I was in a nightclub at Oxford Street in Sydney during the weekend, when, once again, I encountered – for me, anyway – the most stupid opening question anyone could ask. It is a particularly big turn-off when used as a pick up line.
“Where are you from?” a guy in his late thirties appeared beside me from out of nowhere, holding a bottle of Stoli.
“Kensington,” I stated as flatly as I could, not really wanting to be involved in a conversation.
He looked me over, appraising.
“No, I meant originally. Where are you from, originally?”
“Newcastle,” I said, this time not even throwing him a glance. There must have been nearly a hundred people in the club that night, why did I have to get this one?
But he was persistent. “I meant your nationality.”
I often encounter this flow of conversation. Getting asked where I am from, when all they really want to know is what my nationality is. But then again, I am not an isolated case. In fact, all the Asia-Pacific people I know encounter this dialogue at one point or another in their life in Australia (or any Western country, for that matter).
I have learned a long time ago to vary my replies depending on situations. Most times, though my responses vary with my mood at the moment I am asked.
Firstly, if I am playful, I pick some hell hole in Australia. There’s Adelaide, for one, or Darwin. This works for me usually, especially in the major cities. City slickers are not really very attracted to country boys – or outback people, if you may. Other times I am left to myself since most people do not want to look stupid pretending they know something about my place. Especially, of course, when I tell them I came from Coober Peddy or Mt. Isa, or some other places near Woop Woop.
There are times, though, when this fails. Some people can’t read “leave me alone” from your body language, or even if it is printed on your forehead.
I remember a friend who once followed my approach to answering the question. We were at a club in Brisbane, watching some show, when a drunken old man approached us. Standing horridly close to my friend, he slurred his question: “Where are you from, love?”
“St. Lucia,” my friend said, trying to be civil, yet looking disgusted anyway.
“I meant where are you from, originally?”
“I’m from Wagga Wagga, originally,” my friend said, hoping against all hopes his answer would dismiss the old man trying to chat him up.
“I’m from Wagga Wagga myself,” the old fart excitedly said. “That must be a sign for both of us.”
Sign or not I told the old man that we were there to have fun, and rooting wasn’t really a big part of it. He told me how rude I was, especially since I wasn’t the one he was trying to pick up, in the first place, and then he left us. I realized then that nothing beats being frank, even if it borders on rudeness.
Secondly, if I am not in the mood to be conversant, I pick countries that are stereotypically identified as non-English speaking. Not that this is hard, considering that more than half of the Westerners I’ve met regard all Easterners as falling into this category.
“Your English is good,” I am told often, always added with: “For an Asian.”
I recall when I first moved in my accommodation early this year. My flatmates – five Australians, two Americans, and two Britons – were not so certain how to approach me. What were they thinking, that I would barbarically jump on them and savagely hack them with a machete until they died if they tried talking to me? Not that I was very much of a help either. Every time they tried disturbing my routines to include me in their chats, I just looked at them askance, like I did not have a clue about what they were going on about at all. And when they finally got the guts to ask me where I was from, I couldn’t help playing along with their misconception of me.
“Sorry?” I asked, acting dumb, after being asked twice or thrice where I was from.
“WHERE-ARE-YOU-FROM?” Noel, one of my flatmates, said again, this time very slowly and emphatically, as if scared I would miss his words.
I was ready to burst out laughing, but I felt cruel enough then to continue my charade.
“Ahhh..,” I said while slowly nodding my head, as if I just finally understood the question. “Philippines.”
“Philippines,” Noel repeated, then added, “Do you like it here?” He sounded so patronizing I did not feel like answering him, with or without my pretensions.
“No English,” I simply said before returning to my task.
For a while, my assumed ignorance served me well. We all minded our own business, which was fine by me. What blew my cover was when they were talking about me in my presence, thinking that since I could not understand them anyway, they could do so whenever and wherever they like.
“He’s a bloody wanker,” Cate, the 18-year-old bitch whose room was next to mine, said. “Keeps to himself.”
They all laughed heartily.
“Always wearing a skirt, too,” Noel added.
More laughs followed.
“If you just start recognizing cultural differences, you’ll know it’s not a skirt – it is called a sarong,” I said then, joining the conversation. “And, please, next time you talk about me, tell me so to my face.”
Somehow, I became good friends with them after that.
A friend once told me that I do not need to be defensive every time I am asked the question. After all, some people are just simply interested in getting to know people from different parts of the world.
But as much as I agree with cultural exchanges, why I abhor being questioned about my origin is because the answer always ends up grouping people into classes, as if to be able to easily classify them: Asiatics and Kosovars – must be refugees; Americans – oh, the source of all the junk we see in TV; Irish – bloody drunkards, et cetera. This may be fine for simplifying purposes, but, unfortunately, it trivializes the groups.
What ever happened to multiculturalism? Or is that just another term coined for the sake of political correctness? Like saying “chemically dependent” instead of druggie or drug addict. Or perhaps it’s just a term used because it sounds nicer than, say, assimilation? Like saying “first impressions manager” instead of receptionist. Or, still probably, it is a term used simply because it is fashionable? Like saying queer instead of saying faggot or gay or lesbian or dyke.
Just a few days ago, another friend told me that when answering the question, I sound like I am embarrassed to be from the Philippines. Embarrassment is the wrong word because, in my case, I am more tired of the situation than embarrassed by it. Tired of being stereotyped simply because of the answer I give; tired of being pigeonholed as something I am not, and have no intention to be.
I went clubbing with a Filipino girl friend once. I remember that we had to go home earlier because my friend was being harassed and molested.
“Where are you from?” a guy who was dancing close to us with his male friends asked Khris.
Another guy approached us, stopping unnecessarily close to Khris, and, grabbing her from behind, said: “You wanna dance and spit some ping-pong balls for us?”
They all laughed.
It wasn’t funny. One Filipina in one movie (that’s Priscilla: Queen of the Desert), and all Filipinas are branded.
At the same token, I have a gay friend who was never approached by guys his age.
“Am I ugly or what?” he used to ask me.
Actually, by Filipino standards, he is ugly, but the reason for his failing to capture a lover did not just include that. The main reason that he had to contend with only became apparent when we realized the stereotype about Asian gay men in Western countries: slim, submissive, olive-colored skin, and always the passive partner (the bottom, that is). And my friend was not like any of these at all.
I do not intend to sound too negative. After all, this stereotyping can be helpful at times. Like in passing subjects, for example.
I know someone who knew an Asian student who used to pretend a lack of command of the English language while pretending at the same time to be trying his darndest best to pass the subject. In fact, all he was learning while he was in Australia was the Australian way of drinking. Nonetheless, the tutor was deceived. He must have been thinking: “Here’s a student who is trying to learn my subject though he is having a hard time expressing himself.”
So he passed. With flying colors.
This barrage is leading nowhere, so enough. I still have to think of some witty answers the next time I’m confronted with the question. Which reminds me of my Dad when I was very young. He used to come home early mornings almost every day, pissed off his head.
“Where the hell did you come from?” my Mom asked consistently upon my Dad’s return, though she’d rephrase it now and then.
Dad’s answer was always the same. It was rude and vulgar, but there’s more than a pinch of truth in it. And although, as we got older, I never heard our parents talking that way again, it sort of got me thinking anyway that the next time someone asked me the bloody question, I can always just use my Dad’s reply:
“I came from a deep vagina.”