‘Where are you from?’ and the issue of diaspora

Yesterday was the American Independence Day…which to me meant only one thing, it’s my London anniversary!

12 years ago, I came into this city by Eurostar from Paris and was struck by how at home the city made me feel.

Now, I am at home.

Last year, I wrote this 11th anniversary post about the 11 things I learnt in London…but the truth of the matter is, when I think of home, I think of London.

When England plays in the Eurocup, I get my St George’s flag out and shout ‘Come on England!’ at the top of my lungs.

When the UK wins a medal in the Olympics, I beam with pride as the national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ plays.

I identify myself as a Londoner, and I know for sure that I feel more at home here than anywhere else in the world.

Yet, perhaps because I don’t look typically British, a common opening line when people meet me for the first time is to ask, ‘Where are you from?’

Whether it be a business associate I have just been introduced to or a pickup line at a pub, I have always found this opening line rather disconcerting.

I know that those who choose to use this line do not mean any harm, and are probably doing nothing more than making conversation, but I find ‘Where are you from?’ extremely exclusive and divisive…

Let me put it this way,

If a fat person walked into the pub, would you open the conversation with, ‘What on earth have you been eating?’

If a person came in on a wheelchair, would you start by saying, ‘So, pray tell, what happened to you?’

We wouldn’t dream of pointing out the differences between us and them in those situations.

It would definitely be considered a social faux pas.

Yet, it seems okay to most to start a conversation pointing out the difference between me and you because of the colour of my skin and my ethnic origin?

And the irony of it all is that, when asked, many would simply say, ‘We asked you that question only to try and achieve common ground between us!’

Of course, this might be due to our human need to put things in boxes and categorise everything into simple generalisations. The ability to siphon things into neat categories somehow feels comforting…and even necessary in facilitating how we go about our day-to-day activities. Our ‘assumed normality of the world’ is what tells us which conventions to apply to the situations we encounter.

We walk into a pub and order a beer in English because (a) we assume that pubs sell beer, and (b) we assume the bartender speaks English.

We say ‘Awful weather today, isn’t it?’ to our colleagues in the morning because (a) we assume that they hate the cold weather too, and (b) they know that talking about weather is merely a way making small talk and we do not intend to get into a full conversation about the weather.

We make assumptions (some universal, some cultural) everyday and this enables us to have relationships with people…

But does my oriental appearance or me being from a country in South East Asia really help you to know more about me? What does it help you to know?

So, sometimes, when confronted with the conversation opener, ‘Where are you from?’, I answer, ‘London’.

More often than not, I get this response – ‘No! Really! Where are you from?’

Even those who think I am born in London insist on asking that question, hoping I would leave them a clue as to my ethnic origins.

But what does ‘Where are you from?’ really mean?

Does it mean, ‘Where were you born?’

It can’t possibly mean this because I have a colleague who was born to British parents and went to primary school in Singapore, but lived most of his adult life in Manchester. When asked ‘Where are you from?’, his answer is always ‘Manchester’…and no one ever questions him with a ‘No…really! Where are you from?’

Or does it mean, ‘Where were you brought up and educated?’

It can’t possibly mean this either because I have another colleague who was born, brought up and educated in Glasgow but moved to Manchester for his university education and stayed for quite a long time. His accent is much more Mancunian than Glaswegian. And when asked ‘Where are you from?’, his answer tends to be ‘England’ or ‘Manchester’. Again, no one ever challenges that answer.

Or does it mean, ‘Where were your parents from?’

Ah…I have a friend whose parents are from the West Indies but he was born and brought up in London. Should he answer the question with ‘Jamaica’? Why is it that when he says ‘London’, no one raises any eyebrows?

To me, ‘Where are you from?’ means all of those things, but above all, it means, ‘Where do you feel you belong to in your heart?’.

Identity is a complex issue and diaspora and the lack of belonging can make one feel left out, excluded, and ostracised.

My ‘born-in-Singapore’ colleague feels Mancunian, and so does my colleague who was born in Glasgow. Because in their hearts, Manchester is where they belong.

I feel like a Londoner, and London is where I belong.

Happy 12th birthday to me…

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Author: chiasuanchong

I am a freelance communications trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. With 13 years of experience training students from all over the world to communicate better in English (and in particular, Business English), I am also a professional blogger, materials writer and intercultural trainer.

35 thoughts on “‘Where are you from?’ and the issue of diaspora”

  1. I don’t understand this. I love it when people ask me where I’m from. It means I am different and not run of the mill. It means that we are celebrating difference instead of trying to pretend we are all the same.

    It’s not offensive to point out differences. It’s liberating.

    1. Hi there. Thanks for taking time to comment, and apologies for not replying sooner.
      I wrote this post knowing that it would be controversial and that some people would find it difficult to understand…
      I wanted to pose a different point of view out there and perhaps raise some awareness to the fact that not everyone is able to relate to the place they were born in or to the people they grew up with. And judging from the different comments here, there are some who seem to feel the same way about that question.

      But my issue is with the question per se. If we get to know each other and along the way, you asked me this question, and we found time to engage in a little conversation about the different elements of my cultural identity, that would be great.

      My gripe is with the fact that people open a conversation with me with this question.

      Celebrating difference is great, if the things that you think makes me different are indeed who I am.
      But most of the time, the stereotypes I get from telling people where I am from do not at all represent me.
      I’d really like them to get to know me first before putting me in a box…if you know what I mean?

      C

  2. A fairly typical question in the States (at least on the east coast, maybe more specifically New York) is ‘Where did your grandparents come from?’ This defines us much as it also gives us a feeling of belonging to specific groups. I am just reading an essay by David Crystal about the Future of English and he talks about being bidialectical meaning I speak US English and ‘global English’ but then there is also tridialectical meaning that in addition to these I speak East Coast, New York English with a Yiddish influence (does that make it quadialectic?)

    This question seems very normal to me as most of the people I grew up with had grandparents or parents who spoke English with an accent and spoke another language fluently, food was very different depending who we visited, names of family members (we have ‘Bubba’ for grandmother and ‘´Zayda’ for grandfather from Jewish friends but with my Italian friends I ask how ‘Nona’ is doing.), holidays and how they are celebrated, which kids go to which particular school after school (classes to prepare for First Communion or a Bar Mitzvah, Greek school, etc.).

    I think we all do try to categorise people, partially to organise the wealth of information we are bombarded with and maybe just to satisfy our own curiosity. I can, imagine, however that the question gets annoying but for me it signifies interest. I agree that you would not ask someone in a wheelchair what happened although it could come up if that person wants to talk about it.

    And what an amazing feeling to find out that someone’s grandparents came from the same place mine did, maybe they even arrived at Ellis Island together – after all, Ellis Island is now a museum and an important part of US history. It could be that things are very different in the US as many who look different have probably been there much longer than we Europeans so that might be the reason that the question of origin is still so natural for us.

    And as I am on my way to a holiday, there’s my two cents on the subject (maybe I am just missing NYC at the moment!)

    1. Thanks Marjorie for your very insightful comments. It’s really interesting seeing the same issue from your perspective.
      Like America, Singapore is a relatively young country of immigrants. We are a country struggling with feelings of diaspora.
      Most of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers came from China, India, Malaysia and Britain, but most of those of my generation don’t relate to those countries, or people from those countries. But the Singaporean identity is still in the process of being refined and defined.

      For Singaporeans like me, who already had issues with belonging and cultural identity before I had left Singapore, the question of where I am from takes on a loaded meaning. And having been away for 12 years, and having no intention to ever return to live in Singapore, I find that my identity has a lot more to do with my life experiences, the people I spend time with, and the country I now live in, than with where I was born.

      You are right in saying that if the person in the wheelchair wants to talk about what happened to them, that would be fine. But the key is, I wouldn’t open a conversation with ‘What happened to you?’
      I don’t mind being asked ‘Where are you from?’ by people who have already started a conversation with me and who have made other efforts getting to know me as an individual.
      My issue is with it being the opening statement.

      I also think that people who have pretty straightforward backgrounds e.g. ‘I was born in Milan. I am Italian.’ don’t necessarily realise that identity can be a complex construct. So when they ask ‘Where are you from?’, they aren’t expecting a complex answer like mine…And when I try to answer that question, they get frustrated, and just want to peg me to a place or culture. So they keep asking, ‘No. But really. Where are you from?’

      That, I find rather annoying…

      C

  3. Interesting discussion though I suspect that the feeling you have that your Asian appearance is the reason for the question is more just that, a feeling. I get asked the question all the time whether here in the Netherlands or “back” in the UK and tend to interpret it as “they’ve recognised an accent” or “they can tell that I’m not from these parts by my behaviour”. But the question itself is one I, too, find difficult to answer – brought up as an army brat who moved house every two years…I’ve now lived in a village in the Netherlands for nearly 12 years (my 12 year anniversary is a month away) so I guess I “come from” here? But as you say, perhaps the answer should be where does my heart feel it comes from? And yet that is even harder to answer (for me) as how can you choose?! But why not ‘come from’ the place you feel/felt most at home? Perhaps because the natives will never quite see you as a native?

    1. Hi Lousie,
      Thanks for your comments. I’m really glad to see how this post has sparked lots of different opinions and perspectives on the topic, especially from people like yourself who is living in a country that they were not born in. And judging from your very exciting upbringing, I suspect you understand my issues with diaspora very well.
      Indeed, the answer to ‘Where do you come from?’ should be about where my heart feel most at home. But as you said, that too is quite a difficult concept. I feel most at home in London. But yet, there are many parts of me that does feel Singaporean, and a part of that Singaporean part of me is about being a Chinese Singaporean. But believe it or not, there are parts of me that feel quite Italian and Spanish too (I get told that by my Italian, Spanish, and South American students all the time! That I have ‘Latin blood’…coz I behave in what they perceive to be a very hot-blooded fiery way).

      Part of the complexity of diaspora is never feeling like a true native anywhere.

      Back in Singapore, when I was growing up, I was constantly asked where I was from and whether I was ‘mixed’. They were convinced from my looks that one of my parents was White Caucasian.
      Even as an actress auditioning for roles with casting directors from America and the UK, I was consistently told that I did not look Asian enough. My eyes were too big and too brown. My cheekbones didn’t look Asian.
      When I went back to Singapore on holiday several years ago, and spoke Mandarin Chinese to the taxi driver (so that he would think I am local and not overcharge me), the taxi driver started laughing. When I asked him why he was laughing, he announced that he had never seen a White person speak Chinese so fluently before. I told him I wasn’t white and that I was from Singapore, and that made him laugh even more. He said, “There’s no way you are Chinese Singaporean! You must be American or British!’

      Then when I am here in the UK, I get told that I look Asian and can’t possibly be British!

      You see the dilemma I’m having here? hahaha…

      C

  4. Very interesting post Chia (as always) and interesting responses. I tend to agree with those that have gone before me – wonderful to discover facts about people and even that yes, they too have not only heard of Kettering, but have driven through it too!

    I did a stint at OUP 6 years ago having lived abroad (Paris and Tokyo) for 13 years or so prior to this. It was odd – nobody seemed to care where I came from all of a sudden, indeed I had to make as much as I could from the fact I had lived in Paris. Suddenly there was a spark of interest, Ah Paris – you lucky thing, etc. etc. Now when I return to the UK, having spent the last 6 yeas again in Paris, living and working in a very multi-national environment, people ask me where I’m from – Canada, perhaps, Australia? They can’t quite place my accent. The Midlands, I say, adding a quick ‘Hey up me duck’ – just to reassure them.

    I think sad will be the day when people stop asking me where I come from or last wondering about it. I’ll just have to resort to my stories of Paris all over again …. quel dommage!

    1. Hi Ros,
      Thanks for commenting. It was great to hear your stories of living abroad, and certainly interesting to hear that you wanted to be asked the question ‘Where are you from?’
      Let me first clarify that I don’t have a huge issue with talking about where I am from in conversations, but the issue I had was with people opening a conversation with that question…and as I mentioned in my response to Marjorie, it is when people who want a straightforward answer so as to categorise you start reacting strangely when they don’t get one.
      Here’s an example,
      Guy in pub: Where are you from?
      Me: London
      Guy in pub: No, really, where are you from?
      Me: London. London is my home. I am a Londoner.
      Guy in pub: No, really, where are you originally from?
      Me: Singapore. But I don’t really feel that connected to Singapore now.
      Guy in pub: Singapore is part of China, isn’t it?
      Me: No, Singapore is a country. A small country. A city state.
      Guy in pub: Yes, but it is part of China, isn’t it?
      Me: No, it is not part of China. It used to be a British colony.
      Guy in pub: Yes I know. But before that it was part of China, wasn’t it? And now, it has been returned to China.
      Me: No, you are thinking of Hong Kong.
      Guy in pub: I know Hong Kong. Hong Kong is part of China. But I’m not talking about Hong Kong. I’m talking about Singapore. It’s part of China.
      Me: No, it’s not. It’s an independent country.
      Guy in pub: No, no, no. I’m sure of it. Singapore is part of China.
      Me: Look, Singapore is a 7-hour flight from China. There is no way it’s part of China.
      Guy in pub: No, no, I know where Singapore is. And it’s part of China. You’re Chinese, aren’t you?
      Me: My great-grandfather was from China. I’m Singaporean Chinese.
      Guy in pub: So, you’re Chinese.
      Me: My ethnic origin is Chinese. But I don’t know much about China. I’ve never even been there.
      Guy in pub: But you’re Chinese. So you’re from China.
      Me (exasperated): Whatever. (I stomp off)

      This above conversation is a real one. And a typical example of how people cannot comprehend the complexities of diaspora.
      Of course, people who have never experienced diaspora would have issues understanding it. I can’t blame them.
      But can you blame me for being exasperated?

      ; )

      C

  5. I hate the question myself as it doesn’t say anything to the questioner about me. There are two places I feel at home: London & Las Palmas, neither of which is the place where I was born. In fact, I’m “treated” as a foreigner in the place where I was born and I get a tourist visa if I visit, which isn’t often, unfortunately.

    I was discussing this in a recent post by Josie – isn’t it funny how bloggers talk about similar topics around the same time? Check it out: Ticking the native language box.

    1. Thanks for the link, Chiew.
      I knew you would understand how I feel.
      When it comes to identifying the ‘native speaker’, there is sounding like one, and then there is looking like one…sigh…

      xC

        1. Are you ‘Baba’? That must make explaining your ‘ethnic origin’ all the more complicated in this part of the world. How do you do it? Do you try to explain or do you usually avoid it completely?
          Do you speak both Chinese and Malay? My stepmother is ‘Baba’ too but she was brought up in a Catholic family who only spoke English… Her Nonya dishes are legendary though. Makes me hungry just thinking about it now…
          xC

        2. I don’t usually explain – it’s just too complicated for those who don’t know anything about the history of the region. If we know each other well enough, I may explain – this often happens when food is involved, as you can imagine.
          Unfortunately, I don’t speak neither Chinese nor Malay. I’m better at Malay but had forgotten most of it. When I was drifting in Indonesia, I could get through a conversation in Indonesian – more or less – but, again, it’s all rusty now. The Baba accent is more Indonesian than Malay anyway.
          I grew up with an assortment of tongues: Teochew, Hokkien, Mandarin, pidgin Malay, proper Malay, pidgin & proper English and God-knows-what-else… a real hotchpotch! Oh, when I was a young child, I had no problem – I could switch according to necessity, but as I grew older, I got all emotionally, mentally, spiritually, physically… screwed up! LOL
          if I knew then what I know now… I’d have found a way to make things work out somehow…tra la la…

  6. First off, I want to apologise if I asked you where you were from when we met at that pub in Drury Lane, and I assure you if I asked you that question, it was not a pick up line.
    The 15th anniversary of my arrival in Japan is coming up, and I will celebrate it with a more lengthy response to this brilliant post.
    Cheers

    1. Hi Mike,
      Don’t apologise, please. I don’t mean to make you feel bad.
      And I know it wasn’t a pickup line! 😉
      But seriously, you can often tell whether the person who’s asking the question is sincerely trying to get to know you, or using the question to get your attention because they are simply not creative enough to know what else to ask about you, or if the person is just trying to put you into a convenient box so they know what to make of you.
      You definitely belong to the first category.
      Plus, you didn’t open our conversation with that question.
      It came naturally after a while.

      Looking forward to reading your response to this post, Mike.
      I’m toying with the idea of writing a Part Two myself.

      Meanwhile, Happy 15th Birthday…

      お誕生日 おめでとう。。。本当の お誕生日 ではないけどね!

      とりあえず、コメント を ありがとう!

      xC

  7. Happy London Birthday, Chia!

    And really nice response, Majorie. It’s definitely the best traditional conversation opener in the States, in the way it creates a sense of unity among people of different origin. But of course, maybe if your ancestors were slaves, or native Americans, or came across the Mexican border, or through a refugee camp, the question wouldn’t evoke quite the same response. Also, with international academic and professional mobility on the rise, “Where are you from?” is becoming more and more complicated even in the States.

    The thing is, I think we pick up on the fine differences between origin and culture/ enculturation/ cultivation very quickly. Is ethnicity and origin really still such an issue, or don’t we hear a person speak and see how they move and instantly know “ok, this person is a citizen of my world”?

    My sense is that everyone who is anyone is from someplace else.

    1. Hi Anne,
      Lovely to see you on my blog! Hope all is well!
      And thanks for the Happy Birthday! Much appreciated!

      I totally agree that the question can create a sense of unity very quickly when the people of different backgrounds find themselves being foreigners in a country. Many take pride in telling others about where they come from and their origins.
      The question can also create a sense of unity amongst people of similar backgrounds especially when they are in a foreign country. I’ve seen my Italian friends make friends in London instantly in a bar simply by saying, ‘Italiano?’
      But as you said, one needs to be sensitive to the possibility of complexity in that question and to whether one’s conversation partner is keen to talk about their ethnic or national origin or not…

      It is here that I’m not sure if I agree with you.
      I think we teachers tend to pick up the fine differences between origin and culture quite quickly and have the natural curiosity to find out more about the people we meet beyond defining them by their nationalities.
      I think many TEFL teachers have experiences of living abroad or moving to different countries and experiencing different cultures, and so tend to be more open…

      Have a look at my response to Ros Wright’s comment above. That dialogue that I wrote up is not fictional. But the guy in the pub is certainly not a TEFL teacher.
      And I’ve had the experience of meeting quite a lot of people like him…and such people often come from a place of ignorance and might not have any ill-intentions, but when such events repeat themselves too often, I start to get really irritated..

      xC

  8. There are as many answers as reasons for asking. At a conference I am “from” the institution that sends me, when singing in a concert I am “from” the choir to which I belong, at a wedding I am “from” the bride’s or groom’s “side, when teaching English I am a NS “from” the U.K.
    In German and I think the same is true for other languages, we have two verbs for living somewhere. “Ich wohne in Berlin” means this is where your present job, flat etc. happens to be. “Ich lebe in Berlin” means this is your home.
    “Where are you from” is a tactful way of expressing interest in a new person. It is up to you to define yourself when answering, Are you the IATEFL CHIA from IH or the nice girl from the third floor?

    1. Thanks for taking time to comment.
      I totally see what you mean and it’s true that there are many reasons for asking the question ‘Where are you from?’
      Like I said in my response to Michael Stout’s comment, I don’t judge everyone who asks me that question in the same way.
      But trust me, when people say ‘Where are you from?’, they usually aren’t asking about the school I went to, the choir I sing for, or where I am living (or they would ask, ‘Which school did you go to?’, ‘Which choir are you from?’ or ‘Where do you live?’)
      And if I were to answer ‘I’m from IH’ for example, they’ll usually say, ‘No, I mean which country are you from?’

      I do agree that that question signifies an expression of interest in me, and I do acknowledge that the people who ask the question aren’t necessarily saying it with any ill intentions whatsoever.
      But have a look at the dialogue I wrote in my response to Ros Wright’s comment. That’s the kind of thing that often happens to me.

      Even worse than the question ‘Where are you from?’ is when strangers approach me on the street with ‘Chinese? Japanese? Korean?’ in a mock Asian accent. And I get that a lot too…
      But that might deserve a different blogpost of its own…

      : )

      C

  9. Happy London anniversary, if I didn’t say it yesterday! I said I’d comment, so here I am…

    I hate this question, too. Not so much for the intentions behind it, because we can only wonder, and they’re probably not malicious, but because I never know how to answer. To me that question could have many possible underlying meanings (like, “I can’t quite place your accent…” etc.), even if the person asking it thought it was quite simple.

    If I answer the question with a question, like “do you mean where’s ‘home’?”, they look at me like I’m stupid or why am I overanalysing such a simple question. If I say “London” (which I’ve tried a couple times), I get the same “No! Really!” that you get, because my accent doesn’t fit. If I say “England”, same problem (even though I’m half English and have spent more of my life here than anywhere else). If I say “haha, it’s funny, I don’t really know”, they smile uncomfortably and are obviously thinking “oh God, she’s gonna give me some boring life history now…”

    The answer they want/expect (I think) is a city in America, but it’s pointless giving them that, because then they ask questions about America and I end up backpedalling and explaining why I don’t know anything about the country… so the poor sucker who chose to ask me “where are you from?” gets treated to a nice, long, rambling and rather dull explanation from an increasingly uncomfortable and embarrassed me (due to the sense of having been rambling for so long to answer such a simple question)…. kind of like I’m doing now.

    So yeah. I think the real reason I hate the question is because I personally don’t feel like I’m “from” one place, and that doesn’t bother me, but there’s no easy way to give that answer to that question.

    The irony of it all is that I think I usually ask people that question soon after meeting them, too!! Hmm. I might stop doing that…

    1. Hi Laura,
      Thanks for commenting, like you said you would!
      Good to find a kindred spirit who understands the frustration of these questions.
      Funny how you get judged for your accent, and I get judged for my appearance (and accent too, sometimes)…

      I suppose it’s always disconcerting for those who have straightforward answers to this question to find that others might not…
      I think asking such a question is fine if one is prepared to be given a not so direct answer and is happy to get in a conversation about identity. But if I have just met someone, I don’t think that is what they intend when they ask that question…

      So if I’m feeling lazy, I just answer ‘Singapore’, even though I know that that does not fully represent who I am.

      xC

  10. I hate the question too! Because I don’t have a nice simple answer, mine is a bit of a mouthful! It usually goes, “Well, I was born in the south of England but grew up in Botswana from when I was two and came back to England to finish school and do university, oh and my Dad is Dominican but my Mum is English.” …So where does that make me from?! Not sure.. But usually the response is “ohhh that explains the accent, I thought you didn’t sound like you are from here [England]”. Hmmm…. In a couple years I’ll have spent half my life in Botswana and half in England (except that a year of the England half was in France and 1.5 years of it was in Indonesia).

    Where am I from? The world, or thereabouts. :-p

    Great blog post, which I’ve finally got round to replying to. Congrats on your London birthday! 🙂

  11. Another reason why you might often be asked this question quite early on,Chia, is that you are an English teacher living in London. I can imagine that you sometimes come across new students who wonder why they are being taught English by someone who for them does not “look English”. Possibly they are influenced by the usual clichés and were expecting an “English rose” type of girl!
    Do you think they are wondering if you can be a NS at all and this question is perhaps their way of trying to find out..
    If it’s complicated enough to explain your background, how do you manage to explain to this rather insular type of person the fact that English can still be your first language?

  12. With a British accent, living in the US, I’m constantly asked where I’m from. I must confess it can get pretty tiresome, so I sympathize with you here, Chia. I reason folks are just being friendly and looking for a connection we can talk about, but in practice it often turns out to be a bit of a dead end.

    But there’s something else that goes on here that I don’t think happens much in the UK. People seem to pay more attention to surnames. So if you’re called Murphy or Della Guardia or Kaminski, or Goldstein or Rodriguez or Nguyen or Schneider or whatever, it seems to be more meaningful here. And people will describe themselves as Irish-American, Italian-American, Polish-American etc. even when the last family member known to have been in Ireland, Italy etc. was four or more generations back. By that token I think I’d be Welsh-Irish-German-English (and no doubt more). It wouldn’t occur to me to describe where I’m from like that though.

  13. Hi Chia, Happy London birthday.

    My 10th in Beijing is coming up in October. I, like some of your other contributors, am a lifelong foreigner. Born in South Africa, then lived in Zimbabwe and moved to the UK with my family when I was 10 years old. Being a Tefler, I’ve moved around a lot, Germany, Nepal and now China.

    In the UK, I was regarded as ‘that South African’, in Germany and Nepal I was seen as quintessentially ‘British’. Now in China, I’m seen simply as a ‘foreigner’ or Lao Wai.

    I get the same questions every day in Beijing, “Where are you from?” “How long have you been in China?” “Are you married?” “How many children do you have?” “How old are you?” “How tall are you?” “What do you think of Beijing?”

    When asked the first question, I have a choice. Sometimes I just say “I’m British” – which is true since that’s where I lived for 18 years and proudly hold a British passport. But sometimes, just for fun, I’ll say “I’m an African”. That causes a bug-eyed response as I look European. Sometimes a response like “African! No! You can’t be African, Africans are black!” When I’m asked “Where is your hometown” I rely “My home is Beijing now”. This usually makes my Chinese interlocutor look disconcerted and confused.

    But, no matter how long I spend in China, or how much like home it feels to me, I know that China will never really accept that China can be my home. I’ll always be a Lao Wai and it only takes a small incident, like some international confrontation for Chinese people I regard as friends to remind me of the fact. It’s the ‘Belgrade moment’ which Americans in China all felt when the US bombed the Chinese embassy to Serbia. Those Americans, whether of Asian origin or not, were all made to feel very much as outsiders in the aftermath of the bombing. We all have those ‘Belgrade moments’ in China, and being asked where I’m from most definitely does not count as one of them.

    But that’s all okay by me. I got over my identify issues years ago – I come from everywhere and nowhere. You and I are international people, and that’s a good thing. I still remember the first time I saw snow. Can anybody who can remember their first experience of snow really call themselves ‘English’? Being English means taking certain things for granted and being blind to others. I hope you’re not that – it’s that keen and broad awareness that makes you who you are, and not any ordinary Londoner.

    Chris

    PS: If you’re not too late, you might be able to download a “This American Life” podcast called “Americans in China”. It talks about (among others) Kaiser Kou, an American of Chinese origin who lives in Beijing. It also discusses the idea of ‘home’ and identity but from the opposite angle, people from the Occident trying to carve a space for themselves among Orientals.

  14. My dad holds a British passport and has done for nearly 30 years – got it a few years after marrying my mum and having children. For the last 28 years, he’s been living in Botswana. Originally he’s from Dominica but doesn’t feel too much connection to there because even when young, his family moved about all over the Caribbean because of his dad’s work. He himself has lived and worked in all kinds of places. For him, Botswana is definitely home and where has lived longest but he wouldn’t say he is “from” there. He has that British passport but he definitely wouldn’t say he’s from England. I guess his answer would be “Dominican” or a long explanation as above! :-p

  15. As you already know Chia, I get asked this question all the time. I have lived in this country since I was seven and don’t have a foreign accent when I speak. There ‘s one particular time that I will never forget and that was when I called my doctor’s surgery to make an appointment. The receptionist was fine until she asked me my name and then said to me “You don’t sound foreign.” Lovely!!

    However, I do have a lot of fun with it as whenever people ask me “where are you from?” I usually ask them to guess – they never can. I’ve been told that I don’t “look” Indian so get mistaken for: Brazilian, Maori, any country from North Africa, Greek, Turkish and even Polynesian (is that how you spell that?).

    It’s good to be different. That’s what makes us interesting.

  16. Chia, This is one hell of a post and I’ve been fascinated both by it and the comments following – it’s personal, but clearly resonant with London as a place and TEFL as a career…

    Firstly, if you haven’t already I’d recommend you read this book by Craig Taylor: http://books.google.ie/books/about/Londoners.html?id=8_JzCTfSCjkC&redir_esc=y It’s book I always wished I could write…

    As someone born in London, living and working in London, my answer to ‘the question’ is a bit dull… Like many other commenters I have to admit that I love asking ‘that question’ precisely because the answers are so rarely what you expect – I think London is a collection of fascinating stories – it’s just such a shame people rarely talk to strangers…

    I’m really interested in this topic because I want to make sure that my daughter can understand the full range of her identity and be able to identify as both British and Latina, but I’ve no experience of that and no idea how easy or desirable that is

    Your post, and Laura’s reply suggest that appearance/accent lead to assumptions – I do think that’s very true – I live in a bit of London with a rather shady past in terms of racism,  and while I’ve heard that it’s ‘better now’, I’ve become conscious that I’m unlikely to notice much of it – just because of how I look…  I’m realising how perceptions can be affected by that..

  17. Just got around to reading this following a day of feeling a bit like a fish out of water for no particular reason (I’m American and have been living in France for eight years). To add my 2 cents, I agree with Marjorie and Vicki that in the US, there seems to be a somewhat different approach, maybe because nearly everyone in America comes from a family that came from somewhere else at some point in time.

    I definitely get the same line as you very often, but after I’ve been speaking long enough for them to pick up that I have an accent they can’t place (apparently I don’t have a typical American accent when I speak French). It’s always the same line too–“vous avez un petit accent…” to which I am of course meant to respond by revealing whereabouts my little accent is from. Sometimes I feel like arguing with them just to through the conversation script askew!

    What I find funny/ironic/sad though is that, because I’m white and Western, nobody seems to think I might get offended when they talk about how there are too many immigrants in France, or with all the immigrants + economic problems, it’s no wonder the extreme right has been getting more support. And of course by ‘immigrants’ they imply France’s Arab and African popoulation, many of whom have been here for generations. Somehow, these people are still considered immigrants while, I apparently, am not so much because I don’t physically correspond to the idea of ‘i mmigrant.’

    Really, pathetically dumb. Sounds a bit like your insistent bar guy…

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