A personal identity

“Is there a single personal identity for each individual? In British Malaya, the land of my birth, we were classi­fied according to the territory from which we had come. I was therefore Ceylonese. In post-war White Australia, I was initially described as a black man, occasionally black bastard. Later, I was an Asian student, with Immigration authori­ties ensuring that we did not become over-stayers. Then I became an Indian, because everyone brown in colour, other than the indigene, was Indian; although I was occasionally asked when my Afghan ancestors had arrived in Australia.

Later, much later, like everyone else, I was defined by my work, with passing reference to my origins. Occupation and status were standard delineations of identity. However, when my wife and I mixed with middle-range diplomats, I was assumed to be a foreign diplomat; brown-skinned Asian Australians were a missing species. I guess we scrubbed up well too, and spoke ‘proper like.’ Among the academics, I was assumed to be one of them; my tendency to speak in jargon from the social sciences may have misled them all. I was a mere public servant. In this arena, one’s social contacts were obliquely, yet inevitably, set by one’s position in the pecking order!

When I retired, to live alone in a small fibro-and-tin house in a low-income district, and drove an old Corolla, initially I seemed to be viewed as a blackfellow. That is, many of the local whites looked askance at me, reminding me of the White Australia era. Even when I was dressed relatively expensively, some locals looked at me, as in earlier times, as if I might suddenly bite them; they had that wary look. The local Aborigines would not, of course, accept me as a ‘black­fella.’ I was, to them, a ‘whitefella.’” … …

“But then … … what have the various perceptions of me by others to do with what I am? Do I not have a core per­sonality? If so, what is it? How is it to be discovered, and by whom? To confuse matters, could I be a multi-layered entity? If so, could I intuitively seek to strip away layers of myself to ascertain what might be a core that is an invariant me?

Peeling away the persona I present to the public (including my colleagues at work and in civil society), then the persona I present to the (extended) family, can I then divest myself of the image I have created for myself (if I dare!), and expose that long-buried skeleton of my innate personality or iden­tity? Would it be a frail courage or a disarming folly to go that far?”

These are extracts from my book ‘Musings at Death’s Door: an ancient bicultural Asian-Australian ponders about Australian society,’ Chapter 8, ‘On national identity.’

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