Things I miss about London (Part 4): Cumbersome Racial Sub-Classifications

Moving to any new country involves mind-numbing amounts of paperwork and form-filling. Official forms often contain an ethnic or racial profile section, with a list of boxes to choose from and tick. In Britain, Sri Lankans are classified as “British Asian (Other)”. Despite an important presence in the national consciousness thanks to high profile people such as George Alagiah and the Sri Lankan cricket team, and providing the world with cheap holidays, a safe haven for European paedophiles and an awesome aubergine curry, British Asian (Sri Lankans) do not get their own tick box, unlike the British Asian (Indians), the British Asian (Pakistanis) and the British Asian (Bangladeshis).

When I first moved to England over a decade ago, I was a little offended by this, as I am sure the British Asian (East African Indians, South African Indians, Malaysian Indians and Singaporean Indians etc), with whom we share the “(Other)” box, are. I don’t mean to be petty but I really think we should get our own tick box.

Of course, then we moved to Australia, and it turns out all we are is “Not ATSI” (Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders). I kept checking my forms for more boxes, desperate to define my demographic in greater detail (where is the box for Left-handed, Reformed Vegetarian, Pedantic Mild Neurotics?), but apparently on Australian forms, it is binary. You are ATSI or you are not.

In my first few years of moving to London, Selfridges ran a Bollywood Summer campaign on Oxford Street, the National Film Theatre showed Bollywood films as well as Satyajit Ray films, Bhangra clubs were opening in Mayfair, East is East became an international success, chicken tikka masala was declared our national dish, and being British Asian was confusingly cool. The British Asian was everywhere from its most high profile civil liberties advocate (Shami – love your work), to its greatest writers (Salman, Zadie – love your work too, and Vikram, you know you’re practically British), to its finest journalists (George, Mishal, Krishnan – I love you). The British Asian was versatile – both high brow and low brow. Whenever East Enders, The Bill or Spooks needed a gangster, terrorist, corner store owner or some one to be forced into an arranged marriage, there we were, typecast but present and proud of it.

I haven’t worked out yet what our racial sub-classification is in Australia, or whether the Australian equivalent of the British Asian even has a title here. Recently, after weeks of heated negotiations by the children and more weeks of desperate pleading by me, I finally conceded defeat and agreed to help out at the school canteen. It’s not that I lack school spirit. It’s just that I can’t do maths under pressure and the thought of being asked to price and add a sausage roll, a chocolate milk and a Wot-Wot (apparently you are not allowed to say “What the hell is a Wot-Wot?” in the school canteen) together, and then subtract it from $10 to provide the correct amount of change, whilst surrounded by hungry, financially literate primary schoolers, fills me with fear.

I must really love my children, because I found myself in Hell’s Kitchen, making hundreds of ham rolls. Between recess and lunch, the school canteen mummies got a chance to talk as we buttered nut-free bread together. The conversation turned to which races were moving into which suburbs of our neighbourhood, Sydney’s North Shore. According to the other mummies (5 of them White Australian, 3 of them 7th generation Australian, and none of them racist), the “Asians” were moving in.

I was confused- I was sure that had there been a massive influx of Asians to our neighbourhood (as per the British definition), I would have noticed. At the very least, my grandmother would have called me from the other side of Sydney to tell me the Asians were coming. Then I got worried that perhaps the mummies meant us – the arrival of the six members of the Duck Family had changed the local Asian (Other) demographic by at least 300%.

I put my hand up to ask a question (because when I am in any school, deeply ingrained grammar school training takes over and I can’t speak without raising my hand first). I asked my new work colleagues for clarification of the term Asian. I think they sensed I was a lawyer or may be they realised that I might also consider myself Asian. Either way, they hastily explained that by Asian, they meant South East Asian.

Apparently, various people from South East Asia are moving into the local suburbs: the Koreans to Killara, the HK Chinese to Lindfield and the mainland Chinese to Chatswood. This summary was offered by the canteen mummies, not as a criticism, simply as an observation of local migration patterns. They also noted that many children in local classrooms today are not first/multi-generation Australian, they are the children of immigrants.

The expression “immigrants” in Australia always confuses me, even when it is used innocuously, because:

(a) I vaguely remember learning about Mabo v Queensland in which the High Court recognised that the Aborigines (and their land rights) existed here thousands of years before European colonisation; and

(b) when anthropologists and archaeologists talk about New World migration models and the Asians moving in, they are talking about Asians walking across the Berengia land bridge into Alaska some 15,000 years ago.

So to me, all people who arrived in the last 24 hours to 223 years, classify as immigrants. I didn’t want to have that conversation with my new mummy friends because they all seemed really welcoming towards the immigrants they spoke of, and they all thought that a diverse population was good for their children. Plus, I had already said the word “hell” in front of their children and I didn’t want to get a bad reputation so early in my canteen career.

I explained that I was born in the UK, raised an Australian, with a family from Sri Lanka, and English was the only language I spoke competently. I then asked them a question fully loaded with Wot-Wots: how would they describe or define my race and my nationality? (Frankly after the first 50 ham rolls I was too tired to know the difference). They answered: Indian, Pakistani or British (because of my accent). No one said Sri Lankan (I would have been surprised if they were able to identify my race); but no one said Australian (which is my nationality), and no one said Australian Asian (Other) or Australian Subcontinental or some other equally cumbersome racial sub-classification of my nationality.

That night I recalled the event to husband who took the opportunity to ask challenging questions such as “Do other Australians think of us and (more importantly) our children as Australian? Do ethnic groups in Australia celebrate their cultural similarities and differences?” Husband really needs to read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and just nod empathetically instead of trying to debate or solve issues.

I don’t know what the local Australians thought when a family of Australian British Sri Lankans moved in with four children surrounded by an entourage of twenty cousins and the intoxicating aroma of aubergine curry. The neighbours all came over with wine and chocolates so I think we got off to a good start.

We haven’t been here for long enough to work out if different races, ethnic groups and cultures have their own proud, nationally recognised identity and place within a wider Australian identity outside the SBS channel. I am fairly certain that being the Australian equivalent of the British Asian isn’t cool (yet).

It is possible that an Indian family has moved into Summer Bay and I just haven’t realised it (no time to wee, no time for TV). Let’s call them the Patels. The Patel parents own the local convenience store although the Patel father used to be doctor back in India. The Patel daughter is studying to be a doctor and has an illicit white surfie boyfriend. Whenever people are injured on the beach, the eccentric but charming Grandma Patel rushes out and sprinkles turmeric on the injury. The Patel son is quietly hiding his secret identity as an Al Qaeda sleeper agent. Of course the fact that the family is clearly Hindu and not Muslim has been overlooked by the writers who will never be employed by the more culturally sensitive SBS channel. In Season 432 of Home & Away, the Patel family will invite all of Summer Bay over for a BBQ tandoori kangaroo to celebrate their new-found citizenship (and perhaps the release of the extended Patel family from Christmas Island). Little do the residents of Summer Bay know that the Patel son has been “activated” and he has spiked the tandoori marinade with anthrax.

May be the Australian equivalent of the British Asian ([insert cumbersome racial sub-classification]) will really know we’ve made it into the national consciousness when the Patels move in to Summer Bay.

I wonder about the mummies at the school canteen. May be they all assumed I was Australian and they were guessing my racial heritage rather than my nationality. May be in Australia, a country that likes to shorten every single word in the dictionary, describing some one as Australian Subcontinental (Sri Lankan) is just too much of a mouthful. May be my question scared them and they just panicked because they didn’t want to offend me. May be they didn’t actually care which box I fit into and they liked me because I seemed like a nice person who made ham rolls efficiently.

At lunch time, the children of the canteen mummies are allowed to come to the canteen and receive a free slushy. My little Prima walked up to the canteen door, her smile both shy and proud, surrounded by a little posse of friends. There was L the Chinese girl, S the Indian girl, A the white girl, R the Japanese girl and Prima the most beautiful girl in the world, bathed in sunlight and smelling like strawberries. All of them so young and untroubled by definitions, they were Australian (Non-Denominational) and all of them thrilled to get a free slushy from Prima’s mother, who is Australian (Not ATSI, Not Born Here But Raised Here And Very Happy To Be Back Here Despite Not Having My Own Tick Box) ie. Australian (NATSINBHBRHAVHTBBHDNHMOTB). Also known as “Australian” for short.

7 replies
  1. Reema
    Reema says:

    Funny thing was in canteen today n got yr order for the kids……..
    Ve to say it again u write really well…..

  2. Sarah (Maya_Abeille)
    Sarah (Maya_Abeille) says:

    I had the kind of opposite experience when I first got to the UK and had to fill in a form. Having been ticking the ‘no’ box in the Are You Aboriginal Or Torres Strait Islander box for years, I was flummoxed to find such a variety of options in the UK version. To the extent that I had ever considered my race, I considered myself a white Australian. My Irish Catholic peasant stock came into the bargain culturally, sure, in the form of potatoes that would put your eye out if you flung them at the wall, making Irish breakfast tea from the age of 7 that would kill a goat, and the de rigeur liberal helpings of sarcasm and implied guilt wrapped up in jolly alcholism, but I had never had to identify myself as such on official paperwork. As far as I was concerned, I had always been officially mainstream. Imagine my shock when I saw the box, plain as day: Irish Catholic; separated from British proper and all the sundry others. Yes, I supposed silently, we were an ‘other’ sort of people, identifiable in our way. Regardless of the fact that my brand of Irishness had been washed away in the late 1700s on the choppy seas that the first fleet sailed on, I took a certain pleasure in ticking that little box. More than I thought I would.
    I had considered myself culture-less. ‘Australian’ culture is far too young to have left any kind of imprint, I was envious of my friends of Greek, Italian, Chinese-South African, Maltese and Sri Lankan heritage. They may have been mocked and teased for their failure to bring a squished vegemite sandwich to school, but at least they had context.
    I’m not sure what use that UK box-ticking palaver is put to – what would they do about the fact that I was from Irish Catholic heritage rather than English? But it did do something for me – it gave me pause to consider that maybe I do have a distinct cultural heritage, of sorts.

    • duckformationfamily
      duckformationfamily says:

      Thank you very much for your comment! (I get very excited when non-cousins comment). I could seriously do with some of that Irish Breakfast Tea, as have been “controlled comforting (Comforting?)” Newborn for the last hour. I used to wish my mother would give me a vegemite sandwich to squish, but it was always a Seeni Sambol (a smelly but delicious onion chutney) sandwich etc. Tomorrow I will be sending my children to school with left over tandoori chicken in their sarnies. I am sure they too will be embarassed but Vegemite makes them gag and I think puking on yourself infront of your peers would be far more embarassing than the smell of tandoori. I wouldn’t know about puking on myself infront of my peers of course.

      Interestingly, my long term memory can vaguely recall learning about custody cases involving children of mixed Aboriginal and White origin. Arguments were made that these children should not automatically be awarded to their Aboriginal parent (or preference should not automatically be given to that parent) just to preserve that cultural heritage. Lawyers for the White parent argued that being White was also a culture that should be valued and should be a part of the child’s life. My brain is shutting down now but that seems pertinent. Pertinent is a really hard word for me at this time of night. Thank you again Sarah, I really enjoyed reading your comment. x

    • duckformationfamily
      duckformationfamily says:

      Thank you Helen! I think there is a spin-off soap opera waiting to be written for the Patels of Summer Bay. x

  3. MotherR
    MotherR says:

    I lived in Sydney for a little while and I’m sure they care much more about whether you have bought your house, where you bought it, how big it is, how much it was and what your husband does, than what your ethnic or racial identity is.

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