Where Are You From?

Monday, March 30, 2015

"Where are you from?" It's the first question asked of anyone, anywhere, who seems foreign there. Having often been the random white guy in an east African village or the random anglophone in a Middle Eastern souq, I have fielded the question thousands of times in my own travels, and asked it just as often. As central as it is to the pastime that I love—travel—it is a question with which I have a complicated relationship.

"Where are you from?" An innocent enough question, right? Sort of. I once read that, in a survey, New York City cab drivers listed it as far and away their least favorite thing to be asked by clients. It can grate on expats, like it can grate on ethnic minorities back in America. On some days, however innocent its intention, the question can serve as a reminder that you just don't fit in here. I have definitely felt that sting before, when someone popped the question on me, thousands of miles from home and all that is familiar.

"Where are you from?" It peeves me on another level, too. Not because I don't think the answer is important (I do) but because I feel like it tells only a small part of my story, just a beginning. I feel robbed when people pose the question and then seem to take my answer as the answer to so many other questions too. I imagine other inquiries that had been on the tip of their tongues, now suddenly scratched from the list. "American? No need to bother trying to speak anything but English with him now." "No need to ask him if he cares about Palestinians."

"Where are you from?" I enjoy asking the question of people I meet in my travels, even if it is clear that they are from the country I am visiting. It's interesting to hear how people choose to answer, how precisely they hone in (the UK? England? London? Kensington?), and what they say about their home and its impact on their identity. I'm not sure where my fascination comes from. Is it just an easy and obvious conversation starter when traveling? Or is it more? A reflection of my American roots and interest in the many regional differences and diverse identities in my own country? (Fellow Americans might be the ones I most enjoy asking this question of.) Or is it something that has rubbed off after years of living and traveling in Africa and the Middle East, two regions where geographic origin is often a primary factor in defining one's identity?

"Where are you from?" Myself, I'm not sure that I understand my own relationship with my origins. "America", yes, but it is complicated coming from a country for which I feel such admiration and also disappointment. "Maryland", yes, but that doesn't tell anyone much. "Baltimore", yes, but it is unsettling to hail from a city I know so poorly, and whose culture I love but where I carry too much baggage and feel too misunderstood to ever be fully comfortable. All that, and my origins aren't even that complicated; try asking the daughter of a soldier or the son of a diplomat.

"Where are you from?" It's so present and obvious and seemingly important a question—how can I not ask it, or expect everyone not to ask it of me? The answers can tell so much, yet also be so incomplete and insufficient as a means of getting to know someone. Perhaps like the places where we're from, the question is best viewed as just a starting point.

Further food for thought: "Where is home?", a TED talk by travel writer Pico Iyer.


E.A. said...

And nowhere is that question more difficult to answer than in Algeria.

As a quadrilingual American, born and raised in French Canada, with decent enough Algerian/Egyptian/Classical Arabic to pass for an Arab, and often out and about with a very elderly traditional Kabyle mother-in-law, I've been taken for Syrian, French, Kabyle, Turkish, you name it, but American? That's like saying you're from Mars here. I've just about given up trying to explain how an American can be a native French speaker, and then how a Canadian can pronounce Arabic properly, and that no, my parents aren't Arab/Algerian, and then _why_ an American would come to Algeria, etc.etc.etc.

I've come to dread the question. Weirdly enough, some of the most exhilarating moments have become the basic day-to-day milk-and-baguette type errands where people just assume you're Algerian (because, hijab and derja, what else would you be), and you actually feel for a few moments like _this_ is where you're from.

(Also one of the things I LOVE about the hijab, is it does allow you to blend in completely as a woman if you can master the dialect - when I lived in Egypt a few years, I was wearing the full black Saudi-style niqab, and it was a fascinating feeling to walk down the streets totally unnoticed as a foreigner.)

Fruitful Fusion said...

I can completely relate to this! I'm from London (UK) with a mainly South Asian and partly East African background. I've lived in Saudi, travelled a lot and get taken for a Syrian in Algeria on account of my Arabic being different! If I mention India, I get all sorts of funny responses relating to Bollywood. I'm not even in to Bollywood LOL!

Anonymous said...

I also ask locals back, when asked this question: "And you?" even though they clearly are locals - or actually, precisely because of that. Most get a tiny shock and then reply, after recovering: "From here!" They then usually invite me for tea or coffee and I tell them how beautiful their area is. They seem proud.

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