of harassment can take its toll on even the battle-hardened. The harassment varies from hawkers shouting random assortments of Asian greetings at you, to lecherous men in bars trying to strike up conversations about how much they love Thailand.
This harassment – though its individual instances may seem minor – feels like constantly having your nationality called into question, like being forced to defend your claim to your identity. The insinuation that my ethnicity ultimately determined where I was “from” struck a particularly raw nerve, because it spoke to an insecurity I have had to grapple with for a long time. When I immigrated to New Zealand as a child, I was desperate to become ‘naturalised’. I didn’t look the part, so I felt I had to go above and beyond to prove I belonged. At the delicate age of seven, I remember quietly resenting that we did not spend our summers at a beach, or have large family barbeques, or wear All Blacks jerseys around the house. In time, I realised my claim to be Kiwi was not evaluated against how many clichés I fulfilled. In fact, I did not need to prove my belonging to anyone. When Turkish street merchants except themselves from this rule, it is more than a little unsettling.
I was struck by the sense that I had lost control over how I was perceived in public spaces. As a naturally guarded person, I take comfort in being able to shape others’ impressions of me with how I dress, how I carry myself, what I post on social media. But I felt as though these things stopped mattering. The only feature people saw was my race. It bordered on an out-of-body experience. I couldn’t take a compliment, because I didn’t know if the compliment was directed at me, or simply to me, as the most proximate metonym for someone’s idea of the exotic racial other. I was powerless every time I was asked where I was from because I knew the answer they expected to hear, and I knew they would be disbelieving of the one I proffered.
My unease was not straightforward, and I often questioned why I felt the way I did. I felt guilty for being embarrassed about my ethnicity, as if I couldn’t be mad at being serenaded by a chorus of “ni hao”, because to do so would be like renouncing my heritage. In the end, I realised that my experiences were dispiriting not because I am ashamed of my heritage, but because my ethnicity fails to capture everything I am. It is hard to be reminded that no matter what I do to forge my identity, some people will never be able to see past my skin. But every time I resolutely answer the question “Where are you from?” with “Australia”, I am able to reassure myself it is true.