“Where are you from?” is a heavy question to throw around as casually as we do. On the first day of class; to strangers at bars or parties; in job interviews. Every time I am asked, I pause and think about which answer I want to give.
In the second grade, my dad came to teach my class about Australia. He brought an atlas and a flag and a didgeridoo and a boomerang and some vegemite crackers. I was so excited to show off my funny-speaking dad and the country that makes up half my identity. When it came time for the vegemite, most of my classmates passed on trying it. It looked funny and smelled different. I didn’t mind; me and my best friend–who was half-Kiwi–ate all of the vegemite that was left behind. I ate vegemite muffins before school and vegemite sandwiches in the cafeteria at lunch time. I packed Freddo Frogs and Milky Bars in my pockets when I went skiing and eagerly shared them with the 20-something Australian lift-operators I met sitting at the bottom of the hill on Australia day.
Now, I make vegemite toast when I’m rushing to work on Sundays and I eat it while I’m setting up the restaurant. My coworkers joke around about it, telling me “we’re in America, we don’t eat vegemite” or ending an unrelated argument by telling me to “go eat my vegemite”. Vegemite is black, it is a “yeast extract”, it is salty. I have been trying to explain it and make it less scary for Americans since the second grade, and I have anxiously waited for reactions as I offered bites to friends, as if somehow their reaction to it is also a reaction to me. I’m lucky that I’m from a country that people deem cool, acceptable, or interesting. I’m lucky that my dad was the kind of foreigner who had a “cool accent” and not an ostracizing one.
Sometimes when people find out I’m Australian, they tell me that it makes sense and that I “look Australian”. I’m never sure what that means. Strangers often ask me if I am Irish, or maybe Scottish. I normally laugh it off, say some type of “maybe!” and try to move on. They insist: I have freckles; my name is Mackenzie; my hair is red (not knowing it’s dyed). They push me for some type of family tree, saying that my family is definitely from Ireland, and asking for more. I offer something: I’m half American and half Australian, but I don’t know where either of those sides trace back to. This seals the deal for them; Americans and Australians both came from Britain, so I’m definitely Irish. It’s exhausting not to have a genealogy and record of migration to hand these insistent strangers. I just want to be Australian and American. Nobody knows the point at which my family went to either country, except–apparently–these strangers.
Speaking of British, a guy I went on a date with last week messaged me about an Aussie pie shop he found in Boston. We had talked about pies, and about how American’s don’t understand the meat pie, often calling it “weird” as pies here are normally made with fruit. We’re going to the pie shop this week. The funny thing is, I don’t even like pies that much. My whole life, I have skipped them in favor of a sausage roll and a lamington, which I know my dad is going to point out when he reads this. But I have spent a lot of time in a lot of pie shops and watched my dad and my brother and the rest of my family tear through pies earnestly. I have watched as my dad thought of opening his own Aussie pie shop in Colorado, bringing back custom made pie trays from Australia and working each weekend to develop and perfect his own pie recipe. And although I originally felt a little indifferent about a second date, I am now very excited to see this guy who found me an Aussie pie shop in Boston (they also sell vegemite, and my stock is getting dangerously low).
When I first moved to Boston, people from Massachusetts and Connecticut and New Jersey used to tell me that I was pronouncing “Colorado” wrong. I fought and I fought, “no, this is how people there say it and the people who live there are the ones who decide how it is said”. But I was always outnumbered, and so I was saying my home state incorrectly.
When I say that I’m from Colorado people ask me about weed and about skiing; they ask me where in Colorado I am from but don’t have any frame of reference; they ask me if it is near Denver or Boulder (those are the only places they know, they say when I say no). I listen time and time again in group introductions as people from Connecticut and from New Jersey share the details of where they are from, down to exact town and high school, exchanging tales knowingly with each other. When it’s my turn, I just say the whole state because I don’t expect many to know what “Frisco” or “Summit County” means. They are too small. If pushed to specify, I say “the mountains”, and they accept it like they understand what that means even when they don’t. Most of the time, “Colorado” is enough and we move on.
I don’t know how to add in that Southern California is somewhere in there. I don’t know where in my answer I am supposed to explain that I know every step of the drive from Frisco to Huntington Beach from the number of times I have done it. I don’t know how to say that I am from the back seat of the car on a road trip to California or the window seat on a flight to Australia. I am not sure how to explain the vegemite toast and the meat pies and the fact that I don’t understand the way people in the east react to snowstorms. I don’t understand the umbrellas or the rushing to the grocery store or the fact that life is halted for the weather. I don’t always understand that others are not from a snow globe on top of a mountain and they don’t understand that I am.
Sometimes, I just tell people that I’m from Boston.