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"He told me to ‘Go back to where I came from’ – but I was born in Australia."

Have you ever been accosted by a complete stranger? I haven’t – or at least up until this week I hadn’t.

I’m Australian – born and bred. I was not a Weetbix kid. And to add insult to injury, the very thought of vegemite forces my nose to twitch and my shoulders to shudder.

Instead, breakfast to me smells like stewed pears, wafer thin crepes and coriander filled omelettes.

(Can you guess my ancestry yet?)

While these simple every day habits have always followed me like breadcrumbs, announcing my peculiarly mixed identity of Croatian, Indian – and just a touch of Hungarian – to those I meet, I have never felt like I wasn’t welcome.

My very multicultural upbringing. Images: supplied.

Sure, I’ve felt out of place, out of the loop and as if I don’t quite belong – but I’ve always felt welcome. Up until this week, that is.

Let me go back to the beginning.

One night this week, I was headed down the stairs of my local Sydney train station at around 6pm. Unsurprisingly we weren’t moving anywhere very fast. In fact, one particular woman was delaying all 40 of us eager-to-return-home after, no doubt, a long day at work.

The 30-something woman, of Asian decent, was walking up the left hand side of the stairs forcing commuters to politely dodge, brush and tip toe around her.

Next it was my turn.

Before I could even look up and give the woman in front of me a polite smile and a slight – if barely noticeable – gesture to the right hand side of the stairs, a voice from behind me interrupted the clamor of impatient footsteps.

The voice boomed, “In Australia, we keep to the left. Go back to where you came from you slantey-eye’d f*cker.”

Momentarily, those once eager to answer the siren song of their lounges paused…

…And then quickly sped up again.

No one said a word. (Including the woman on the receiving end of these comments).

racism in australia
“He told me to ‘Go back to where I came from’ – but I was born in Australia.” Image: supplied.
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So, in a move that would have my closet of friends and family second-guessing, I decided to speak up.

“Excuse me, that’s no way to speak to anyone of Asian decent. In fact, it’s no way to speak to anyone – full stop.”

Towering over me in height and attitude, the man continued, “You don’t look like you’re from here either. So let me say the same thing to you – go back to where you f*cking came from.”

Again, no one said a word.

In my haste I threw some words together and actually managed to form a coherent sentence or two. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but I remember my answer being witty and cutting.

(In my head I also remember bystanders cheering and hollering – but that most certainly didn’t happen).

At first, I felt quite chuffed. I’d stood up for the ‘underdog’ and defended my own complicated ancestry in one fell swoop.

But as I walked home (constantly glancing over my left shoulder, mind you) menacing thoughts began to whistle through my brain.

If I didn’t belong to Australia, where did I belong?

India, where I would happily eat bucket loads of spicy food – but wouldn’t find a single living relative?

Or Croatia, where the silk scarves tied around the heads and ears of little old ladies would remind me of my own grandmother – but the language would escape me?

Could I be emotionally stateless? Belonging by citizenship to Australia and by sentiment, feeling and attitude to…nowhere?

racism in Australia
Me with my (very Aussie) soon-to-be-husband in Morocco. Image: supplied.
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There is no conclusion to this story – no neat little package to unpack and put back together again.

But there is this: It is now clear to me that I have been lulled into a false sense of security. I have been blinded by my own positive experiences – and I am ashamed to admit that.

My Aussie upbringing, my accent, my skin colour, my education, my western dress and my love of sausage sizzles have all shielded me from the casual, the systemic and the extreme racism, which I experienced this week.

And let’s face it, my (at best) ambiguous nationality finds people grappling with just which racist slur to pitch in my direction – a tiny aggravation that gets at the heart of all humans, because on some level, we all live to categorise.

(Am I a wog? A curry-muncher? Or something else entirely?)

After my experience this week, a particular passage of Penny Wong’s contribution to Bully for Them: Outstanding Australians on Hard Lessons Learned at School, seems to stick out like a sore thumb. She said,

“I once read a comment by an Aboriginal woman – I can’t recall who it was – where she talked about the concept of parallel universes here in Australia. She said, ‘The Australia I live in is not the one you live in; when I walk along the street, or when I go somewhere, how I’m seen and how I’m treated, is a different world to yours.’”

The worst part of this newfound knowledge is that my experience doesn’t even make it onto the Richter scale.

So, what can I say now? I’m not entirely sure.

But I will say this: Australia has and always will be my home – my familiar – the land where my roots have taken, twisted and dug themselves in. (And for that matter, so will sausage sizzles – and hey, that’s about as Australian as it gets).

To the man who accosted me at the station, I have this to say: You are not part of ‘my Australia’.

Have you ever experienced an act of racism? 

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