From Where, If Not Here? A Tale of Displacement
This piece was inspired by the many conversations of my travels.
The distant coastline falls beyond the view of the pier from the boundary of the hostel. Behind the partition, hands are burdened with wrinkled beer cans and tobacco ciggies littered with weed. The drunken party promises of new-age nomads from the distant kitchen sound melodic. Like a mating song of this community, the choir roars.
A new face sits on the corner couch, frantically swatting away mozzies. I can tell this is her first time in the Aussie tropics, but I don’t know where her journey might have started.
I heard her talking to Peter earlier, the hostel owner. Her accent sounds like a confused British-Pygmalion-hybrid.
“So where are you from?” I ask her. It’s a fair enough question; it’s pretty much how you strike up a conversation with any backpacker.
“The West coast, Perth. How about you?” she says.
I reply and tell her about growing up in Port Macquarie, but I feel like perhaps she isn’t really from Perth. She just doesn’t seem it. Most Perth people I know don’t look like her: head-to-toe hippie with colourful locks, beads and a septum piercing, and I think I spotted a tattoo.
As the evening continues, I hear her chatting to Mike, a South African bloke with a mimicable accent I pull out every now and then.
“Hi, I’m Mike. What’s your name?”
“Nemo. Nemo like the fish.”
“Like the fish?! That is such a cool name! What is the story behind it?”
“Hahaha yeah, I love my nickname.”
I phase in-and-out of their conversation. From the drabs I do hear, they sound like they have a lot to talk about.
“My name is Neelam, but when I moved here at 13, it was too difficult for people to learn. So some girl in my maths class said Nemo sounded like Neelam and so it’s been my name ever since.”
“Aw, your name is so beautiful. I bet you get a lot of Nemo jokes though huh? That must be annoying.”
“Yeah it is, but it’s a great conversation starter. It’s easy to remember and no one says it wrong.”
Mike doesn’t seem phased by this girl’s confusing appearance, weird accent and altogether strange story. But I still am.
The night continues on. They walk around town and share a drink with fellow hostel creatures. The bars are flavoured with all the traveller archetypes – from mature excursionists to gap-year vacationists, there is someone here for everyone.
We’re at a bar, and someone from an adjacent table walks up to Nemo and asks her something that makes her laugh.
“I am from South Africa, but not the Indian part,” she says. Whatever that means.
I’m still taken aback, because she doesn’t look like most ‘Saffers’ I know. Mike for one is white; another guy I met travelling was black.
Later, walking home, I strike up a conversation with her.
“So how long have you been in Australia then?”
“Almost 10 years. I got here when I was 13,” she responds.
I am confused but still curious. She is mysterious. She isn’t white, she doesn’t have a local accent, she also isn’t like, Indian or something, because she doesn’t sound like one. Maybe she’s from an island as well?
The following morning, I make my way to the kitchen, brew my morning coffee and overhear her speaking a language I don’t know.
“So which part of South Africa are you from?” I enquire.
“Port Elizabeth. Technically a small town nearby called Uitenhage.”
“Where are your parents from then?”
“South Africa. My parents and grandparents were born there too.”
Neelam laughs cynically as she explains where she is from once again. Still unsatisfied, her questioner keeps pondering her derivation.
Hostels are funny places where funny people do funny things. It’s raining outside, pissing down really. While I pour my morning cuppa and watch the global COVID update, a woman in bathers walks past the telly. Nemo is in the kitchen, and they greet each other.
“I’m just heading for a walk,” the woman remarks.
“Hence the bathers?”
“Yeah, it’s raining outside.”
The woman’s bright floral one-piece is wrapped at her waist in a discoloured cream towel. With brushed-out curls, a headband and glasses hanging around her neck, she is a confusing sight. The news hums in the background.
“This COVID stuff is all a lie,” says the woman, nodding towards the TV. “No one is really dying from it. People only die from getting vaccinated. That’s why all the Indians are dropping dead like flies – they all had the vaccine!”
She turns to Nemo.
“So, are all your family in India dead or what?”
Nemo ignores her for a moment, so the woman repeats her statement, following it with a, “You’re from India, aren’t ya?”
Trying to hide a sadistic laugh under her breath, Nemo replies.
“No, I’m not, I’m South African.”
Then Nemo leaves the room.
I sit awhile, humoured by Nemo’s reaction to the woman – who made a pretty racist comment straight to her face. Mostly though, I’m perplexed about why this chick has so many layers to her.
I swear I just walked through the passage and heard her voice echo some European language. Not German – not the German I hear around the hostel. Maybe Dutch? I’m not sure.
“What language were you speaking earlier?” I ask when I next cross her path.“When were you listening? I could have been speaking very broken Spanish or some equally tattered Afrikaans.”
Determined to get a straight answer, I ask: “Where are you really from and what’s with all the languages?”
“My heritage is Indian,” she replies, “like three or four generations ago. The whole British thing happened and my great great grandparents ended up there. Then, after a few generations, my folks moved here, and ta-da! I also speak five languages, not all totally fluently, but enough to get around.”
Cool, that wasn’t that hard to explain, I think to myself.
“So where are you from? Like where are you really from?” she asks me.
I don’t really get asked a lot. It kind of felt like she was taunting me. Obviously I’m from Australia. I already told her I was.
Author’s note: I love bending people’s perceptions of me, messing with their stereotypes and playing on my appearance as a way to confuse them. I just love not being a cliché or a trope. I want to be so much of myself that no one else can be me.