I was shaking in the airport lounge; legs trembling beneath my seat and fingers twitching as they curled around each other in my lap. My body went taut, as though by being rigid I was creating a force field that would ensure nothing else could penetrate to hurt the soft parts of me. My eyes filled with unbeckoned tears.
I was leaving Australia for a few days when the hostage shooting happened in Sydney. The news came to me as I fumbled with my bag ready to get onto a plane that would carry me across the sea to my best friend in Singapore. My heart was broken. From the news and my own fear that was unravelling me from the inside.
We all thought the Sydney seige would end differently. Some of us even prayed it would end differently. It didn’t. And those of us with sensitive hearts were shocked such a thing could happen on Australian soil.
I am not Australian. I am a black girl with big, brown eyes and a smile that is wired to my heart. Those who know me can always tell when I’m fake smiling.
I still have people stare at me in public as if trying to make up their minds whether I belong here or not; whether I pass the humanity test or not. I still get questioned a hundred times at Australian borders for the whys and wherefores of my travels in and out of the country. And I still feel the skin on my bones sometimes sitting uncomfortably and loosely as I move in and out of spaces. But as I flew away from Australia on a day a national tragedy came to sit on her doorsteps, I couldn’t help the rush of affection I felt for the country. I couldn’t help the rush of possessiveness that flooded me; the need to protecet the land and all who live inside of her. And so for the second time since I moved here 7 years ago, I felt Australian.
What does it mean to be Australian?
There are those who claim ownership over this country and they have the pieces of paper to prove it. They trace long lines of trajectories in colourful and elaborate family trees. Genealogies etched in strokes of ink mixed with blood and soil. This proof cannot be denied or contested.
A part of the story of Australia is a story of the land. This vast land that spreads across the edges of this country like a beautiful cloth. Unbroken. Purposed to fall the way it does in shapes of mountains and valleys; waterfalls and deserts.
I wish countries could speak. Then they would tell us what it means to truly be a part of them; to be a citizen. Australia herself would tell us what it means to be Australian.
Do we lay claim to a country simply because we were born in it? Or because we feel the heartbeat of the land and we respectfully cherish it in how we respond and treat the humans who live there?
The other day as I walked home, I fell in love with a stranger and the moment he gave to me. We walked down the Railway overpass steps together. It was the way our steps meshed to perfection, our feet touching the concrete and wooden base of the steps at the exact same moment. The sound of the impact echoed everytime we touched. The rhythm, the pulse was so mesmerising it was the only thing I was aware of in that moment.
When we reached the bottom of the steps, I looked up at the stranger for the first time. He was different from me: white skin, tall, middle aged. In the history books our worlds would not collide and the tattered pages of those history books still say the same thing today.
That moment on the steps reminded me that it is not similarities that create uninhibited unity. It is moving in the same direction. Sychronicity. And similarities do not always equal synchronicty. Maybe if we could get this equation right we would have relationships that crack us open and give us goosebumps.
What does it mean to be Australian?
To love Australia. To love her land. To be confronted by her history and her present and to sit with then in all the ways they hurt and heal. To act like a human being, properly respecting human life and human dignity. To care for the things that bruise or honour the country – social justice, hope, peace, love. To be grateful for the privilege of living here but never afraid to engage with the hardness of living here.
To me, this is what it means to be Australian. But they say I am only an immigrant in this country. With clenched teeth behind smiles they forbid me from tracing a home on the sands of her shore.
But I am more Australian than I let on, even they know this.