Back from travelling around China and India with my girlfriend for the past 4 months. We had an amazing time together and it’s now so damn nice to be back in Sydney. This city feels like a palace. Lucky me.
Meeting friends around town I’m often asked…
“What did you enjoy most? The highlight?”
“Did anything strange or troubling happen?”
And then I launch into a cross cultural tirade listing all the great adventures we enjoyed, taxi drivers, stomach bugs, trains, accommodation and animals. All the while I’m thinking about something else. I’m thinking about something more personal. Something to do with identity. Something that travel has made me more aware of.
No matter where I go I’m inevitably asked one curious question.
“Where are you from?”
My answer never satisfies. If you haven’t seen my face, it’s the face in the picture above. I guess most people assume Aussies are white. Most of ‘us’ are white.
I sense people are keen to get to know me. People enjoy learning about different cultures. It’s a nice way to get to know someone. You come from Canada? You most likely love the snow and ice hockey right?
Answering the origin question involves technical fussy details like nationality, name, language, skin colour, family tree diagonal lines, my brothers, my parents, mixing genes, distant ancestory and global geopolitics. I tend to find this sort of thing tedious but it seems to be of interest and confusion no matter where I go.
- My full name is Kahne Rajaratnam but I tend to say Kahne Raja because my full name makes people cry on the phone.
- My passport says I’m Australian. I was born here. I’m an anti-nationalist.
- I speak English and some Japanese.
- I have olive brown skin which really spins people out.
- My family tree is complex. The name Rajaratnam doesn’t even come from my bio logical grand father. It comes from my grandma’s 2nd husband who married her with a kid – my father – in Sydney many years ago. He was Sri Lankan.
- My two brothers also have the same puzzle of a racial identity but we never talk about it. It’s as though we are white. It’s as though it’s not worth talking about. What are we going to do about it anyway? There are some pretty cool benefits to mixing genes too.
- And so on…
The real pickle in this story revolves around two people from two completely different worlds coming together and having children. My parents. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not bitching on them. My mum’s a great white artistic nurturing baby boomer. I never knew my dad. I gather he was a materialistic dark brown charismatic macho boy who ran an accounting firm and drove a porsche. Both my parents succeeded in different ways. I learnt a lot from them.
Having spent my life puzzling over this question I tense up when I meet people who represent a single nation. The idea that we form tribes and unite is outstanding, irrational and scary. We assimilate. We migrate and reproduce and we find a spot in the power tree within which we strive to protect.
Anyway. Back to the question. Where are you from? There are other ways to pose that question. For example; Where do you look like you come from? Where did you parents come from? What is your ethnicity? Where is your name from? Do the answers to these questions help us get to know one another, or do they make it more difficult to wade through stereotypes? Does my time and place help you understand me? I would argue it doesn’t help. If you want to get to know me, get to know how I feel.
The brown past. The brown future. Science tell me that one upon a time we all came from Africa. Black people evolving out of apes. White people, a select group, who migrated northwards. It’s difficult to prove this to religious folk but I believe this is true with all my heart and mind. Genetics is awesome. Is this understanding useful? Does it help answer the question. Should we all answer with a resounding “Africa!”.
Given the rise of technology are we now heading towards a critical cultural mash up. A return to a mixed brown skin tone. Am I living in the future? I hope so. It’ll make things easier for my future counterparts if it becomes normal to be mixed race. I’m jealous of people who blindly accept their historical box. My personal lack of ‘artificial temporary tribal’ identity does make things difficult at times.
I propose a quick fix. Let’s get rid of this (recently invented) notion of nationality. Let’s burn every passport and level the playing field. Let’s rub out these weird white line borders on the map. Let’s accept that continents don’t actually have labels.
I believe we are all born equal. Chinese, Indian, America, Australian, German, Everyone. From getting to know a bit about the billions of people in asia I’ve realised that the battle for ownership and self preservation is futile. The exploitation of others makes no sense. Eventually we must have an alternative approach. What will that be? Who will lead such a change?
I’m from planet Earth. My house is your house. My country is your country. We are connected and responsible for one another. Can we work together and respect one another? Let’s see.
By the way, did you know? Given the pace at which the earth’s tectonic plates are moving, every continent will be joined once again. No ocean borders. Stay tuned for reunification in T minus 250 million years. I can’t wait. My passport is in the trash.