Frankie

Where are you re­ally from?

FOR SERENA COADY, BE­ING BIRA­CIAL MEANS A LIFE­TIME OF EX­PLAIN­ING HER­SELF.

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It’s 11pm. I’m in a crowded bar when I see him. His body bris­tles with cu­rios­ity as he stud­ies my face. He ap­proaches, fast, scut­tling to close the gap. It’s as if my nei­ther-hither-nor-thither face has can­celled out his reser­va­tions about ap­proach­ing a stranger. With the ur­gency of a child about to piss them­selves on a long car trip, he speaks. “I have to ask. Where are you from?”

This is not one spe­cific oc­ca­sion, but a re­cap of hun­dreds. You see, life as a racial hy­brid in Aus­tralia is a ta­pes­try made up of “WTF is in your lunch­box?” and “Is your mum the Asian one?” stitched together with the end­less thread of “So, where are you re­ally from?”

I grew up in Can­berra. I went to a Catholic pri­mary school, then a co-ed Chris­tian high school. As you didn’t try to wres­tle it out of me, I’ll tell you my mix: I’m half Aus­tralian, half Malaysian, with a bit of Por­tuguese thrown in. (If I had it my way, I’d iden­tify sim­ply as ‘The Half-blood Prince’.) I spent Christ­mases ei­ther boo­gie-board­ing on the NSW North Coast, or cruis­ing the parts of Can­berra where home­own­ers re­ally knew how to hang a pack of Big W fairy lights. I also spent sum­mer hol­i­days in Malacca, a sea­side town in south­west­ern Malaysia where my grand­par­ents, aun­ties, un­cles, cousins and our favourite mo­tor­bike-rid­ing satay guy lived.

When my sis­ters and I ex­plored the malls in Malaysia – which, by the way, shat all over the ACT’S plazas – shop­keep­ers would pinch our cheeks and cry, “You have English daddy?!” My par­ents never spoke about our mixed­ness. Dad never com­mented on Mum be­ing Asian, or him be­ing white. On one hand, this shows their pro­gres­sive­ness when rep­re­sen­ta­tion of mixed-race people wasn’t ex­actly com­mon, but it also left me with lit­tle to steer with.

In pri­mary school, I’d get the ‘ching-chong’ jokes. When my skin browned in the sun, I’d get questions about which tribe I was from. I never knew what to say. My younger sib­lings had sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences. I have one sis­ter who doesn’t look Asian, and an­other who does, and liked to play the part. As a teen, she cut bangs, posed for self­ies like a K-pop queen and con­stantly re­ferred to her­self as a “hot Asian!” Look­ing back now, my heart breaks for her. For years, she grap­pled with her iden­tity, try­ing to nav­i­gate the murky wa­ters of ap­pear­ing eth­ni­cally am­bigu­ous in a pre­dom­i­nately white Aus­tralian school. The ‘hot Asian’ la­bel was a blanket for her: a prod­uct of a com­mu­nity that in­sisted, we don’t know what you are, so tell us.

My other sis­ter had a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. She was called ‘curry muncher’ from year 7 to 10, and would have none of it. She’d smirk, fold her wiry lit­tle arms and clap back with, “At least my mum’s cook­ing has flavour, un­like your steak and three veg.” She re­mem­bers boys not lik­ing her be­cause she was dif­fer­ent, but once she reached col­lege, things started to shift. Be­ing mixed was in.

Whether it was be­cause of so­cial me­dia, fash­ion, or Kanye West’s ob­ses­sion with putting bira­cial women in his mu­sic videos, it was a change I no­ticed, too. To an­thro­po­mor­phise is to at­tach hu­man char­ac­ter­is­tics to an an­i­mal, but what's the other way around? Af­ter 25 years of be­ing part this, part that, I know how to spot it. "That’s a great mix," they say. "It’s so ex­otic.” It al­ways makes me won­der what they con­sider to be a ‘bad’ mix, as if there is one.

It seems ar­chaic, but iden­ti­fy­ing race is still used as a tool for people to un­der­stand each other, pull them apart, strike com­mon ground and carve out dif­fer­ences. If be­ing mixed has taught me any­thing, it’s that some­times – of­ten at the ex­pense of good man­ners – hu­mans sure are cu­ri­ous be­ings.

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