Today I went to the bank and within 10 seconds of standing in front of the teller, I was asked: "Where are you from?"
It was my second time there withdrawing money in person, and I struggled somewhat in writing down the characters needed for the withdrawal amount. Just as in English, we are required to write down the English words of the numbers; in traditional Chinese we are required to write down the very traditional characters that denote the numbers. Anyway - my slight hesitation and slow writing was my giveaway sign! He was nice enough to show me how to complete the form, and I diligently copied down the characters.
Then, off to the post-office! I wanted to enquire on the postage costs, box dimensions etc for my time back to Melbourne. The man was very helpful, albeit a little slow, and he drew me diagrams and gave me the relevant forms and information that I needed. Eventually he asked me, "You're moving to Australia?" to which I replied, "I'm actually going back there". I was a little stumped by that question: should I give the technical answer (and if so, to what degree?), or just the easy answer?
I'm sure there are many people like myself who have culturally different and diverse backgrounds from where they are growing up/grew up. I recently checked out the American TV comedy series, Fresh off the Boat, and I have to say, so far, I have experienced most of the type of (sometime) innocent/ignorant discrimination Eddie has experienced. It has also been interesting for me in Taiwan, as I am also asked the same question of where are you from: goes to show that perhaps by having an Asian face isn't the only way people see a difference between "us and them" no matter where I am.
My family migrated to Australia in the early 1990s, when I was just a little girl. I knew no word of English and only knew the sounds of the first three alphabet letters. My family initially stayed in a hotel, then rented a house in the west - the sticks, I'd like to call it. I was still speaking Japanese at home, as that was the language I was most comfortable with at the time, having spent my earlier part of childhood there. But in Australia, my parents said, I am to speak Chinese at home, and English outside. It took a while to adjust, but it was alright. I grew more confident speaking Chinese, my English slowly improved, and after 2-3 years I could read the English books I'd borrow from the school library.
We moved around Sydney a lot, finally settling in a nice leafy place in the northern end of Sydney. During my schooling years, I visited Taiwan sporadically, perhaps once or twice every two years, but enough times to get to know my cousins in Taiwan, the only relations there who are nearer my age.
I used to get sensitive about people asking me where I'm from. I was sensitive because I was young and still forming my own identity. Now as I'm older and racked up more life experience points, I realise that it may just be a point of conversation for people, that people are generally curious, and I answer them however I feel relevant at the time. Really, people may be asking, "who are you?", curious about my identity, and how come I ended up being here, in the sense of the current space, time and location. Besides, the topic of identity was heavily discussed in my tertiary years, essay topics formed from either socio-criminological, post-Freudian and musicology perspectives that I was forced to have an internal dialogue with myself on this matter.
From a musician's perspective, what is intriguing to me is how closely the concept of identity can stem from music, history and culture, to give space to the cumulative idea of identity for the country, culture, the community and of course, the individual. Having come to understand and appreciate the broad spectrum and timeline of music in different regions of the world, I realise that music is indeed an universal language to which we can all relate to: it is an universal medium for us to express who we are, and a language we speak and understand to mark our very existence in this world. It can be a means for us to identify with ourselves, relate with others and form our communities.
This discussion can go on for a while, but in the meantime, have a listen to what Taiye Selasi has to say on her ideas of identity.
- Natasha Lin