By Rebecca Saffir
It was at the beginning of my third year when a member of staff – who had taught me several hours a week, every week, for the last two years – peered at me over an alcoholic beverage and uttered the fateful words: “Yes, but where are you originally from?”
Or it might have been, “Where are you from really?” Or “actually”? Or, my personal favourite, “from from”, as if there are degrees of from-ness similar to the chart that determines whether someone is your first or second cousin-twice-removed. It’s hard to be precise. When you’ve heard so many variations of the same question over three years, you stop remembering specifics. What lingers, crystal clear, is the accumulated understanding that something about you presents as not totally believable or cohesive. Your face and your voice and your story don’t match up to the rather limited set of possibilities people carry in their heads. You’re not… actually real.
I work in a bar and that’s an easy way for people to feel like they have the right to get to know you. I’ve been asked a variation of “Where are you originally from?” about five times a week, every week for the last two years, and I still have no idea what people want to hear when they ask this question, or how to answer it. What is originally? Where I was born? Where my parents were born? My grandparents, my protozoan amoeba which eventually gave rise to the complex organisms I call my family? I mean, originally, we are all from the same swamp, right? But that argument didn’t work for Meryl Streep earlier this year and it’s not really what people want to hear and my own interest in discussing the intricacies of my family lineage is also not a prime concern and basically all they want to know is, What kind of not-white are you?
Where I come from – as in, where I’ve lived my entire life – asking that question is essentially a way to be a sneaky racist. If someone bowled up to me in the playground and asked that, I would have been pretty justified in socking them one. Because it would be understood as meaning: you’re not really from here and you don’t really belong and maybe you should go back to where you came from? Luckily for me, no one at home ever did, because in my town, the mashup of features on my face and syllables in my surname barely raises an eyebrow. Britain is one of the most multicultural countries in the world, yet Brits still have, in my experience, a strangely limited understanding of how multiculturalism works elsewhere.
This is particularly ironic when you consider that My Home Country could never have given rise to me if it wasn’t for the interventions of the British Empire. In the big reveal I know you’ve all been waiting 500 words for, I was born and raised in Australia. 200 years and 10 months after James Cook landed The Endeavour at Botany Bay, I was born in a hospital 10 miles south-east. None of my ancestors were on that boat, and they weren’t on the shore either. They all came on different boats between 1932 and 1954, from Palestine via Russia and Poland, and from Italy. This is the most boring story in Australia; literally more of my friends than not have parents or grandparents whose first language isn’t English. In Australia, everyone is ‘from’somewhere else, except the people who were there first, and they’ve been treated worse than anyone. That my grandparents and great-grandparents were able to migrate to Australia, get jobs, learn English, settle their children in school, and have those children go on to university and careers as musicians and librarians and teachers and writers speaks to a privilege afforded European migrants that was actively taken away from Indigenous Australians. What the Empire did in Australia was nothing short of attempted genocide and I don’t feel great about the fact that every good thing in my life is a benefit of that.
But Brits – sorry, guys –Brits don’t know half of this. I had to show my classmates in first year pictures of what an Indigenous Australian looked like, yet at the same time I’ve had people say to me, absolutely without irony, that I don’t look Australian, which I really have to try very hard to remember is not the Hitler-Youth-lite statement here that it would be back home.
What people mean when they say, You don’t look Australian is, You don’t look like you would be cast on Neighbours any time soon. Which is true, and more of a statement about how inaccurate Neighbours is than anything else. And in a roundabout way, it’s why I’m here. Diversity in casting is a hot-button issue in Britain but let me tell you, if you think non-white British actors have it bad, you should watch some Australian TV. Neighbours has been running for over thirty years and last year was the first time they employed an Indigenous cast member as a recurring character. Only two women in 32 years have ever been inducted into the Logies (which is kind of like our BAFTAs, but a bit crap) Hall of Fame. Last week, the first ever non-white recipient of the Gold Logie (an award for the most beloved TV personality) was a journalist and presenter named Waleed Aly and White Australia absolutely lost its collective shit. You cannot understand how much people are not used to seeing not-white actors or artists on their screens and stages, except you probably can, because 90% of actors you would name to win a round of “Australians can make it overseas!” are blonde. (Really. Think about it.) Britain hasn’t cracked the diversity (or “accuracy”, really, is what it should be called) game by a long shot, but there seems to be more of an interest in at least trying to begin with.
Moving from a place that seems very far away from the world to one that genuinely thinks of itself as the centre creates a certain kind of cognitive dissonance. I’m a non-British citizen raised in an ex-British colony who’s come to live in the master’s land on a passport from that country’s scrappy Mediterranean cousin and my legal right to remain here once I graduate in three weeks completely depends on the outcome of an election which I can’t vote in as an Italian but can – seriously, get this – can, as an Australian living in Britain. I voted in the last British General Election and the last Italian election and the last Australian election but not one of those countries will even lend, let alone grant, me money to study because I haven’t been living and paying tax in the right place for long enough. I still say “yoghurt” like it rhymes with “frozen” and I consider “arvo” “servo” “sanger” and “longie” to be very acceptable words, but when I went home at Christmas my friends wouldn’t shut up about how English I sound. When I encounter large groups of Australians in public I try to avoid them; when I have a group of Italian customers I fumble through my four Italian sentences and eavesdrop and feel nostalgic for a country I’ve never lived in. Outside of school my closest friends are people I went to university with in Sydney and we spend Australian national holidays together feeling guilty about how those holidays celebrate some of the less impressive chapters in our nation’s history, but also being very excited if someone gets sent these amazing Australian crisps called Twisties. I spent hours, days, agonising over what to put as my native accent on Spotlight and I’m not proud of how proud I am every time someone here tells me they think my accent is British, but I will tell anyone who listens that the class system in Britain is an embarrassment and also you guys really need to look at your electoral system because it’s deeply disenfranchising, maybe check out how compulsory preferential voting and two elected houses of parliament and elections on a weekend works somewhere like, I dunno, Australia? I’ve stopped reading Australian politics because it’s too depressing and I don’t read as much British politics as I should because I’m still very patchy on my British history so it can be hard to follow. When I went to Sydney last Easter I told everyone in London I was going home for the holidays; when I left Sydney after my trip at Christmas I told everyone there I was going home to London. Where am I from? Mate, I barely know where I am half the time.
If I’m honest, I never really felt comfortable being “Australian” in Australia. Wouldn’t be cast on Neighbours, remember? But here I feel compelled to lay claim to that identity, to prevent it from being defined by people who have only been allowed to interact with it through shitty TV soaps and the obligatory monthly news spot about horrendous spiders. Contrary to what Captain Cook and his merry men might have thought, Australia did actually exist for a long time before the Empire rocked up. But rock up they did, and now Australia, as we whitefellas understand the concept, exists, and I’m a product of that, and I’m back here on Empire land, trying to explain how it is that I came into being. Sometimes Britain’s lack of interest in the worlds she spawned is breathtaking.
I wasn’t particularly polite with that teacher. I thought they should know better than to let the words “But you just don’t look Australian,” out of their mouth. “I think you need to broaden your conception of what an Australian could be,” I said, none too patiently. And I walked away, I think, bored and tired of being made to feel like maybe no matter where I’m from or where I am, it’s not really where I should be. I know that’s not true. In the immortal words of Hairspray, I know where I’m going and I know where I’ve been. It’d be great if everyone else could get the memo.