This is a difficult post for me to write because it touches on a lot of things that happened in the other years of childhood and adolescence. The years before I understood race and its politics. The years when it was just inconvenient, occasionally hurtful but ultimately a private individual act instead of an institution.
Like when I was ten and I couldn’t join a handball team because it was for white milkshakes and I, was a chocolate milkshake. Or the time a woman in the shopping center told my mum she didn’t have to wear her shalwar kameez anymore because she was in Australia and she was free now.
It’s also about the first time that someone pointed out to me that my dad was white. Indeed he is, but in our family, we were all ‘Pakistani’. Or were we? I was born in Westmead Hospital in Sydney’s West. But outside I was the other, and at home I was the other with my twangy accented sayings, hyped up on pop culture, arguing with my cousin that “Barbie was beautiful, no matter what you say”. I was Degrassi Junior High and Home and Away. I was skorts and not being allowed to go to sleepovers or wear netball skirts. I was just a little too brown in the outside world, and always just a little too white at home.
This has meant a number of things for me being in Timor. It is the familiar cringe when a malae mimics an accent. It is the hot flush when someone complains about culture. It is class, that elephant in the room. It is the subtle and often unconscious silencing and dismissing of another way of thinking, making sense of the world and being. Or the order you tell a story in.
It is the presence of colonialism in development. It is the tension and strain in being an active participant in this profession.
It is the knowledge that here too I am an outsider, yet, a shared heritage of colonialism and oppression perhaps puts us a little on the same page. Being brown and all the politics that brings with it, puts us on the same page. What separates us is the privilege that I come with on account of my socio economic status, my passport and my education. So here, I am a shade of a shade of brown.
Amazingly, I see familiar cultural driftwood wash up here in unexpected places like language. Chavi, Tetun for key is almost identical to the Urdu word for key-Chabi. Kursi, almari, chair and cupboard are Urdu words though obviously a transcontinental spiderweb of linguistic tides from the Middle East to South Asia to Indonesia to the tiny half isle. They gave me unexpected comfort and drew warmth from the fallow places in me reserved for belonging through shared cultural semiotics.
Though I am mixed race, my colleagues delight in my Pakistani heritage. When I am introduced to others, they introduce me as Pakistani. They have a preference for our similarity as the Other, and I admit I feel comfortable here. Perhaps a shared historical background of oppression and racism means that we have less to fear in each other, a wordless language already passing between us. History and its political bearings bring us to a shared place where at the very least we understand the origins and effects of oppression in our family and communities, and at best work from a common ground to resist it. Or perhaps it is simply the comfort I feel being brown among other brown people. The relief in exiting the dominant culture and into another alternative worldview.
Despite a shared narrative in being a big ‘o’ Other, I remain a small ‘o’ other here. This ‘o’ changes from place to place, from big to small. Though in some moments it fades somewhat when you find someone else who tells a story in a circle instead of a line.