When I was fifteen and talking to my best friend/pseudo-partner/emotional abuser, I said the word (I forget the context) 'filet'. Only I said it in the French way (it is, after all, a French word), as in 'fil-ay', because that was how my mother always said it, and I knew that the English language had lots of French loanwords and that we vaguely followed French pronunciation.
He immediately pounced. 'He' being a man, who was older than me (by six months, but a whole year in an academic context), and British. 'It's not fil-ay, it's 'fillet'. We're not French.'
It's hard to explain the impact of that moment. I've forgotten the specifics, but given that I only ever used that word in relation to my mother's cooking, we were definitely talking about my mother, and therefore my home and my only safe space (in spite of the multitude of inter-generational and inter-cultural conflict that is inevitable when two Asians try to raise Australian kids). My 'friend' was someone I respected enormously who had a lot of cultural privilege, as a British-born Australian, which is true even though I was born in Australia and English is my first and only language. The way he said it - in public, for multiple classmates to hear and snicker at, the hostility and aggression and condescension that was constantly threatening to erupt out of him; it was horrible. It was just a silly conversation about food, of all things, with someone who repeatedly claimed to be my dearest friend, but I remember feeling horrifically embarassed and ashamed; which is how all of us Mudblood Australians feel when we inevitably stumble into a faux-pas.
It's about six years on, and I've only just managed to convince myself of what I always knew to be true; 'filet' and 'fillet' are both perfectly acceptable words, in both pronunciations. Only six years, several years of estrangement from the 'friend' in question, and a degree in English to convince myself that I know how words work. For all my accomplishments, for all my certificates, for all the time I beat out other,whiter Aussies, I am deeply insecure about who I am and where I belong. We don't live in a world that is respectful and understanding of the multiple identities we may claim; we live in a world where people like me are suspicious, because we don't do what it says on the label.
I've always been a bookish person, which is not actually a particularly non-Asian trait; my mother was also into literature and poetry, back in the day, the only difference was that she was educated in Chinese and I was educated in English. I read the first Harry Potter book when I was five, and from six onwards I was considered particularly precocious at reading and writing. Some of it is natural instinct, that undeniable pull so many feel towards the written word. But some of it, I have to admit, was pride.
When you are someone like me - when you are a second-generation, mixed race Asian Australian who can only speak English - not being able to read and write and spell properly was not an option. I knew that from the moment I started school that people were going to assume the worst and that the only way to save face was to prove them wrong. Every nerd likes to come on top, but for me the stakes were higher; it was a way to say 'fuck you and all of your racist prejudices'. And it was the only way I knew how to prove my Australian-ness, because people are always itching to tear that away from me.
It is impossible to explain to white Australians how isolating, how othering, how dehumanizing to constantly be asked the endless variations of 'why aren't you white?'. For other immigrants, there is maybe a notion of home, some idea of origin or the motherland; for me, there is nothing. It's Australia or nothing, because the other places definitely do not fucking want me. When you grow up between cultures, you see the flaws and failures of all of them; but people are constantly telling you to deny reality, to not talk of unpleasantness, and simply spew patriotism from every orifice at every opportunity. Taking obscene and sometimes unjustified pride in being Australian is an essential part of being Australian; and when I was younger, I tried. When I tried to voice my distress at racism, people would say 'you're just Australian, so ignore it'. Australian-ness is presented as a protective amulet, and then just as you accept its dubious powers, people try to snatch it away from you. They tell you to be more Australian, and then all it takes is a stranger to say 'but where are you really from?' to remind you that no matter how hard you try, you'll just never be Australian enough.
It's not that I'm dying to be considered a true-blue Aussie, even though by every legal definition I am one. To grow up without an identity that everyone can agree on is a deeply traumatic experience, and an experience that is consistently ignored and marginalized because the number of people who experience it are small and voiceless. There are few people who understand what it is to grow up alone, isolated from community, to only have your family, but even they don't really understand what it is to be everything and nothing all at once. And it's even more painful that although I was born here, although I was raised here, although I have an Australian passport and Australian birth certificate and graduation certificates from Australian schools and universities, my Australianness is not innate, and can be taken away by random strangers on the street. And I am protective of my Australianness because, for all of Australia's flaws, I am afraid of what I am and how I would be treated without my Australian identity. Being Australian gave me access to free healthcare, to life-saving surgery. Being Australian gave me access to university, an opportunity many aunts, uncles, and grandparents were never afforded. I am not always proud to be Australian, but we all have qualms with our own churches. It is the belonging, the security, that I don't want people to take away from me. However inadequate a safety blanket being Australian is, without it, I have nothing.
Asking someone 'where are you from?' cannot in any way be considered an innocent or innocuous question. Not anymore. I am tired of accommodating white ignorance. There is a violence and hostility that fuels such demands, especially on strangers, that we cannot deny anymore. To forcibly remove from people the identity that is and always will be their birthright is deeply painful for we who have always existed in the fringes of communities, never fully accepted because we are too far from the norm. It is gaslighting on an institutional level; it is people - our teachers, our peers, random people at work, strangers when we're out buying carrots - constantly saying 'you do not look like me so you cannot be one of us'. Belonging, in this post-colonial world, is evidently not as simple as a few pieces of paper, no matter how well deserved or hard earned. Belonging is a privilege that is literally imbedded into skin; Australians have colour-coded their nationality, and I am not in the 'in' pile.
It saddens me, that identity remains so skin-deep. Australia has literally, in every possible way, created me. Australia is the country that brought my parents together, Australia is the country that resurrected me out of biological inviability. Australia is the country that has educated me to become this mouthy, outspoken, overly-loquacious intellectual snob. I am the product of a lot of effort, a lot of money, a lot of investment and wishful thinking; but all it ever feels like is that Australia is hellbent on throwing me away, because I'll never be a product that comes as described.
Which, you know, sucks.