Identity, self and the protective role of half-truths
“I’m from the USA”
This is my usual go-to response when first meeting someone in Australia. Because of my American accent, the question inevitably comes up, or assumptions are made, and I do little to explain myself further. This is especially the case if I feel this is a fleeting acquaintance or we simply haven’t had time to become closer friends yet. Because I went to university in the States, worked there for a few years, grew up around Americans, and first learnt to speak English with an American accent, it’s an identity that is easier to inhabit than explaining away my complex relationship with each of these experiences and their context.
This is what I say when interacting with Americans (or Canadians) at a fleeting level, especially since my accent has now been “Australianised” and I apparently sound “funny”. Strangely, questions of heritage only rarely come up with these acquaintances. To most Americans, to “be American” implies a complex and rich migrant history and I wonder if the assumption is made that to be “Australian” sits comfortably with their own migrant histories without needing to categorise them. If I say this to an Australian however, they generally ask more questions.
“I’m originally from Eastern Europe, but I’ve lived in the States for a long time, and now I’m Australian.”
A quick summary for someone I can tell needs more context, usually to understand my name or why I seem to know a fair bit about each of these places. This is a good one to use when traveling and discussion can quickly be steered to the awesomeness of some of these places and have you been here and done this or that. This is another response that I can use a fair deal in Australia if I am becoming closer to someone and my “American” identity is too small a chunk of the whole. Normally though, and I am generalising, few Aussies know or care enough to enquire which part of Eastern Europe I’m from, and that’s perfectly fine by me. The less explaining the better, I often say.
“I’m from Croatia originally, but I live in Australia.”
When speaking to a European, it’s important to specify a country, as “the East” doesn’t cut it. Croatia is a sexier country to discuss than many of its Balkan neighbours as many Europeans have been to its awesome beaches. It also, as of recently, has lots of sail boats and cruise lines dedicated to getting young Northern Europeans drunk in amazing scenery, which is always good to talk about with the young. I visit Croatia regularly and have family there, so even though this doesn’t fully sum up my cultural heritage, it comes close enough.
“I grew up in Malaysia.”
When meeting someone from South East Asia, and sometimes Asian Australians at large, this becomes a relevant and deeply enriching point of discussion. Having spent my formative years in a country with a complex mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultural heritage, and having grown up with friends of each of these backgrounds, it’s deeply important for me to discuss and revisit my experiences as a child and early teen and their role in my larger cultural identity. Also fascinating to discuss how much the identity of Malaysia as a former colony was ever present, as was the continuing influence of Great Britain and how this relates to all of our identities as Australians today.
“I’m from Bosnia originally.”
This is one I often think I should follow with: “Oh wait, you want me to explain the Balkan wars to you in a minute or less? Yeah, that’s a totally reasonable request…..”
Except it’s not. Often when Bosnia and Herzegovina gets brought up, the association for most people is, understandably, the war. It would be great if the 1984 winter Olympic Games were more prominent in people’s memory, or skiing, or the mountains, or the food. Instead, this terrible thing that is well worth discussing creeps into conversation. Except it’s difficult when it does, especially over drinks or coffee. Without having done any research or reading, it’s almost rude to ask me to summarise and simplify it for you. It’s not simple to explain or to understand, and requires introspection, thinking and reading, as do all the big questions. But genuine curiosity is an excellent starting point, and if you go down that path, we may get to depths of discussion and a dissection of my (and your) identity that are rarely attempted.
“I was born in Sarajevo.”
For anyone in the know, this implies lots and says enough. I was born in a city with a vibrant and ancient history, one which has had layer upon layer of identity come and go, creating a cultural heritage that is as rich as it is complicated. To say that I was born there is important, because I didn’t grow up there, for circumstances I may or may not wish to discuss. This means that I know just as many cultural references as I don’t, that I get some of the jokes but not all of them, that there are nuances of language that go over my head, and that I have a deeply complex and fascinating relationship with where I was born. This is a level of identity I myself want to connect with and explore further and it is an identity and journey I share only with the closest of friends.
“I’m totally a wog.”
In Australia, it has become quite helpful for me to embrace this “wog” descriptor, which (I hope I’ve understood this correctly) seems to have been reclaimed back by the interesting, loud, vibrant people of Southern European descent that once had it thrown at them as an insult. It truth, because of my heritage and upbringing, I find it very easy to make fellow “wog” friends and integrate into loud parties with lots of family, delicious food and emotional expressiveness of all sorts going on.
Friends and relatives want to understand you, understandably so. And it can be confronting for them to discover that the person they know and love may not be easy to categorise. The human mind – often so uninterested in the opportunities complexity can provide – likes to work with categories, easy concepts and ideas we can grip onto with both our hands. Our lives so hectic and full, it feels like we are searching for easy answers more than ever before. It’s as if the more globalised and interesting our world becomes, the more we need to understand things in short sound bites: What’s your back story in ten words or less? And what kind of art/identity do you represent? Quick, get on with it.
As a person of neither Australian or Asian descent, attending the BrisAsia festival panel, Yum Chat, was an exercise in reflection – bringing to mind many experiences I could relate to and deeply identify with, an occurrence most rare in everyday life in my new homeland. At heart, the issue of sitting with and accepting complexity kept coming up for me – complexity of identity, of experience, of our ways of relating with the world. Not everything is easily explainable or simple to portray, not to ourselves nor to others. Who am I? What is it that I do, as artist and human being? What is it that I represent? And who on earth might be able to relate? There are no easy answers, and sometimes the asking leads to less telling and creates deepening spirals of confusion.
Yet, complexity of identity can be surprisingly easy to inhabit, once one gets the hang of it. It can become an interesting approach to interacting with the world on a deep level – each new acquaintance and experience representing a new opportunity to choose. Who is it that I feel I am at this very moment? And which parts of myself will I reveal? Which parts will foster a depth of connection and understanding between me and this other person in this moment in time? Observing and learning from these small, daily choices can almost become a form of living mindful meditation – hyper-aware of how you are choosing to relate and how you are coming across, you choose the identity you inhabit with each new interaction. It can be fun, sitting with this complexity, but sometimes, it comes back to bite you on the bum.
The reality of what living in this way means can sometimes be confronting, both for me and for those I care about. Only a week or two after the Yum Chat panel, this was beautifully evidenced when I arrived at my own birthday party by the banks of the Brisbane river. Surprise!
Imagine: 40 of your friends have all miraculously gathered in a park, and they are just as shocked to meet each other as you are to see all of them in one group! Quickly realising that they were unaware of each other’s existence, your friends start asking inferred questions: how do you know these other people, who seem so different from you and me? And what is it that you have in common? Are there parts of Naida that I know nothing about?
To which the answer is a most definite “yes.”
You know, Naida? Naida – she’s American. Really? I thought Australian. I thought she was originally from Eastern Europe/the Balkans, but has lived in the States for a long time, and now is Australian? I understood she’s from Croatia originally but now she lives in Australia. Whooah, she grew up in Malaysia? No, isn’t she from Bosnia originally, she was born in Sarajevo? She’s totally a wog.
The party for me became a lived representation of just some of the identities/representations of self that I walk around with, leaving me to wonder whether it would ever be possible just to say…?
I’m Naida, there are many aspects of me, and I’m from many places. My cultural identity stems not only from where I was born but the 10 different countries I have spent formative parts of my life in. I think in several languages, and yet occasionally find it difficult to express myself in all of them. My cultural identity is important to my understanding of myself, and it is vast and complicated, but by no means is cultural identity all there is to my identity at large. I make choices everyday in terms of which parts of my self are revealed, but all of the complexity is ever-present for me, always there.
The older I get, the more I realise there is no simple way to “be” and that cultural identity is, at least for me, as malleable as it is important. These different selves exist not with the aim of deceiving anyone, but simply because there is no simple way for me to inhabit my different cultural identities all at the same time. I draw on each of them as and when they become relevant for me in life, but they are all part of my reality. As the world changes and becomes more linked, I suspect complex cultural heritage stories will slowly become the norm and there won’t be a stereotype for what an “Australian” looks or sounds like. In the meantime, I’ll just have to continue to deal with that question i hear coming before it’s even been uttered: “No, but where are you really from?”