Where are you really from?
FOR SERENA COADY, BEING BIRACIAL MEANS A LIFETIME OF EXPLAINING HERSELF.
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.