I Went Back to Where I Came From
The pollution is so dense; I can actually see it lingering in the air. Droplets of sweat ooze from my pores as I am struck by the humidity. Sneaky mosquitoes greet me on their hunt for blood as they inch their way under my clothes and tear into my fragile skin. The screams of taxi drivers seeking customers, the thumps of suitcases dropping onto airport trollies, the cries of loved ones being reunited culminate into an almost symphonious cacophony. Stepping off the plane into Mumbai, India, is like stepping into an alternate universe.
So used to strict road rules, the constant beeping from every angle and direction is deafening – something I am told I’ll get used to. The driver darts between rickshaws, buses and bikes, riddling my stomach with butterflies – not the good kind. All I want to do is sleep off the jetlag, but I drop off my suitcase and force myself to pry my eyes open, adjust to the new time zone, and at the very least, attempt to make conversation with the stranger approaching me.
Stranger: “Hello, where are you from?”
Stranger: “No but seriously, where are you really from?”
Me: “Sydney, Australia?”
I contemplate explaining, but instead continue walking, leaving both the stranger and myself bewildered.
The conversation shouldn’t have been a surprise – I have been asked the same thing a thousand times before in hundreds of different ways. Whether people are genuinely curious or casually racist, I know they usually just want to know the answer to one question: why aren’t I white? They’re asking because the way I’m carrying myself, the clothes I’m wearing and the way I’m speaking doesn’t quite match up with their preconceived notions of someone with the same amount of melanin I have in my skin.
Attempting to explain where I’m from is something I was forced to accustom to back home in Australia. Usually, it’s a lot more than a simple one-word response, because “Sydney” isn’t the answer strangers are content with. While I was born and raised in Australia, both my parents were born and raised in India, and their ancestors were from Portugal. Explaining this to strangers usually means I am bombarded with many follow up questions:
“But why don’t you look Indian? I mean that as a compliment.”
Thank you, I feel so honoured that you think I don’t look anything like any of the one billion people in India.
“Do you speak Hindu?”
Yeah – occasionally I speak Christian and Muslim too.
“Can you teach me how to wear a sari?”
Look, I could try, but you may end up looking like a burrito. You should probably ask someone who actually owns a sari.
Despite only ever thinking of Sydney as my home, having AUSTRALIAN printed as my nationality on my passport and frequently embarking on Maccas runs, in Australia, I am considered Indian because I have dark skin.
But here, in the country where I’m supposed to be from, or more accurately, where my parents are from, I am considered a foreigner. Maybe it’s my pristine white Connies, the slightly scared look in my eyes or the way I clutch my bag a little too tightly against my body that plasters a huge flashing sign on my forehead.
Wherever people think I’m from, wherever I am from doesn’t really matter that much, because no single country defines me. Essentially, I am a mix of Portuguese chicken, Bollywood films and the good old Aussie outdoor lifestyle. But my nationality, whether it be Australian, Indian or Portuguese, is not the sole basis of understanding my identity and who I am. There is so much more to me than where I am from.
So, next time someone asks me where I’m from, I’ll tell them I’m from Mars.
Cover by Florian Dré, inset by the author