“Where Are You From?”

When I was little, I assumed I looked “typically British.” It wasn’t something I ever thought about, as I wasn’t so aware of ethnicity and racial identity at that age. But since my two closest friends and everybody on TV had “typically British,” facial features, and I’d got so used to seeing my own features that I couldn’t really observe them how an outsider would, I naturally assumed I looked similar to my friends. It’s really quite funny how viewing yourself in the mirror doesn’t give you an accurate description of what you look like to others because you are so used to your own face.

As I grew older, I gradually realised that my ethnicity was different from that of my friends. (I know, I sound really thick now.) The main reason was because people started to ask me where I was from. I used to reply, “England,” because I was British, and I assumed that that was the answer they were after. At first I took this as a normal question, and didn’t think too much about it. But I soon began to think it was a strange thing to ask, seeing as we were in Britain and I could obviously speak English.

Something about the question, “where are you from?” started to annoy me. It was partly because the answer was a mouthful, since my parents are from different multi-syllabic countries, and I had to tag onto the end the fact that I’m British. It was also partly because I was never sure whether people were asking a) where I was from, b) where my parents were from, or c) which part of the city I lived in.

But there was something else. Something that slightly offended me, that I couldn’t quite place. For a while I thought it was because the question was rude. But my mother didn’t take offense, and she was asked it frequently. So it couldn’t have been rude.

Sometimes people would be “clearer” and ask me where I was from originally. This added another layer of annoyance, because I’d have to explain that I was born over here, therefore, I was from here originally. I think I went through a short phase of trying to make people feel slightly awkward about it, but I grew out of that pretty quickly, since it made me feel awkward as well.

I have even had the question followed by, “is your father a black or a white South African?” which seems oddly direct, and isn’t something I’d ever ask someone else.

I recently realised that the reason I resisted the question”where are you from?” so much was because it made me feel like an other. I don’t like the idea that I’m viewed differently. I’ve come to understand that people automatically put you into a specific “racial identity” box in their head as soon as they see you, without thinking about it.

(I wonder whether this is a cultural thing, or an in-built, human function. Probably the former. If so, is it because of media portrayal? Is it because the people asking were not exposed to different ethnicities when they were babies?)

I understand that me saying “I don’t like the idea that I’m viewed differently” may seem hypocritical when I colour my hair bright red and consciously try to dress away from the norm. But I feel like the way I dress is a separate type of characteristic from my natural features, because it’s a way of differentiating myself that I CHOOSE rather than something that is determined by genetics. I don’t like people stereotyping me, categorizing me or othering me based on something that occurs naturally and bears little correlation to my personality. Being asked where I’m from brings home the fact that people see me differently because of my ethnicity.

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14 thoughts on ““Where Are You From?”

  1. Maybe people are simply trying to quickly figure out what kind of person you are based on their perception of who people of certain races tend to be. I mean, we kind of all do it, judge someone initially based on their race, even if we’re not aware that we do it. So it could be that people want to know your ethnic background so that they can get a preconceived idea of who you might be. I don’t mean this in a negative way; it could just be a curious person’s nature to look for pieces of a puzzle to solve. I would take it as a way of people saying to you, “You’re interesting.”

    It could also be that an attempt to categorize you is something that humans naturally do. Think about ‘kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species’ and you’ll see just one way in which humans work to put everything into neat and tidy categories.

    In short, I wouldn’t be offended by people seeing you as different. Unless you want to be like everyone else, I’d take it as a compliment. As someone who feels so different from everyone else that I sometimes wonder if I was placed on this planet by aliens, I understand how difficult it can be to see being different as a compliment. Usually, I feel alone and isolated, but that’s how I feel; that’s not how other people see me.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. My siblings, and I have different mothers. My mother was Greek, and theirs is Thai. My sister looks very Asian, and one time we were at my husband’s job so I was introducing my sister who was visiting. Then one of his coworkers walked up to her, and very slowly said “Your English is very good. How long have you spoken English?” My sister who is quite naturally comical looks up at the coworker smiles, and very slowly replies ” Since birth.” Most people mean well, but never quite get the point that it’s a bit rude. Celebrate your difference, keeping in mind that no one can put you in the “Others Box” without your consent. šŸ˜‰
    G-uno

    Liked by 3 people

  3. To be honest, I think you do look quite British or maybe it’s because i know your personality which is pretty British haha. Would you class yourself as British? Or maybe British ____ (sorry I can’t remember where you’re past family is from)

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Interesting post. I have been wanting to write something on these lines for a while myself. I totally get what you feel when people ask you where you are from. I am an Indian and being the diverse country that this is, ethnicity is a huge thing! I was brought up in different parts of the country and I suffer from the same ‘identity crisis’ that you do and it can be annoying when people keep asking you where you are from. Global borders are soon not going to hold any meaning but we do have borders within our hearts that might need to be eradicated!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. You’re exactly right. Being viewed differently when it’s just YOU, just your FEATURES, hurts. Why SHOULD we be viewed differently because of our skin and the way our eyes are set in our face or the way we are?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Your writing, J, is maturing every time I read you…a beautiful piece on a topic that’s important. You have a gift, Sweetheart and I sincerely hope you’re being mentored and encouraged by someone to pursue a writing career… ā¤

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I only ask because I am curious about the person in front of me (i’m a horribly curious person in general.)since I am a bat of passage I get asked that question a lot due to my accent and as well because of my part-gypsy blood o_O never thought about it as being rude though… but maybe now i will…?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Me too, I’m a very curious person in general and sometimes I have to just tell myself to shut up and stop asking questions because I’ll annoy people, LOL. But curiosity is 100 times better than non-curiosity šŸ™‚ Part-gypsy blood does sound cool >.<

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: About being Different – ‘Where are you from?’ | The Geen Geenie

  9. I’m a ‘visible minority’ in Canada. I’m not even sure what the politically correct way of asking where someone’s roots are from. Since immigration to developed countries is still somewhat recent, it’s usually safe to use, “where is your family from?” I don’t know, people are just curious when you don’t look 100% white. It’s something people need to know before the conversation can move on..lol

    Liked by 1 person

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