My mysterious origins

I am often asked where I am from. I have lived in four cities now. Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and London. Or three and half cities, for those of you who don’t grant Canberra city status. I’ve learnt to say a variety of things depending on the situation, time of day, attention span of the questioner, direction of the wind.

I do not have a BBC accent!

I grew up in Sydney, but having lived five years in London, have a semi-English accent. My father never lost his hard fought for BBC accent. Being from working class West London, he taught himself to speak proper BBC English so he could fit into the establishment. Five years in London made my British accent more pronounced.

Melbourne is cosmopolitan, like Sydney and London. Understandably I still got asked my origins wherever I went. It’s something I’ve learned to accept as part of introducing myself.

Whether or not I explain my adoption to the enquirer also depends on their level of English. My interest in other cultures means I meet many people from non-English speaking backgrounds. Not all of them immediately recognise the term “adoption”. They often mis-hear it as “a doctor”. In hindsight I should have studied medicine. At least their understanding would be correct, even if it was the right answer to the wrong question.

Inter-country adoption, to my knowledge, is usually from an affluent country to a less-privileged developing country. A French film explores a scenario where a French couple of African heritage adopt a French Caucasian child in need of a home. Il a déjà tes yeux sensitively explores the issues this raises and the cultural and historical constructs that become transparent in this scenario.

When I walk down the street with my mother I do sometimes feel self-conscious. I can sense people thinking, what is that brown guy doing with that older white woman?!

Inter-country adoption is a well-meaning apologia tied to the historical forces of colonisation. I don’t hold my parents culpable for anything by any means. I am lucky and unlucky. I’ve reaped the fruits and swallowed the bitter pill.

Map of Sri LankaMost people asking about my origins expect me to say India or some other country on the subcontinent. Occasionally I say India. Some may not have heard of, or know little of Sri Lanka, although Sri Lanka undoubtably put itself on the map by defeating the country of my upbringing in the 1996 cricket World Cup!

India is a short, sharp answer! Everyone has heard of India, although many do not have a positive impression of it. The media tends to latch on to negative stories from this country of extremes. Although I’ve been to Sri Lanka, India remains the last frontier for me. My fellow travellers speak of it glowingly, intensely. Indian TV is certainly improving and I am expanding my impressions by currently watching Anjaan: Rural Myths and Anjaan: Special Crimes Unit! I also like the electronic music that comes out of India, with its mixture of traditional and modern harmonies.

India is an artificial collection of many races and language groups, as diverse in its own way as Europe. It has proud, rich, sometimes overbearing religious and philosophical traditions. It is modernising fast. Saying I’m from India saves me having to explain to non-cricket watches that Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped island to the South of India, also a former colony, but different in culture and way of life than its imposing northern neighbour.

Sometimes it’s easiest to say I’m from the UK. It explains the British accent and shuts down all debate.

If I detect that my listener is further interested, I will embark on the whole story: I was adopted from Sri Lanka by an English father and South African mother who drove across the middle-east when it was safe to do so, tried living Hong Kong, couldn’t afford the airfare to Canada so wound up in Sydney.

So it is difficult to explain my origins. They do not adhere to most received views of family. My perspective has forced me to consider the legitimacy of my opinions. Perhaps a fully formed, self-assured identity is not possible from this fringe experience. Perhaps my life will be a continual process of reinvention and discovery. And this may not necessarily be a bad thing.


One Reply to “My mysterious origins”

  1. That’s an enlightening take on the question of “Where are you from?”. When I started reading it I thought that there would be a comment about the follow-up of “No, where are you really from?”. That second question seems to be a topic of much discussion of late here in the UK.

    It’s great to learn so much about your origin and your journeys, including those of your parents. I must admit there were few things that you said which caused me pause for thought such as India being an “artificial collection of many races and language groups..” and that you feel you are undergoing a “fringe-experience” which may detract from having a self-assured identity whilst questioning the legitimacy of your opinions. There’s a lot of material there Dan…intrigued by those words and thoughts.

    Also – can’t help but wonder if you ever pose the question back to those asking you where you are from? Where are they from? I hear that can also lead to some fascinating discussions 😉

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