Where Are You From? The Plight Of The Ethnically Ambiguous

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As I’ve slid awkwardly into adulthood I have had an increasing amount of disarming realisations. It has been over a decade since I could sit in a shopping trolley and I can no longer parade around in themed pajamas without eliciting serious negative attention. What’s worse is that I am now finding that I am only able to sustain my (previously effortless) YOLO-esque lifestyle in short bursts, with necessary periods of head-on-desk monotony in between, also known as a job. Otherwise put, since graduating, I’ve begun to familiarise myself with the concept of a calendar week. I have managed to deduce that, generally speaking, weekdays are reserved for responsibility and weekends act as a relief mechanism to counteract the energy spent chasing financial independence in its various forms. It’s all very fascinating. I’m completely lost.

In a growing culture of first world problems, this wonderfully indulgent “post-graduation bewilderment” is certainly not a new concept. Heck, it has basically assured Lena Dunham a long (and likely gratuitously nude) retirement. But what is most underappreciated is that amongst all these growing pains and morbidly lengthy fits of self-reflection, graduates are really just scrambling to define themselves. Spewed out into a world where one’s identity is so heavily reliant on one’s profession, many graduates find themselves adrift in a prolonged identity crisis, no longer a student and not yet a full ‘adult’ in the commonly accepted usage of the term. “What do you do?” is a question placed preferentially high on most strangers lists and many graduates fumble to find a pleasing and balanced response. The reality is, isolated from our parents, often without a job and too occupied reminiscing on the days of eat-sleep-rave-repeat, young people are forced to reconsider what constitutes their individual identity.

And yet, despite the prevalence of “what do you do?”, I find myself more often plagued by a question that’s a little more pointed and a lot more difficult to answer. Out of context it seems semantically neutral but it carries an uncomfortable connotation that I delight in pointing out to its (invariably mortified) proponents. In the crazed determination of 20-somethings to define one another, it’s a question that is sometimes asked with alarming immediacy. It takes many forms, but its most popular variation is:

“Where are you from?”

“Sydney”, I unfailingly reply, grinning stupidly.

“No, but where are you from from?”

Sometimes the word “ethnicity” is thrown in there. Sometimes it’s “cultural background” (a catch-all phrase that I adore in its overwhelming political correctness). Nationality is another widely preferred option, or the absurdly vague, “ancestry”. All these skilfully employed synonyms are used to soften the real question, which extracted from the subconscious and whittled down, reads:

“How is it that are you not white?”. 

It seems sensationalist, but I’m not accusing anyone of racism. The world’s (arguably) been whitewashed for a while and then a little splodge of colour makes an entrance…? Hey, I too would be interested.

For the ethnically ambiguous, the path towards discerning one’s identity is often littered with practical obstacles. One’s place of birth doesn’t necessarily correspond to the culture in which one lives, which might differentiate itself to the culture of one’s father, which mightn’t necessarily be shared by one’s mother…it’s a complex cross-continental web that our young people are expected to expertly navigate, whipping up some hybrid identity that deftly combines all factors and invariably takes upwards of 10 minutes to explain at any social gathering.

Of course, it’s never so easy. By not fitting into any easily digestible racial category, the ethnically ambiguous find themselves in a peculiar position. We simultaneously have stakes in several cultures whilst never truly belonging to one. We are told that we are in a position of privilege, to have been exposed to so many differing ways of life, to be the poster boys for the proverbial melting pot, to have a wondrous, mystical perma-tan. And while being ethnically ambiguous does offer up some fairly useful benefits (I have more than once feigned incomprehension of the English language in order to absolve myself of an undesirable situation) it can also lead to a sharp, bitey sense of unbelonging. In every group photo, every stunted bout of small talk, every politically incorrect compliment touted by the elderly, we are reminded that we lie somewhere outside of the norm.

With the epic rise of globalisation, however, it is very possible that the norm is shifting its centrepoint. There has never before been a time where one can so inexpensively flit from country to country, laying out the world like a deck of cards and shuffling them how we see fit. Ambition is ripe and people are moving across the globe in hordes chasing one dream or another. After all, it is now categorically lazy to stay in one’s small town while the world outside gathers dust. Races are mixing. Cultures are mixing. Brown babies are becoming less conspicuous in the maternity ward. And inevitably it all has to lead somewhere.

Simply put, brown is the new white.

Or, I’m reminded, as I’m asked by the cashier about my “nasho”, at least it will be. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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