“I always felt out of place,” says Mashood Qureshi in Third Culture Kid. “Torn between home and homeland.”
Third Culture Kid, part of the 2020 Melbourne Fringe Festival, is a deeply personal one-man show that blends hip hop performance, monologue, spoken word and self-help sermonising to deliver a quintessential recount of growing up Muslim and brown in Australia.
Qureshi is well-known in Melbourne’s hip-hop scene as MC Emkew, but here you’ll get to know his beginning as Mashood and then later as Mash – a ‘larrikin-ised’ version of his name that helped him blend in.
Qureshi was born in Pakistan and grew up in Australia, and his show traces his lifelong struggle of being “born in the shadow of a gulf war,” resisting his parents Pakistani and Muslim heritage and seeking validation from a white Australia that continuously Othered him.
The show starts with Qureshi as a child speaking in front of a school assembly and being ridiculed by students for his Pakistani accent. Qureshi abruptly extis this childhood memory and crashes into the present by effecting an Australian twang, “I was able to shake the accent,” he says. The change sparks our curiosity about how his assimilation was sculpted in the period between these two performances - the childhood assembly and the one we are watching now. Performance is a key theme of the piece, especially the performance of whiteness and the way it creates barriers for authenticity and self love.
Throughout the show, Qureshi tells stories of being deferential to racist cricket coaches, rehearsing the pronunciation of AFL player Anthony Koutoufides’ name, and developing a gag like vocal tic whenever he says Mashood instead of Mash. In one poem he reflects on the self-fulfilling prophecy of Islamaphobia after 9/11 - "If it weren’t for the infidels, I wouldn’t know the word infidels."
His performance of whiteness is most comically conveyed when he wears a blue singlet and a shalwaar. On the singlet he has scribbled on a Carlton Football Club logo. Qureshi’s attempt at assimilation is a desperate emulation that is not quite convincing to the people around him.
Qureshi says his current work is what he wishes he could have seen as a confused kid. The title “Third Culture Kid” refers to Qureshi’s struggle to fit neatly into an Australian or Pakistani-Muslim category. The phrase is used commonly for those 'citizens of nowhere' that must accept that they belong to something else, in-between, often changing to suit the colour of the people around them.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has changed the way performances are delivered, and an awkward mixture of stage performance and film in this piece leaves it in no man’s land. The piece would have benefitted from having the presence of the artist in the same space, navigating these emotions in real time, so that we can see the physiological transformations set off by his memories. Unfortunately, the camera cuts and stitches together what seems like various takes which inhibit this flow. The camera’s do little to compensate for this lack of intimacy. The cuts are used chaotically, often going closer and then out again for no real purpose.
However, the contents of Qureshi's life story are compelling. They are a warning to not to be pulled by the winds of external validation. Qureshi says, “I had alienated everyone I cared about in pursuit of new people to care about me.” He flees his family to go to Vietnam, where he lives in “a bubble of excess, and short sighted fun.” Ultimately, he is left empty by the insatiable need for external validation, which leads him to suicidal ideation.
Qureshi says, "This show is me making peace with my other-ness and celebrating instead of hiding it.” And we believe him. Qureshi returns home and explores the space inside himself through meditation, introspection and art. Finally, he decides to take the pilgrimage with his family to mecca.
If you’re a brown artist, broadcasting your struggles with racial identity is the best way to win over a funding body’s award committee. Racial ambivalence has become mainstream. Often the way we view these works is limited. It becomes “culture spotting” and trauma porn. However, these doubts about Emkew’s show are assuaged when he renounces his need to please whiteness by rapping in Sindhi on the song “My Language.” In the song he weaves Sindhi and English, letting the edges of each language blend into each other. The edges of his identity are no longer discrete compartments, they flow moment to moment, and ultimately, he tells the audience that his third culture is Hip-Hop, a source of authentic identity that leverages a lifelong struggle with performance into an uplifting artistic expression.
Third Culture Kid is a 60 minute performance running from 25 to 28 November as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival. 'Choose your price' tickets are available at the show’s website.
Chenturan Aran is a playwright and journalist from Melbourne.