A Grey Zone Life

Watching an old 2019 episode of ABC Foreign Correspondent about the growing intolerance of Danish society, The State of Denmark, Ellie Jokar, a Danish Muslim comedian/rapper/actor said something that really resonated with me… something that made me think of my childhood… my life.

“What is it that is so important for us human beings that we feel like we have to claim a country and say, “This is my place?” I define myself as a grey zone kid, because people like me are not accepted by the Danes and not accepted by the Muslims or the Persians.”

When I’ve thought about my life, and what thread or theme might persist throughout a recount, one that often comes to mind is “not fitting in”, “always feeling like an outsider”, or, as Ellie describes it, being “a grey zone kid”.

I have always felt like an outsider. Little blonde boy with the wog name that nobody could pronounce (or could be bothered learning how to pronounce), but didn’t want to be called by the name most others with his name went by because “that’s not my name”. The kid in the bottom reading group. The kid who was good at maths, except for his times tables, and therefore a liability in the times tables races. The kids of Ukrainian heritage, but not Ukrainian enough for the other Ukrainian kids. The kids whose parents were born in Yugoslavia, but isn’t Yugoslav, or Serbian, or Croatian, etc. The kid who was the fastest on his soccer team, but played goalkeeper. The kid who tried to like Australian Rules, but felt rejected and excluded by the game and those that played it, but then was further alienated when he lost interest in the game. Australian-born, Ukrainian heritage, with a Yugoslav name. I didn’t fit in anywhere properly. It’s like if you had to get into a tiny clown car, and no matter how you contort yourself into the car, something sticks out and is exposed to damage.

Even though I looked like a little Aussie kid, tanned, blonde and blue-eyed, I wasn’t accepted by the Australians. I wasn’t accepted by the Ukrainians because my name wasn’t Ukrainian, and the Ukrainian I spoke was different from what others spoke (it was a mix of the Ukrainian spoken in western Ukraine/Galicia when my ancestors left there for Bosnia in the late 1800’s (or early 1900… I’m not sure… I just know it was before WW1), with the occasional Yugo word thrown-in… but I didn’t know it was a Yugo word). I wasn’t a Yugo or one of the ethnic groups that made up that country. Too Yugo to be Ukrainian; too Ukrainian to be Yugo; too wog to be an Aussie. Easter was celebrated with the Greeks, but I’m not Greek… nor Orthodox for that matter. Christmas was celebrated in January, but we’re not Russian. Because of people’s closed minds, and their need to pigeonhole, I didn’t fit neatly anywhere.

I remember going to Little Athletics when I was about eleven, and talking to one of the boys there. He had no idea where or what Ukraine was. When I explained, he said, “So you’re Russian”. “No. Russia is another state within the USSR… Ukraine is its own state. It would be like me calling a Victorian, a New South Welshman.” He didn’t get it… and he wasn’t the only one.

This feeling extended beyond my name and heritage. Sports, education, interests… something about me always stuck out… something always made me unacceptable to the majority. I was “a grey zone kid”.

Thankfully, I stopped caring. I knew who I was. I knew others within my family and community had similar issues… some accepted the Anglo name assigned to them because their name was too difficult, but I didn’t and others didn’t. Some picked an ethnic group to cling to, go full Skip or Yugo, or Ukrainian, and ignore their families journey that brought them here, but I and others didn’t.

I could have accepted a name not given to me. I could have accepted a pigeonhole assigned to me. However, I chose to be true to myself and to my heritage. While I grew up feeling unaccepted… the truth of the matter is, the only acceptance I need is that of my family and myself… and I’ve always had my family’s acceptance… just took me some time for me to accept myself, for who I am.