I walked home from school, our most recent history assignment churning in my mind, like a dairymaid from Convict times, or pre-Federation, making butter.
'Cultural Identity', was the words our teacher had used. 'Write about your culture and where you come from.'
Easier for some than others, unfortunately. My class was a surprisingly diverse bunch, for an inner-city school outside of Leichhart or Marrickville or Cabramatta or one of the other 'ethnic suburbs'. We had Pacific Islanders, a pair of South African siblings (not that you'd know it to look at them, the pale redheads), a few English kids, Argentinan, German, Finn and a few Asian kids who thought it was funny to make us guess which part of Asia they were from, but got offended if you mixed them up with James from Argentina, who looked close enough in skin colour and features that the confusion was understandable.
Me, though? Third-Generation Aussie on Mum's side, until you got to my Scottish Great-Grandparents, who'd died before I was born. Dad's side went back to the first settlers, and both sides had been blue-collar workers, tradies and truck drivers and farmhands until Dad broke the mould with the rise of computers.
(A generation earlier, he might have been a World War II spy, creating and breaking codes, but Dad assured me that despite Sydney University listing him as a Hacker, it was really just testing the security of early computer coding. I didn't know how to say that I would have preferred him as a shadowy vigilante figure, but if that had been the case, I definitely wouldn't have been allowed to announce it in a school essay!)
How do you recognise cultural influences when it's all you've ever known, and you aren't a racial or cultural minority? How do you distill national history, rich and ugly and complex, into words on a page? As we're told so often, "White" isn't a national identity.
Irish, Scottish or English are. French, German, Danish, Scandanavian. Russian, Estonian, Slovak, Ukranian... those are cultural and national identities in a way that "White" is not.
"First Generation Immigrant" is a cultural identity, a stranger in a strange land. So is "Second-Gen Migrant", those seeking a balance between their parents' culture at home and the drive to fit in with the culture around them. Or Third-Gen, mostly assimilated with a few cultural quirks and a tendency to swear in a foreign language in the hopes of not getting caught out and handed detention.
Fourth-, Eighth- or Ninth-Gen? Not so much. By then, you're considered 'native' to your birth country, and get condescending looks at the cultural festivals. Maybe a 'Chasing Your Roots' road trip sort of vacation, when you're old enough to pay for it yourself, if you're still interested by then.
I found a book on the family history of the earliest settlers, about double the size of the dictionary sitting beside it, and settled in for the long haul. I'd start there, before deep-diving into the Highlander clans on my Mum's side.
Listening to all the other presentations on cultural identity only made mine feel even more inadequate.
They talked about the social upheval, or historical events that made their families move, or spoke about their own cultures, vibrant and unfamiliar.
I was Australian. I had a culture, but I didn't know what it was. The idea of "A fair go" for all, when government policies proved otherwise every day? The famous "Mateship", when I could barely get anyone to sit with me at lunch?
I didn't know my cultural identity, but I wanted to find out. A week wasn't long enough to find out, or to compose a culture from scratch. A little voice inside me whispered that searching for my identity might become a life-long quest.
The idea wasn't as horrifying as it might have once been.
This story was inspired by the novel "Looking for Alabrandi", the story of a second=generation immigrant in a mixed Migrant/White community searching for identity while feeling disconnected from both her heritage and her mostly-white school and friends. If you're looking for something new to read, go check it out.
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