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Where are you really from?

I found SBS’s “Where Are You Really From” to be compelling viewing.

If you don’t look ethnic, you won’t know the experience of people asking where you’re from — and not taking “Sydney” for an answer.

They don’t want to know where you’re from. They want to know where your family originated.

The whole series had some powerful stories, but it was the first episode that particularly struck a chord, as host Michael Hing visited the Chinese community in Bendigo.

Not that I have any connections to Bendigo. But as with the people interviewed, I get my half-Chinese looks from family who came to Australia before Federation — farther back than many white Australians.

I grew up somewhat isolated from any cousins or uncles/aunts or grandparents, and in those circumstances you can easily assume that your family’s background story is unique. It’s not. Suddenly seeing a group of people who have shared many of the same experiences was not just eye-opening, it was quite emotional.

My jaw dropped when I realised just how common it was for Chinese immigrants in the 1800s to have their names messed up by officials.

My grandfather’s name ended up back to front. This happened all the time. (Rather than try and fight it, he just went along with it. Only one of my uncles bothered to change it back.)

Walking across country to either avoid Chinese-specific taxes, or just because you’d landed at the wrong place and didn’t have any money, was also apparently commonplace, and something that some of my ancestors experienced.

We ended up watching the episode again in a family group, with some verbal dissection afterwards.

While the first episode really struck a chord, the others were worth watching too – in fact watching the second, I felt the situation reversed somewhat, with my usual assumptions about Sikhs in turbans flipped as soon as you heard their Australian accents.

Whatever your family background, this is well worth a look.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

2 replies on “Where are you really from?”

It’s a good show. I’m relatively new to this country, but hide my accent well enough that I never get asked it. My partner, who is born overseas but has lived here since high school and is a citizen – they get asked ‘where are you from?’ on a regular basis. “Brisbane” never seems to make the asker happy.

I’m glad that the exclusionary nature of a seemingly harmless curiousity is being shown to other Australians.

I work at a university and I can assure you that your grandfather is not alone, we still have student arrivals each year where the “firstname/lastname” on a form is found counfusing and what’s entered on the records doesn’t match how people want to be known. Universal naming is hard, and the anglo-centric firstname-middlename-familyname doesn’t fit all cultures. In the 1980s a friend with no middle name ended up with an X on her student records as her initial because it (US software) insisted on everyone having one middle name. I have two middle names, at one stage I ended up with two student records, one with one of my middle names and a single entry, the second with the other name and all the rest of my documentation.

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