The Ruminator

Come on up and grab yourself a beer.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

They're after me

A Chinese-born Australian citizen was detained by immigration officials and held at Sydney's Villawood detention centre for three days, despite telling them his passport was at home.

A civil case has been filed in the New South Wales Supreme Court.

The man showed the officials a valid driver's licence, Medicare card and proof of employment, but did not have his passport on him at the time.

He was freed only after a lawyer took his passport to the Immigration Department.

The Immigration Department says it cannot comment on the matter.

I don’t want to sound melodramatic or alarmist about this, but the more these sorts of stories emerge, the more I get worried and depressed about the kind of country I live in.

Due to the court action there are no details on this particular case, so it leaves you with the obvious question – on what pretext was this man detained? Maybe if I was living in a poor Indigenous community I wouldn’t be so surprised that a man could be detained just because of what he looks like, but coming as I do from a comfortably middle class family, in a predominantly middle class, anglo city like Canberra, I struggle with the thought.

And it leaves me uncomfortably imagining my mother one day ringing to tell me my father is missing. Right, well you check the hospitals, I’ll check the immigration detention centres. What’s happening to us?

And I’ve always found the whole notion of racial profiling to be particularly bizarre (I mean, apart from the obvious), because my own appearance apparently defies easy classification. Dark hair, olive skin, short stature, round eyes and face. I’ve been mistaken for just about any ethnicity you could care to mention. People who only know my first name often assume me to be Sicilian, or Spanish. People who know my surname assume I’m part Indian or Sri Lankan. But lots of people try to guess where I’m from based on reasons as various as their own ethnicity, the social context, my clothes and jewellery, my tattoo… So I’ve been asked if I’m Australian Aboriginal, Maori, almost any South American nationality, Greek, Lebanese, Hungarian… Add to this the fact that I tend to unconsciously adopt the accent of whoever it is I’m talking to, and I could be from ANYWHERE. Canadians are often convinced I must be Canadian, due to my incredibly strong accent - an accent that disappears when they do. (And for anyone wandering across this site who doesn’t know me, I will add that none of the above guesses are correct.)

I kind of like being an international woman of mystery – keep them guessing. Even if every now and then you come across someone who thinks that makes you a mongrel. (The comparison to dog breeding was particularly lovely. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mother get so mad about a news story.) But maybe, in this alert and alarmed Australia, I should be more careful. After all, I certainly don’t carry my passport on me – who does? So if you don’t hear from me for a while, you might want to check Villawood. Either that or I’ve just given up and moved to New Zealand, where mixed-race people don’t perturb them and their immigration detention facilities are a lot nicer.