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Who Do You Think I Am?

June 6, 2013

Isn't this what all 'real' Australians look like?

Isn’t this what all ‘real’ Australians look like?

   In the genius video ‘What Kind of Asian Are You?’ an Asian-looking woman is pestered by a Caucasian-American guy about her origins.

‘Where are you from?’ he asks, ‘your English is perfect.’
‘San Diego’, she answers.

   After a bit of back-and-forth he establishes that her great-grandmother was Korean, upon which he bombards her with hackneyed cultural cliches (‘I really like kim chi’) before she hilariously turns the tables on him. Oh, just watch it:

   I laughed long and hard at this, because I’ve been having versions of this same conversation as far back as I can remember. The only difference is, I don’t have a specific ethnic pigeonhole. The most common assumption is that I must be Greek or Italian because I have brown hair and brown eyes, as if all Anglo-Australians had blond hair and blue eyes. Here’s how it usually goes:

Nosy stranger: Where are you from?
NS: No, but where are your parents from?
Me: Australia. And my grandparents, and their parents. I think my great-grandparents were Irish and German, but I really don’t know.

   Tedious as the conversation is, I have grown to enjoy the confounded expressions at this point. Because now they’ll have to figure me out from scratch, without a nice tidy set of preconceptions.

   All this has certainly given me some insight into what it must be like to be obviously from another culture in Australia, to have your ethnic background always be the first thing that people see.

   It’s also why I consider Who Do You Think You Are? one of the most baffling shows on TV. Do the subjects seriously believe that learning about ancestors they never knew is going to explain anything about their own lives? It’s hard not to see genealogy as the privileged hobby of white people who can afford to consider their roots as an abstraction, people whose job applications have never been passed over because of a foreign-looking name, as an ANU study found routinely happens in Australia.

   Personally I have zero interest in exploring my family tree. I consider myself lucky that my heritage doesn’t define me, and I as a result I try not to define other people by theirs. If people want to volunteer information about their background, I’m happy to hear it, but I wait for them to bring it up. But you know what? They almost never do.  

7 Comments leave one →
  1. steve permalink
    June 6, 2013 8:41 am

    Oh, but your ethnic/cultural heritage does define you!

    Check out , especially this part: “This perception is common because whiteness often goes unmarked, being presented as the ‘norm’ against which other categories are defined as different … It is rare that the ‘race’ of white people is commented upon … White people can, if they choose, live much of their lives under the impression that race is not relevant to them. Naming whiteness enables a critique of the ways in which it operates as unearned privilege. Showing whiteness to be specific, rather than universal, also opens up opportunities for valuing non-white ways of knowing, thinking and being.”

    • June 6, 2013 9:01 am

      Yes, I read a similar, very thought-provoking piece in

      But I don’t think this argument contradicts my main point, which is that I’m not aware of my cultural background defining me except when I have the ‘where are you from?’ conversation. So yes, of course my identity is informed by my Anglo heritage, but most of the time it’s invisible to me. When strangers make these false assumptions based on my looks – and possibly my name sometimes, although this isn’t always a factor – it makes me aware of what it must be like to have that one element define you in the eyes of other people. The fact that this is the only time it occurs to me is a measure of how much ‘whitness’ is the default cultural setting in Australia.

      • steve permalink
        June 7, 2013 11:04 am

        as an aside, I do know a woman named “Regrette” and I kind of wanted her to marry you so she could take your surname

  2. June 6, 2013 10:45 am

    Like you, for the first 20-odd years of my life I was asked where I was from. Unlike you, I actually did say Italian. This was despite not speaking the language nor having lived in the country. My only visit the country was when I was eight. I’m not even fully Italian. My mother is an Australian born to Brits. It wasn’t until I was around 21 that I started answering with ‘Australian’ and when the inevitable ‘your parents’ question was posed, I’d answer English. I began to loath my Italian side for being so obvious. I had no Italian cousins, family events were English or white-Australian in flavour. If anything, my Italian culture was an accent to my white-Australian life.

    When you’re identified as one thing over the other, the idea of who you are in relation to your heritage starts of being very important. You start to wonder if you are one or the other. Are they mutually exclusive? Are you a walking paradox? Italian but not. British but not. Australian but not.

    It led me to question why the side I was physically similar too, the Italian, was more important than the white English side. Why did what I look like make half of me a talking point while the white English side seemed to be disregarded or boring? So I have done a lot of studying of my tree. I’ve traced my English side back to the 1600s. The Italian side is much harder to research from here. Although, my dad has hired someone in Europe to do the leg work.

    I find studying my family history and tree amazingly interesting on both sides. I have my great-grandmother’s journal and she was a heart broken woman from the age of 17 until she died in the 60s. I have learnt that two of my great uncles walked from Russia to Sicily after the war and my great-grandmother learnt about their survival as news of their arrival in town literally travelled from window to window until it reached her. I’ve learnt of childhood deaths at the turn of the century, marriages of convenience, great-aunts who missed their trip on the Titanic due to a wedding dress maker’s tardiness…

    I do find strength in their lives and the way they dealt with the pain of loss, depression, motherhood, being a wife, war… When I find myself a little overwhelmed by my life I remind myself of these women in particular – women of lesser means have done this.

    Being related to them makes me proud. If not for their choices, their luck, their mistakes I wouldn’t be here.

    I think whether or not your heritage defines you is dependent on the person. Some people really aren’t interested. My husband and brothers’ aren’t remotely interested.

    • June 7, 2013 4:45 am

      Wow Leni, you mention some fascinating stories there and I hope you’ll use them one day in your writing.

      I can understand why you’ve been motivated to explore your family tree, although it’s interesting, as you say, that your Italian side is cause for so much more comment than your English side. It’s not as though being Italian were even particularly exotic in Australia, particularly in Melbourne!

      One thing though, you say that if not for your ancestors’ ‘choices, their luck, their mistakes I wouldn’t be here.’ This is certainly true, but it’s true for absolutely everyone alive today. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone has a compelling backstory to their origins the way you do.

      We’re all the final link in a long strand of DNA; some choose to find meaning in that and others don’t.

      • June 7, 2013 5:10 am

        Indeed. We are all the final link. I guess what I meant by it is, for me anyway, is that having that knowledge about how close some of the past links came to not being formed gives me a sense of good fortune at my mere existence.

        But as you say, some find meaning, some don’t. Not knowing or caring (for lack of a better word) about family heritage doesn’t diminish the lives of our ancestors. Nor does knowing mine make it more important. In the end, they are just stories. Stories some people like to hear, some like to tell and some like to create.

  3. June 6, 2013 11:10 am

    Good post. Something I’m suspicious of is innocuous seeming surveys that want to know about my background. Fair enough if it’s a census, or if it’s addressing a specific cultural cross-section, but some of these are for weird things like product reviews. I truly wonder what they do with such data (‘Uh oh, guys! Lebanese women aged 25-30 aren’t using our product! Accordingly rethink casting for that next commercial!’).

    Not only does the question about background seem invasive (at least in the wrong context, like irrelevant product surveys), but it’s usually asked to emphasize divides (or, as in your first example, reinforce stereotypes) rather than out of any genuine interest in other cultures.

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