This is a bit different to my usual blogs and is one of those extremely subjective topics .I hope you will bear with me though as I think it is also relevant to many countries around that world that are home to an increasingly diverse group of people.
My last year of nomadism bought to the forefront the notions of belonging and identity. Where is home for me? Combined with this is a long simmering annoyance that in Australia invariably one of the first questions I am asked upon meeting someone, particularly people over 50 years of age and of Anglo-Saxon heritage, is “Where are you from?”. Implicit in this is the notion that my brown skin and “Indian” features must mean that I was not born here or am somehow not quite Australian.In contrast when I travel overseas I can claim to be an Australian and have that accepted without qualification.
It was a recent encounter that really pushed me to ponder why this bothers me so much. It is not that I don’t acknowledge the contribution of my birthplace to who I am. It’s more that I don’t think it defines me, particularly since I was 6 year old when I moved to Australia. More pertinently though is that to feel at home in a place the people around you need to also accept that you belong there. So when I am with friends and family in Australia I feel at home. It is then in moment like the recent encounter in the cafe that I am pushed into feeling like an outsider, and moreover one that is continually being judged based on the colour of my skin.
So let me recount that incident. I was in a cafe having a meal with a friend. Part way through someone my friend knows approaches to say hello. His friend hangs back while I am introduced to my friend’s friend and the three of us exchange a few pleasantries. Suddenly the other man steps forward and without any introduction asks me “where are you from?”.
Rather disconcerted by the blunt intrusion into what had been a cordial conversation I responded that I was house sitting in the area but usually lived in the city. If in response to such a question, like I did on this occasion, I choose to decline to indulge your curiosity, then please just accept it and move on. This man was not having any of that. Instead of taking my brush off for what it was, he decided to clarify his question with “Thats not what I meant”. Having the meaning of the question clarified like I did not have the ability to understand simple English really put my back up. I responded that I knew exactly what he meant and that I didn’t see why that was relevant. Instead of even trying to understand why I was not responding appropriately to his interrogation the man just stepped back and completely disengaged from the conversation.
It was certainly a brief and in some ways innocuous encounter but one that has lingered with me. There is nothing wrong with wanting to know another persons story. Just don’t expect them to want to give it to you. Remember that the sharing of a person’s life is a gift not something that can be demanded. Instead if you genuinely want to engage with someone on their life history be prepared to accept that they came from Adelaide or Timbuktu and to take the time to better understand what that might mean for that individual. What having Sri Lankan heritage means to me is different to any other Sri Lankan you will meet. Don’t go into an encounter with your preconceived notion of the “other” you see before you. Embrace instead the complexity of what it is to live multicultural country such as Australia with people whose birthplaces range from 252 Countries and where Anglo-Saxon’s are not the only people to have been here for generations.
I recently saw a quote from the author Neil Gamain which seems quite apt.
“The gulf that exists between us as people is that when we look at each other we might see faces, skin colour, gender, race, or attitudes, but we don’t see, we can’t see, the stories”.
The beauty of engaging with a diverse range of people is that from the stories that unfold, through respectful and reciprocal conversations, we are able to expand our understanding of the other person, our country and the larger world we live in.
This has important implications at a societal level. There is a lot of emphasis placed on the need for migrants to assimilate to their new home. Part of this must be put back on the citizens of that country. If you always look at me and see the foreigner then how can I ever truly feel like I belong here? Instead of labeling and reducing people based on their skin colour or clothing choices, perhaps start to see people as complex individuals whose character and worth is so much more than their outer appearance. Why not engage with people through our commonalities – what we are passionate about or our favourite activities. Take the time to listen to the stories (if they choose to trust you with them) and I am sure you will be so much the richer for having had a genuine interaction with another human being.
I know I too frequently fall into the trap of judging a person based on their appearance. It is something I am trying to move away from doing because ultimately we are all Earthlings. We need engage with each other on this level if we are to create more inclusive and just communities. Nations rise and fall but if we can learn to look past this nebulous notions of identity and begin to see a shared Earth identity then we might be really start to create ways of living that are in keeping with the Earth’s systems.