I Could be From Bali

"Dari mana?" Asking where you are from is a common question heard in Jakarta: a city of more than ten million people. It's a melting pot of Indonesia's 300 ethnicities and  their  languages. If the person who asked had a certain accent that reminded me of my extended family, I would answer that I was from Jakarta, instead of admitting I was born in Yogyakarta because they might start talking to me in Javanese.

My grandmother spoke in Javanese a lot, especially to my grandfather. This was usually when she was talking about me or my sister, assuming that my attendance at an English and Indonesian speaking school meant I would not understand her. When she was talking about my mother, she would speak to my grandfather in Dutch, assuming my mother wouldn’t understand. Of course she was wrong on both counts.

As a small Southeast Asian child in Baghdad's souqs during the UN economic and trade sanctions, I was quite popular. Merchants would come up to me in my mother's arms asking in Arabic where my nose was, comparing their aquiline features to my tiny button. During my family's first year in Iraq, we couldn't get English TV channels for kids, but there was an Italian channel that came through our satellite dish. My mother told me I spoke Italian often when I was three and four-years-old: I have no recollection of it.

Now in Brisbane, in a country where 1 in 4 citizens are born overseas, being asked "Where are you from?" feels more like a formality. It's an attempt at ice breaking, to connect and maybe find common ground for conversation. I often bet against myself that they will tell me they've been to Bali.

Up until my early twenties, I had so much resolution to explain that I am more than my looks and my accent — nope, never even stepped foot on or transited in North America — that I am more than a stereotype. After so many years, I've rearranged my thoughts. Life watered down my resolve. No longer do I think that where I'm from is where I have to make the least effort to understand someone linguistically or their jargon. Nor that people have to know a summary of my life to combat their own preconceived notions of me. Because they probably already do, and always will have, their own ideas.

"Indonesia" would be the succinct answer, and I'd see in their eyes the relief that they've found something to talk about with me. Bali may be a tourist trap, but it's a beautiful one that I'm willing to talk about over and over again.