‘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…

Advertisements