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.’
Then, when my community discovered that I am a bicultural immigrant writer from Asia, of an unclear ancestry and religious affiliation, I was (thankfully) ignored as a non-identity. Because I did not fish, play golf or bowls, I obviously did not fit in as one of them; that was in spite of my visible involvement in civil society, often in leadership positions.
I guess I am a rolling stone collecting a variety of replaceable identities.