I found SBS’s “Where Are You Really From” to be compelling viewing.
If you don’t look ethnic, you won’t know the experience of people asking where you’re from — and not taking “Sydney” for an answer.
They don’t want to know where you’re from. They want to know where your family originated.
The whole series had some powerful stories, but it was the first episode that particularly struck a chord, as host Michael Hing visited the Chinese community in Bendigo.
Not that I have any connections to Bendigo. But as with the people interviewed, I get my half-Chinese looks from family who came to Australia before Federation — farther back than many white Australians.
I grew up somewhat isolated from any cousins or uncles/aunts or grandparents, and in those circumstances you can easily assume that your family’s background story is unique. It’s not. Suddenly seeing a group of people who have shared many of the same experiences was not just eye-opening, it was quite emotional.
My jaw dropped when I realised just how common it was for Chinese immigrants in the 1800s to have their names messed up by officials.
My grandfather’s name ended up back to front. This happened all the time. (Rather than try and fight it, he just went along with it. Only one of my uncles bothered to change it back.)
Walking across country to either avoid Chinese-specific taxes, or just because you’d landed at the wrong place and didn’t have any money, was also apparently commonplace, and something that some of my ancestors experienced.
We ended up watching the episode again in a family group, with some verbal dissection afterwards.
While the first episode really struck a chord, the others were worth watching too – in fact watching the second, I felt the situation reversed somewhat, with my usual assumptions about Sikhs in turbans flipped as soon as you heard their Australian accents.
Whatever your family background, this is well worth a look.