A Conversation with Sebastian Antoine Salay
By Sumarlinah Raden Winoto
Sumarlinah Raden Winoto: Where do you belong?
Sebastian Antoine: Is it where do I belong or where do I feel comfortable? I’ve got two different answers. I feel comfortable lots of places. There’s nowhere that I don’t feel comfortable, actually. I trust myself, and everyone around me. Wherever I am, I’m with myself, and i’m with other people. So I’m always comfortable.
But I don’t belong in nearly as many places. I belong in far fewer places.
So: where do you belong?
That’s tricky. The place that I feel the most sense of belonging is in Australia. But, specifically in the places that I grew up in, and have experience of.
How did your parents place their family in the place you grew up in?
I think the way they raised me contributed to what I was saying before about feeling comfortable in lots of places, because they made themselves comfortable, did things so that they were comfortable in different places. Moving with my family to a new location when I was six, all together, we made that a place where we belonged.
Would you say that your family created a place where you belonged in a specific location, but the root of it wasn’t the location itself?
The place is important, and it’s about the memories in that place, the interactions in (with) that place. What about you?
I think the only constant place of belonging that I can locate in the world is my own body. I know that I belong to myself.Especially coming from migratory families and having transitional phases in family life, your own body is the only constant you grow up with. Because I didn’t grow up in one place, or always the same people around me, the only real thing I knew was my own body, and that experience.
Do you think that is heightened because of how you engage with your body in dance?
Yeah! I think that was maybe one of the reasons I really held on to dance. I think it is a helpful practice to strengthen that relationship with myself.
Seizing on what you’re saying about making a home… I remember that happening every day at my house. Really deliberately. As I’ve gotten older I’ve reflected with my folks about what they were doing, and how they acted as parents. Every meal we had together. I think a lot about food, and it was so important growing up; the ritual of cooking, setting the table, having food in the middle, shared between everybody.
A real act of presence in each other.
And it started before I can remember, so it was always the absolute most normal thing and it’s only now I’ve started to realise that’s not everyone’s experience
In my childhood there were always constant reminders of that concept of elsewhere... being raised being really aware of your roots being displaced somehow?Which leads me to this other question, what does it mean to be Asian and mixed race to you? My only experience of being Asian when I was growing up was through being different to everyone else. Going to a German school I remember a lot as a child been really against being Asian. I remember being teased a lot for being Asian. Being raised in a German community, at a German school, with a very German mother… that has always been a stronger cultural tie for me. It was always like we were in an Australian geographic context, but insulated in a German community, and then I was Othered within that community for not being…
Yep, for not being Aryan. And having a really ethnic name. So… I guess my understanding of being Asian was… I am different from my own small community, that is already removed from the wider social context that I am placed in. It wasn’t something I would engage with or actively embrace for a really long time. I think it’s definitely only been since I moved out of home and interstate that I’ve been able to (make space to) reflect on what all those things mean to me.
For me it ties a lot to that notion that you only experience your own life, and you only know your own way of being. Especially in terms of what we mentioned before in terms of knowing where you belong, and knowing where home is… being able to place myself in a family context and foster those relationships with my relatives and where I come from, where I inherit my name from, where I inherit all of me from. Contextualising my own existence. I think it’s about finding community as well. I think it’s one of those things where being mixed and white passing you can just pass. But that carries a lot of layers with it as well, and having people in your own personal community who you can hold that with and have space for that and unpack that with… I think that’s part of the identity.
I’ve never really thought about being mixed race. I’ve never needed to. I saw it as just… me being me. Being mixed race is… when I compare myself to the people I grew up with, it’s about knowing different things about the world. And that knowledge being taken for granted by your family, and by your self. But not by the people around you.
It meant eating different foods and not realising that not everyone did that. It didn’t mean more than that. And it still doesn’t. And that speaks to what you were saying before about white passing, or choosing to surround myself with people who don’t remind me of it.
People who aren’t racist?
But yeah, i think that does speak to being ethnically ambiguous as well.
My name sounds French, it doesn’t suggest anything. It’s the least Indian name.
And that’s something I struggled with for a very long time. I would never reveal my full name to anyone.
That’s so interesting, I always had such pride in my family history. I was always telling all my friends about my trips back to Malaysia, my trips back to India.
Yeah, that’s something I feel I’ve really had to grow in to. And I think part of that is being in a microcosm environment already. Holding that space between two worlds.
And not belonging in either? it’s tricky, that. But it’s all relative, hey? Like I know more things about being Malaysian and Indian — and English for that matter— than most people I know, but then going there… I’m just another white traveller. And i’ve always found that interesting, because I would introduce my friends to different views, or different values…or different experiences or stories, and be the guide in that situation. But then in other situations, like going to Malaysia or India, I am the person being guided.
I think that’s a really good tangent into another question I had… what does inadequacy mean to you in this context?
You learn to embrace it, you know? And realise that the feeling of inadequacy comes from within. Not from anyone else.
You say you have to learn to embrace it. What was that journey like for you?
It came in a few stages. The last stage, which I think nailed it for me (I say that, but then there will always be another stage), was being in India at the start of 2018. And realising that I don’t belong there. And no-one expects me to belong there. No-one in my family expects me to belong. My family is from Australia, not from India. And… although I went with the dream of learning more and being more there, finding something… I didn’t need to. at all.
And I could just be who I was. I guess.
And it’s funny how… that’s such a simple thing to say but it such a difficult thing to internalise.
I’ve had similar experiences in that respect of travelling to places where my parents are from. I feel like I really needed to be there, that was the turning point. To understand that this is a part of me, and I am related to this, but it’s also not me. Another thing about inadequacy— going to Malaysia for christenings, or weddings or birthdays and things, it was a real stark reminder for my and my brother that we didn’t know was going on. We didn’t know who the people were, who to talk to, where to sit, what and how to eat...
Which is so interesting, and I really strongly relate to that; going to family events and realising that inadequacy in knowledge of culture, of what it is that your personal community does in these events, that is just inevitable when you grow up away from those spaces in your daily life.
It’s a situational inadequacy.
I think part of being mixed race is being able to bounce between cultural worlds.
And it’s not easy. And I think you need to practice it, and you need to practice it in a safe context.
Yes. I think it also goes into one of the other questions about what are the important things about culture? What are the things you need to be carrying with you in those interactions?
I think part of being mixed race is being able to bounce between cultural worlds. And it’s not easy. And I think you need to practice it, and you need to practice it in a safe context. In the example of conversations and how they work (in different cultures), I know what it is to have a conversation as a white Australian. Technically. And I can pull it off. But I am more comfortable doing something else. And I honestly don’t know if that’s based on common cultural values in Malaysia or India, and if it is, it doesn’t make sense because I didn’t learn it from either of those places, I learnt it from my dad, who has his own story and has lived in Australia longer than he’s lived anywhere else.
I think you’re right in saying that its a cultural aspect; or that it makes sense at least culture influences part of that. I think modes of communication is a really interesting and important topic, because I think it’s about cultural fluency, and to be culturally transient and operate within these multiple socio-cultural contexts. Which is also I think related to generational shifts, and what happens when you’re a second or third generation migrant, that you grow up within multiple cultures, and understanding multiple cultures, and how to operate and behave in them in different ways. Which also links back to the concept of inadequacy… like all the moments where you “betray” a particular of your identity. I guess the question that leads me to is where do you get to be wholly yourself? Where do you get to embody all of that, that cultural transience and all of the different parts of you that make up and are all important and can’t just be pigeon holed away into different contexts and interactions?
I think coming from this kind of (mixed) background you get a step up, you get to experience what things change when you engage with different people.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel, with my folks for their work, to visit family… and that’s given me the experience to see that it’s about changing how you operate, how you stand, how you talk and what words you use, and who you talk to, how you hold yourself in different parts of the world, where there are different cultural values and expectations. And it’s only been recently that I’ve realised not everyone does that. I take it for granted. And people commend me on it [being culturally transient] and to me it’s just normal.
I think that’s similar to what we were saying before; in order to realise the peculiarities and particularities of the experience that we grow up with, it needs to be in contrast to what other people experience and how they move through the world. Because you only know what you know, and what you’ve lived.
I did a "culture competency" course for this grant that I got to study overseas. But I knew it all already, from being thrown in the deep end.
I think that’s part of the cultural fluency we were talking about. Like when you know different languages. If you only speak one language, you only understand language as the way you communicate, whereas if you speak multiple languages then you can see how it shapes the different ways we communicate, how it dictates how we communicate, and the differences between languages.
You can understand cultures as modes of interaction, of communicating, of existing, of being in places. If you are only within one culture, you don’t need to think about it that way. You’re not being confronted with differences.
It’s interesting, because it's not reliant on us being from the same ethnic confused mixed background, it’s reliant on a whole lot of other things like personality, politics, history and experience and education and all sorts of things. it’s bigger than that.
It’s only been the last few years where I’ve found how incredibly comforting and satisfying it is to have these kind of conversations with people from similar backgrounds. Just because it’s made me realise that simply by virtue of the way that I exist and the way that I came to exist, I have experiences, stories and feelings that people from a similar background share, or resonate with. Things that aren't necessarily specific to the different cultures we come from, but there are similarities that you share just by virtue of being a mixed race person. And I think even more specifically than that, being ethnically ambiguous, or white-passing.
Having spaces where I can just talk about all that, really made a difference in my life. I think especially the concept of being white passing means it’s hard to talk to people who are white about it, and it’s hard to talk to people who are visibly people of colour about it. Because it’s its own experience, and it has its own benefits and detriments and confusions and contradictions.
Can you share some thoughts on what it’s been like to visit family over the years?
It’s been an interesting one. Because I started travelling to Malaysia when I was a little boy. It’s always been there. I’ve done it more often in the last few years. I think over the past years we’ve gone to fulfil expectations of attending events, and meeting people, and all sorts. which is an interesting way to travel, it’s not quite a holiday. and just being in touch... with the understanding that because we live far away and have lives elsewhere… people don’t expect you to and don’t see you as a full member of the family, or the community.
But it’s not as bad as it sounds because there are so many people like that that are living elsewhere, it’s just part of life in this century. But it’s been really interesting to travel with my dad. I’ve been thinking about the trip I did to India with him and my brother earlier in 2018, where I kind of went, after having studied, after having some conversations with you, after having learnt more about what it meant to have roots elsewhere. I was looking forward to that trip, and I hoped to come back with some knowledge about how I could be better at recognising and respecting my Indianness. I went thinking that i could come back with some little everyday things that I could incorporate into my life, that would remind me or remind the people around me of the pride that I have in those stories and that family history. I thought it would be great if i could come back, and bring something.
But it only took me a few days of being there for me to realise that… it was fanciful to think that i could cherry-pick bits of what it meant to be Indian,to bring home. And it didn’t take long to figure out that I had very little to do with other young people in India. That their lives were very different from mine, for all sorts of reasons. I couldn’t access that, because of my experiences of growing up in a completely different world. And that informed what I was talking about before, that the place where you grew up… that’s all you’ve got. So I came back with really valuable insights, not the ones I thought I was going to get, but thoughts that were that I don’t belong in India, that I don’t deserve to, and I don’t want to.
And it’s greedy of me to think that I could or ought to belong there. Which is fine, because I feel comfortable in Australia, and I’m accepted there. So I don’t need to learn how to be elsewhere.
It was a really good trip. It was good for me to learn what life might’ve been like if we hadn’t left.
It made me grateful for what I did have, and for the life that I do have.
I definitely also always want to carry parts home from the places I am connected to. And want to maintain those connections, and work for those connections.
What have you brought home?
The connection that’s been most important to me, and especially growing up in a multilingual environment, has been language. To me it’s always been really important to maintain my German and I’m really lucky to now be learning Bahasa and I feel really strongly about that as well.
Language has always been like an offering I make to my family. It creates deeper experiences when you speak the language of the place that you’re in. I always carried a lot of my culture in language. My understanding of language, is that access to language is access to culture.
Do you think about what you will pass on to your children, and what their relationship to culture could or should be?
I think that goes back to what I was saying before; that the way I see myself is mostly things that are disconnected from ethnicity and my family background. I identify myself by my politics, my interests, my hobbies, my interests, social networks, work and study. And then I identify myself by the experiences of the places that I’ve been, which it includes the places where I have strong [family] connections to, and includes the knowledge I have of what it means to be Indian in Malaysia, and Malaysian-Indian in Australia.
And I like to think that we live in a society where people recognise that peoples’ identity is more than their nationality, or what it says on peoples’ birth certificates, or the places that the branches of their family tree go. That people’s identities are a complex concoction that’s changing over time.
I’d like to offer my kids that. One part of the mix.
That’s related to something I think a lot about in terms of working for culture, and investing time and committing to culture and family. Over the last few years I’ve made a conscious effort to create those relationships with my relatives overseas and continue to foster them and nourish them. For all of my relatives. To always maintain those connections over the oceans and hemispheres.
I’m interested to talk more with my dad about how he balances being far away from the places he’s from, and I’d say he’d have certain ways of bridging that, or of creating a sense of belonging. I wonder if that’s why that family unit, always checking in, having lots of family time… is important because we’re not living anywhere where we have historically belonged.
Yes. I think that’s one of the reasons that this conversation is so important. Because only going to become more frequent that people have this kind of experience, have this kind of transglobal identity thing going on. And it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about in terms of how to be a bridge between places you are from and places you are in. how you connect them together, a sense a family and a sense of home. Those core concepts which in the past, before global mobility, was as simple as “this is the village you live in”. Whereas now you could be literally anywhere.
I love that thought, that it’s happening more and more often. I think it’s empowering. And exciting.
— and scary. because it’s shifting the common understanding of identity. I think in a lot of ways people with mixed identities today… we embody the challenging of that. we embody being whole people full of contradictions and confusions and… mixed things. But that is also in a lot of ways maybe the world we are stumbling into.