The Human Kingdom: [Part 1- The Multicultural Zoo]
March 8, 2015
Pronunciation: / ot /
2. Occupant; Guest
This word resonates with me far more than it should. However, to feel stuck between being the host and an occupant as a second-generation Australian from a migrant family is almost expected nowadays. At a given point in time I may feel so Australian, and in another, so Iraqi. The only consistent feeling streaming through all this time is a sense of exile in belonging. Always having to be pigeonholed into one of those vexed poles; a "Whitewashed Arab", or a Wog.
I am an Arab, and I am Australian. Obviously. I am both. And my both is going to be different to someone else's both. To my misfortune, I have the hearty appetite of an Arab man. I also subconsciously raise my voice whenever I enter an excitable state. I like poetry and have too strong an affinity to eye liner. I also love Tim Tams; overusing the words ganga and bogan; and dancing like a drunk, rhythmically-challenged white girl. Those things shouldn't have to be mutually exclusive. Those things should just be accepted as part of me, and I should be able to fit on a spectrum of Ethnic-Australian and not be shoved into either being the 'Ethnic' or the 'Australian'.
All us second-generation ethnics living in western countries have kaleidoscopic, inscrutable identities- and yet it seems like there is this urge to dissect us and contain us into some hermetically sealed canisters so that we can be more easily processed, or [euphemism] 'understood' . Like the quote goes;
"In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten;
In the human kingdom, define or be defined."
Truly, that is my experience; always being shoved into being one or the other.
My parents grew up in a secular Iraq, and yet in my university course, whenever we had Iraqi patients (within that same age group), my teacher would automatically give them to the girl wearing a Hijab -even though she didn't speak a word of Arabic- because "don't take offence to it; it's just more culturally inviting for them".
And yet, other times obviously I wasn't Australian enough; patients have slung comments at me like "Don't worry love. I'm not like your father, or your brother, or your boyfriend-or husband or whatchumacallit. You don't serve me love. You don't have to serve anyone here."
If I get along with people who aren't from my ethnic background, its not uncommon for me to hear them say "yeah she's Arab, but she's alright". Why the but? Cant Arabs normally just be alright? Or do they always have to be the "other", with some foreign mentality and conflicting interests/ways of thinking?
Same goes from the other end; I've had my Arab friends judging/labelling me just because I differ from how they are. This self-entitled input from both directions just initiates the self-fulfilling prophecy;
I look at my two younger brother's reactions to this hôte social upbringing;
One has become such a white boy that he's borderline wigger. He goes to themed parties in the North Shore, and takes his caucasian friends on biannual excursions to the west to taste "garlic sauce" at El Janna's.
The other has become such a stereotype that all he does is go out, or gym, or go shisha with his ethnic friends. It's so strange to witness because the root of their characters is quite similar.
I admit myself that I have a knee-jerk reaction of getting freaked out whenever I see a group of white girls, stemming from an early experience of a group of them trying to initiate me as the "side kick ethnic girl" [I ain't about that life; I'm not the kind of girl who tries to make the word fetch happen].
As written of Albert Camus' work; "we get caught between...this politics is not something we have eagerly chosen for ourselves; but rather an unhappy accident that we are obliged to accept".
I blame part of it on the way our society is;
People say the USA is the 'melting pot' where all ethnicities assimilate into a joint culture; Canada is a 'salad bowl' where the juxtaposed ingredients make a heterogenous but unified culture;
sometimes I feel like Australia is a zoo.
Look at the Sydney Festival last month; the main ethno-centred event was Bankstown: Live where a street in Arab ethnic-enclave Bankstown was shut off for people to visit. One of the main attractions was sitting in an Arab family's dining room (an art installation) and posing for a photograph to be printed on a postcard. What the fuck.. I'm all about opening the bridge between cultures, but that is totally trivial and belittling. The 1-2 minutes conversation time restriction meant that the non-intimidating dialogue shared between the visitors and the 'Arabs' only perpetuated existing stereotypes (e.g. asking a young couple why they aren't married yet). True, my mum does ask things like that which embarrass me all the time, but that should not be what she is reduced to in the eyes of others.
Compare that to Canada's summer festival where they brought an Arabic singer to perform in Yonge-Dundas Square singing Arabic classics with an electro twist; where hipsters, Asians, White people, Black people, Arabs, fluoro people (new age goths? whatever they are called) were all fist pumping and dancing to it as if it were a normal thing.
Other instances where I have felt like an attraction at a zoo include being asked so much about my religion, upbringing, and country of origin in such an abrasively clinical manner as if I were literally a topic of research; It's fine if these questions came with time and rapport, but being bombarded with these questions prematurely is just something else. Not to mention the oversimplification of culture as being confined to festivals and cuisine;
"OMG Becky the bindi you wore at Future looked so Bohemian"
"That's because it was hand chosen from Bangladesh from this lady at Bondi markets, not from that Tree of Life shit".
These are the girls raving about the health benefits of "Medjool dates" when I can imagine a year ago they were making fun of people wearing bindis for cultural reasons, and oh-so-subtely asking people like me "EWWWWW why are you eating that?? They look like cockroaches!!"
It's this kind of shit that pushes an ethnic into an enclave (Cabramatta and Asians; Parramatta and Indians; Bankstown and Arabs; Earlwood and Greeks; Leichhardt and Italians, etc) which ends up being a Catch 22 because this further prevents them from integrating into society and feeling a strong sense of belonging in Australia.
And it leaves the many people like me who embrace both of their cultures unaware of eachother, because their deliberate stance of neutrality- although an assertion of the individual against the claims of conflicting communities- is at the end of the day, just them saying nothing at all.