Writing by Shu Shu Zheng // Illustrations by Alejandra Hernandez
I’m a Chinese-born Australian. I’m lucky I’ve never really been aggressively abused because of my ethnicity. I’ve never been told to go back to where I came from, been called a terrorist, or feared for my life because I am Asian. But racism isn’t always a brash, raging monster head-butting you. Like any kind of prejudice, it’s layered, complicated, and subtle enough to dismiss.
My friend, Suzanne Nguyen, who is a story collector and artist, wrote a great blog post about why the question “Where are you from?” is racist. The conversations on Facebook and Twitter about the topic were somewhat divided, but the general consensus was that there’s nothing wrong with asking the question, depending on the intent and the context. I suppose, if you teach English to migrants, then that question might arise.
For me, it’s a conflicting issue. While I look Chinese and have Chinese parents, I’ve lived my whole life in Australia. I have an Australian accent. I have Australian citizenship. I speak English better than I speak Chinese. I probably identify more as an Australian than Chinese. Yet, when people ask me where I am from, sometimes the answer “Australia” is not good enough.
I remember when I was in high school, I went to a university open day. I was waiting at the bus stop for my ride home when this man started talking to me. He asked me where I was from and I said, “Doncaster,” which was where I was living at the time. He chuckled and shook his head. He didn’t press the question further. It wasn’t until much later when I was on the bus, I realised my answer was “wrong” and I felt embarrassed.
The problem with this question is it implies I don’t belong to wherever it is I am because I don’t look “local.” When my reply is followed up with various versions of “where are you actually from?”, it’s suggesting I’ve misunderstood the question, because I’ve wrongly identified myself.
I go to a lot of networking events and this is a frequent question that comes up. Most people just ask it to make conversation. A lot of people don’t think it’s a racist question because we always associate racism with hate crimes or derogatory slurs. Most people who ask this question don’t realise what the question implies. As well, a lot of people who get asked this question would see nothing wrong with the question, because they’ve been asked this question all their lives or just don’t identify as being Australian.
I think, rather than fixate on a person’s ethnicity, it would be great to discuss things like each other’s interests and passions. It’s much more interesting, and if someone wants to tell you about their culture or their ethnicity, they will.[share]