On being brown

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.

Home and sickness

Homesickness. How to describe.

Perhaps it started with two beautiful friends visiting from Oz and laughing too much in the kitchen. Freddo frogs and Caramello koalas lived happily together in the freezer. The liquorice lived happily in my stomach.  

Maybe this homesick feeling fermented a little on Atauro Island where we rubbed white sunscreen onto each others’ brown and red skins and threw back rum in a bamboo gazebo, making outraged noises over Pictionary.

It probably crystallized when the outrigger engine was cut and we bobbed along with the Pilot Whales chattering all around us. It probably spread when we jumped into the water with our masks on, saw those gliding mammals in the bottomless ocean only a meter or two away, staring at us with the same startled curiosity. Surfacing with saucer eyes, exclaiming, panicking about the deep and feeling the electricity of this interaction set the water on fire.

It was made worse by looking at winter coats on the internet yesterday. A thought-spear of Hyde Park in the early morning, everyone’s hands shoved in their pockets. Oxford street on a Monday morning, the wind in the back lanes of Surry Hills.

Not all pensive thought and nostalgic pangs though. I learnt a few things by having myself reflected back on me by said friends. They are:

1. We have acclimatized to the heat

2. I can drive in Dili, la problema

3. I can actually say more than hello how are you where is the toilet in Tetun

4. When you can say more than hello how are you where is the toilet in Tetun, people think you can ask anything e.g. do you see pilot whales this often at this time of year and do they eat humans?….Wait I CAN say that in Tetun!

5. You can be in two cities, or even three, in your heart and your head at any given time.

Home came to us with our two friends visiting. Thank you, and sorry about the Dengue. x