Essay Series: ‘An Ode to my Australian Identity’ by Sanaz Fotouhi

This essay is part of a series commissioned by the Australia-Indonesia Centre, with leading writers and commentators from Indonesia and Australia each looking closely at their own society, cultures and political situations. Membaca versi Bahasa Indonesia

As a child growing up in Iran in the late 1980s, the dubbed and censored version of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, about Sonny the freckled faced, fair skinned, blue eyed, handsome boy and his family living in the bush, summed up my understanding of Australia and Australian identity.

To me, back then, everyone in Australia must have looked like Sonny. Growing up in a country where national identity is determined exclusively by birth, never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined someone whose parents were not born in Iran, and who did not speak Farsi, coming into my country, living there and then legally becoming ‘Iranian.’ Nor, could I imagine that I, a dark haired, olive skinned Iranian girl, could one day be considered equally as Australian as Sonny and his family.

It has taken almost a third of my life spent living in Australia to consider myself Australian. And even then, I am still occasionally surprised by that fact.

“I wanted to understand what had crossed my mind in that moment that made me so abrasively deny my Australian identity.”

The most recent shock of this kind came, when I was approached to write this essay.  When Jemma, the series editor, and I met for the first time, she told me she was working on putting together a collection of essays about Australian and Indonesian identities and invited me to contribute.  For a few minutes, I was confused until I realised, ‘oh maybe she means for me to write as an Australian author’ Then, without thinking I blurted out ‘but I am not Australian.’  As soon as those words came out of my mouth, Jemma slapped the table and said, ‘But, yes, you are.’

So, I decided then that this would be the very topic that I would explore in the essay. I wanted to understand what had crossed my mind in that moment that made me so abrasively deny my Australian identity.  And what does it even mean to be Australian anyway?

When I moved to Australia in the mid-2000s, for the first few years, most of the encounters I had with people, in any setting outside of the Iranian and the other migrant communities, always involved an inquisitiveness about where I came from.  When I explained that I was from Iran the line of questioning was almost always directed in such a way that there was an underlying assumption that I had left my homeland out of desperation because life there was not good enough, especially for women.  Even though I explained that my path to Australia was a unique one, which began with my father’s career as an expat banker from Iran, despite my resistance the questions inevitably led me to admit that yes, life there is not the greatest.

But this undertone, this assumption that every person who has moved to Australia has done so because life in their own country was not good enough, always bothered me.

There is no denying that many people are forced to escape their country because they face violence and their lives are seriously threatened.  There is also no denying that life in Australia is easier than many places in the world. Here, one worries less about health and medical services, education, and access to other services and goods that might be hard to find in other countries. It is true that Australia offers these advantages and many migrants will choose to come here to enjoy this so-called ‘good life’.  What bothers me, however, is that this assumption overlooks the many other beautiful aspects of a culture and a country left behind, whether it be by choice or by necessity, in which Australia (or any country that one chooses to migrate to) does not even come close to offering.

Having access to the best services on demand, endless shopping malls with all the brands, and sterile rules that limit your sense of adventure, does not always translate to living a good life. Living a good life is sometimes found in eating familiar street foods made without permits by a man with unwashed hands. It may mean having cousins and family who you can call and hang out with spontaneously on a Sunday afternoon; it may even be found in the frustrating encounters with your lazy banker, baker, grocer, or the grumpy taxi driver who challenges your patience. It may mean having books in your own language at your disposal without having to go the ‘ethnic’ shop; or even being able to haggle your way out of a ticket with the police because the rules are bendable. It is about feeling connected to a deeply understood and rooted culture which brings with it a sense of happiness, satisfaction and familiarity.

Living the ‘good life’ does not always come down to impeccable services and social order, or even jobs and education, and other external things that we, in a capitalist and materialistic society have come to value so highly. As many migrants can attest, these things lose their shine too quickly. After five-years living in a new country, having found a good job, bought a good car and having grown comfortable within the security offered here, migrants often begin to feel there is something missing.  That missing something is the other aspects that make up a good life; these are things we cannot transfer to Australia. We can try to replicate them, at most. But it will never be the same.

For me, facing the challenge of finding my place and identity in Australia, the struggle has always been to stand on my ground.  Whilst admitting that yes, there are bad things in every society from which people run away, it should not give anyone the right to devalue the rich aspects of another country and culture. Because despite it all, there is always something good there too.

So it is that over the years, I became even more defensive and protective of my Iranian identity and intent on showing the good sides of my culture. That is why in Australia it became a habit to say, ‘I’m from Iran’ and be ready with a justification path of why life there is not as bad as people think it is.  Being Australian, or even declaring that I am Australian instead of Iranian, never even crossed my mind.

“…to the woman at the spa in Indonesia who asked for proof of my identity, my Australian-ness is somewhat dubious”

That is, until I became a ‘legal’ Australian citizen. Now, I had a legal bond to this country. I could choose to participate in a system that allowed me freedoms, to take part in a democratic process to alter things I did not like in it.

This new tie is highlighted even more when I travel overseas, where I find myself wanting to own up to my Australian identity; although this was rarely a success.  To the Indian and Thai hotel receptionists, or to the woman at the spa in Indonesia who asked for proof of my identity, my Australian-ness is somewhat dubious.  Just as I had grown up in a country where race and national identity are very clearly aligned and so defined, I understood that for them comprehending that a brown girl could be Australian, was not so easy.  My response, somewhat unwittingly, was again to explain that I am originally from Iran.  Whilst I was familiar of course with this line of questioning about my identity, what was different on these occasions was that there were no smirks and no judgements as to why I left the country of my birth. In fact it was the opposite. Aside from the legal document that allowed me a relatively greater level of freedom of travel, what fascinated them was why I would choose to consider myself Australian, when I was from a country as beautiful and culturally rich as Iran.

Back home in Melbourne, despite my Australian citizenship papers and passport, I am still asked by strangers about my ‘true’ identity.  I continue to be defensive about it, and indeed deny my Australian identity.

But why is this the case? Reflecting on this, I sense that there has also been a fear factor at play.  As I look back on myself over the years, I realise that I have, to a small degree, become an ‘Australian’, in a sense that goes beyond the legal status. Though I have not watched a single footy match yet, or managed to embrace the meat pie, I have picked up enough parts of the vernacular culture and language to be considered Australian by many who come from elsewhere.  I surely do enjoy brunch of avocado smash with fetta, an acquired taste for many new to this land, and I use the word ‘reckon’ enough to be picked out as Australian by an American.  I am sure there are many other things that I am not even aware of that would identify me as Australian by those who are not from here.  Given these undeniable Australian elements that have become now part of what I am, I think what scares me, even more than owning up my Australian identity, perhaps, is the fear of it overtaking my Iranian one.

But how do I balance the two, while owning one and not losing the other?

Upon reflection, perhaps there is another approach, which involves remembering and embracing the fact that ‘being Australian’, unlike ‘being Iranian’, is not a limited privilege of birth right.  Except for the indigenous Australians, the first peoples of this land, everyone else who claims to be Australian is essentially a migrant of one kind or another, some having landed here earlier than others.  After all, this model of multiculturalism – although it has changed shape and colour over the decades – constitutes the identity of the modern Australian nation state.  We, who live here all know this by now. Nonetheless, sometimes the kinds of comments and social interactions that we encounter, makes us doubt that we belong.

However, what I am discovering is that truly embracing Australia’s multi-cultural nature makes it easier to claim and own up to a more fully integrated Australian identity.  This means accepting that Sonny and his family, who may have arrived a few generations sooner from somewhere in Europe, are no more Australian – in the legal sense of the matter – than myself, an Iranian girl who arrived more recently.

Instead of limiting representations and understandings of what it means to be Australian it is important to accept and embrace the variety and diversity that comes with the fabric of this multicultural nation. This means accepting that there is not only one way to ‘be’ Australian.

The process of writing this essay has been cathartic.  Through contemplation on the way in which I perceive my own identity and on how gracefully many members of this society embrace the multiplicity and hybridity of Australia, I have also come to learn that this must be the way. Instead of shying away or fearing that I am not Australian enough, or even fearing that if I am Australian then I may lose my Iranianness, I feel lucky that I can carry both at once.  How I manage to balance this personally, and how some members of Australian society may respond to it, though, is something with which I am still grappling.

Sanaz Fotouhi is an Iranian-Australian writer, filmmaker and academic. She holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of New South Wales. She is interested in diasporic and migrant narratives. Her book The Literature of the Iranian Diaspora: Meaning and Identity since the Islamic Revolution was published in March 2015 (I.B. Tauris).  Sanaz is one of the founding members of the Persian Film Festival in Australia, and the co-producer of the multi-award winning documentary Love Marriage in Kabul.  Sanaz is currently the Assistant Executive Director of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators, (