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Where do you come from?

By Wesa Chau - posted Thursday, 13 September 2012

When Kevin Rudd asked me "where do you come from?" he wasn't expecting me to say: "I'm from the Australian Federation of International Students, and we help students fit into the wider Australian community".

But he shouldn't have been that surprised. Famously, the former PM's catchphrase was: "I'm Kevin, I'm from Queensland and I'm here to help you".

People ask me where I'm from all the time, with guesses including: Japan, Korea, Shanghai, Beijing, Sichuan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand. All except Melbourne (my home) and Hong Kong (my birthplace). Next time I wear a sari I bet someone will think I'm from India!


I don't mind. In fact, I quite enjoy it because I know I can adapt to many groups without the stereotype. Depending on my mood, I will answer them differently.

"Where do you come from?" sparked debate this month in the Chinese community, with leading representatives saying Chinese Australian feel they are treated as outsiders, despite being the biggest non-Anglo migrant group and with many families going back generations.

"Unfortunately, in Australia people still tend to think you're not Australian - if you look Asian you can't be Australian, which is not right," was Chinese Community Council of Australia Victoria Chapter President Dr Stanley Chiang's view.

Some disagree that the comment; "we also see foreigners as 'foreigners'" and that "it's hard to define who is an Australian and who is a foreigner". Others were quite "embarrassed" to be portrayed as victims who only complain, when "the most unique thing about Australia is that everyone comes from different parts of the world". Of course, there are those who are sick and tired of having to explain that they are 'Australian' with a Chinese face.

What does the question mean anyway?

It depends on context. Take your pick:


Option A: I'd like to know more about you, so tell me where you're from, and our conversation can start there.

Option B: You look and/or sound different, you must have migrated here, we welcome you, and want to know which parts of the world you and your family migrated from.

Option C: You look and/or sound different, you must be a foreigner, and we don't really welcome you here.

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About the Author

Wesa Chau is a speaker, thinker, advocate and consultant, with expertise in diversity, working cross-culturally, international students, young people and disability.

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