“Where are you from?”
When someone asks you that question, what is your instinctive response?
Logically, the place where you were born and where you grew up comes to mind. It is here we anchor the roots of that ever shifting, amorphous thing we call identity, so we feel we belong somewhere.
Naturally, when people pose the question to me, I respond with “London”. It’s where I was born, and where I spent most of my life.
Recently however, I’ve come to a painful realisation that for people of colour such as myself, the seemingly no-brainer question of “Where are you from” has deeper connotations.
“What deeper meaning is she referring to?” I hear you ask. Well, if my response isn’t some distant foreign land like Pakistan, Bora Bora or some remote village on top of a mountain somewhere, “Where are you from” is inevitably followed up by the tag question:
Now here is where I start to get tongue twisted. What exactly do they mean by asking me where am I REALLY from? Have they noticed that for some weird reason, my accent is a fusion of London meets Australia, a result of a 7 year hiatus living in the north? Or are they enquiring about my ethnic background?
Somehow skin colour has become a measuring stick of how “foreign” you look. Because, didn’t you know? White is “normal” and any other colour that veers into the darker area of the colour spectrum is exotic looking, almost like those tropical fruits which stand out a mile on a market stall, or one of dishes you see at a restaurant with some unpronounceable, foreign name.
For many ethnic minorities such as myself, the question of where I’m REALLY from is redundant. My grandparents migrated to the UK two generations before I emerged from my mother’s womb, with my British passport clenched between my gums and a quintessentially English sounding cry that looked something like this:
As if the whole brown-skin phenomenon wasn’t such a showstopper as it is, not only do I “look” exotic, but I also wear a hijab, which in this past year appears to have become some sort of marker of alien presence.
A few weeks ago, a customer at work pointed at my hijab and asked the usual “Where are you from?” My knee-jerk reaction was to reply London, after which she pointed to my hijab and said “No, I meant your hijab.” I politely corrected her and said that she must be referring to my ethnic background, to which she quickly agreed and moved on.
I made a mental note to myself that the next time someone asks me that all confounding question of “Where are you from?”, and throws another right hook by pointing at my hijab as if it is an indicator of alien/foreign presence as she did, I would hit back, all serene like, with an equally stupid response:
But it doesn’t stop there. On more than several occasions, I have been quizzed about where I learned to speak “such good English”. The conversations usually tend to go something like this:
Stranger: “You speak very good English. Have you been to University?”
Me: “Yes, I studied English for my undergrad.”
Stranger: “Ah, no wonder then!”
These folks have evidently never watched Goodness Gracious Me. If they did, they would know that while the Queen might be the mother of that stiff upper lip lingo informally known as “the Queen’s English”, she is in fact Indian; ergo foreign; alien; not of this land. You get the picture.
As the years continue to fly by, there is no doubt that I will continue to be asked where I am from, and where I learned to speak the mother tongue so well despite having lived in the mother land all my life.
Adele’s soulful rendition of “Hometown Glory” will continue to pluck away at my foreign heartstrings in a way other folk will never understand. Because, as the relentless questioning of “Where are you from?” would suggest, I am somewhat of a human extraterrestrial.
This is probably how poor E.T felt on his short stay here on planet Earth, but at least he got to go back. I am stuck in a no man’s land that is somewhere between London and Pakistan, an imaginary, fictional country if there ever was one.
Who knows? Given how fast the ethnic minority population is increasing, in the next few decades it will have become so large, people will be asking white people where THEY came from. That at least leaves some glimmer of hope.
So a word of caution. The next time you ask a non-white person “Where are you from?”, if they respond in a stormy fashion, eyes ablaze, at least now you can understand why. Being treated like an alien on your own turf can get tiring sometimes.