Asmaa Guedira, a digital nomad who moved to Australia during the pandemic, confronts racism and the need for stories.

It’s the new year and I currently live in Byron Bay. Beyond all the wonders the Byron shire has to offer, I’ve discovered many elements I was longing for: a tight-knit community of friends, great food, wellbeing and nature. I feel so privileged to be in this safe and beautiful place yet at the same time I feel very triggered.

I am conscious that I have only a limited experience of Australia, having been here for less than a year. But, as a nomad, this is the first time I haven’t seen anyone that looks like me. It feels strange to be acutely aware of standing out. Previously, I have spent a big part of my nomadic life in the Global South (an umbrella term for the world besides Western countries — covering Africa, South East Asia, South America and a part of Oceania). In Australia, however, I get so excited when I see someone with curly dark hair or brown skin. I cannot help but wonder … Australia is a country of immigration, where the native population has dark skin — why did I only meet a majority of Caucasian people, with a few exceptions of Asian heritage?

I know that part of the answer is that I have mostly been in wealthy areas. As any immigrant landing somewhere, I always look for my tribe — people with whom I share an experience of reality. Since I arrived in this country, my gut feeling or ngangk pi’an (the language used by Aboriginal Tyson Yunkaporta in his highly recommended book Sand Talk) has been to learn about Indigenous culture and meet Aboriginal people. Is it because First Nation ancestors came from the same land as mine … Africa? Or is it just because I miss being around people who look like me? Do I resonate with their challenges because of my background in social change or because of my experience as a BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of colour) in Western countries?

During my time here, my partner and I went to a beautiful new age gathering in the Blue Mountains. The land was stunning and the people sweet. I felt very much at home with all the love and care common to these spiritual retreats. Still, as an activist and a person familiar with micro-aggressions, I noticed the details that remind me of my difference. My eyes saw that my name tag was spelt incorrectly, my ears caught the sole absence of my name in the closing circle of gratitude where instead I got referred to as my partner’s “beloved”.

As we were hugging everyone goodbye, the hostess asked me, “What are your routes”? I thought she was using an Aussie expression, so I started listing our travel plans back to Canberra. She interrupted me to say, “No, I’m asking for your roots, your origins.” When I understood my mistake and her question, I felt my belly squeezing and blood rushing to my face. I know, with the word she chose, that she didn’t mean to be rude. But the result was the same — just another way of asking me “where are you from”? For someone who’s been trying to blend in for years in various semi-hostile environments, this question is never neutral. I dismissed my unease and answered with an awkward laugh that I was “from Morocco”.

Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask where I’m local

The brilliant author Taiye Selasi has a Ted Talk titled Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask where I’m local. I would rather state, “Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask for my story.” Stories are the best way to learn about each other. Conversations about identity, migrations and otherness take time to unravel. BIPOC often carry trauma from years of microaggressions. Racism is systemic and we all have a role to play in this humanity game.

Since I arrived in this country, despite the difficult context of an exile during a pandemic, I have felt at home and welcomed by everyone I spent time with. I’ve met many people and we’ve had time for conversations, sat and ate together, so the stories naturally unfold. Yarns help us realise how close we are and what common experiences we share, such as growing up with a religion, then questioning the dogmas and limitations around it or growing up in a tight community close to nature.

This is how I would have loved to start a yarn with our hostess: “I was born in Rabat and migrated to France for university. My sister lives in Paris and my parents and extended family are in Rabat. I’ve been a local to Berlin, Istanbul, Beirut, Casablanca, Cairo and Rio de Janeiro where I shared deep relationships and rituals. I’m learning to become a local in Australia, despite the difficult context of a pandemic reshaping all social life. I could label myself a “world citizen” not because of the numbers of planes boarded and the countries visited, but because of my friendships around the world.

Being a nomad can feel terribly lonely though, when you belong everywhere and nowhere. Most of the time spent in adventures is a trade-off from time with your loved ones. My travels have made me aware of power dynamics and privileges because I was often the only one at the intersection of different identities. I also know many “citizens of the world” who have never lived outside of their birth country because of visa restrictions. My life experiences have made me a bridge builder and I’m on a mission to cross-pollinate places and cultures through the stories I give and receive.”

Asmaa Guedira is a Moroccan-born and adopted French digital nomad. She works at the intersection of social justice, systemic change and regenerative culture through writing, facilitation, performance art and public speaking. She’s currently writing a book about identity.