The complicated question of 'where are you from?'

1028 words · 5 minute read identity and self

As I stand waiting to use the only toilet in a central Birmingham Café Nero a short, balding, bespectacled man joins the queue behind me.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

This is an easy one. I was born in Birmingham and grew up in Handsworth so I’m from here, Birmingham. Right? If you’re travelling it’s even easier - you’re from the country you were born in. It’s so simple.

But when I’m in my ‘home’ country of England, this question is not as innocent nor as simple as it seems. The intent of the inquisitor is everything.

As a kid and young teenager growing up in inner-city Birmingham, if someone you didn’t know asked where you were from, and you replied with the wrong neighbourhood, it was likely to end in fight or flight. I once had to abandon an un-eaten pizza as my friend and I were chased down the street in a neighbourhood we weren’t from.

As an older teenager and young adult with distinctly non-Anglo-Saxon features, the question from strangers remained the same but the intent changed. Instead of my residential geography it was my geographical heritage under scrutiny. The outcome was often the same, with a slight bias toward heated shouting matches - often on buses, where neighbourhoods and ethnicities are forced to combine.

So, when I’m ‘at home’ in England, I don’t like this question. It’s a question tainted by my own personal experiences as well as charged with decades of political and cultural significance. It holds far too many ambiguous meanings and potential outcomes - even more so since Brexit, the election in America, and an exodus of people fleeing war and death in the Middle East.

After years of hearing “where are you from?” I’m tired of answering and often give an answer I know people don’t want.

So I reply with, “From here, Birmingham.”

Friends and acquaintances who experience the same situations all respond with a variation of this phrase - it’s our natural reaction. We know this isn’t the answer most inquisitors want but, identity in question, it’s our way of testing the waters and playing our own little identity game: I’m ‘from’ ‘here’, what of it?

“No, no. I mean what are you origins? Where are you parents from?”

Ah. As if the question could ever mean anything else! But his tone and language suggest he’s genuinely interested…

“Well, both parents are born in England but my Dad’s heritage is Indian and my Mum’s is Irish; my grandparents came over [to England] in the 50s and 60s.”

He’s fascinated, “I had you down as Persian! Are you a student?”

I explain I’ve not long finished a Masters. Now it’s my turn: “Where are you from?” Having had time to study his features it’s clear he’s got some Mediterranean or Middle Eastern heritage.

Smiling, he says, “I’m actually an Oxford Postdoc. I caught the train up to watch Deadpool [the movie] with a friend.”

Interesting stuff but he hasn’t answered my intended question - just like I didn’t really answer his when he asked. Sneaky.

My front garden, a few weeks later

It’s a few weeks later and I’m selling my Trek Alpha 1.2 racing bike. I’m standing in my front garden with two men around my age; they’ve come to look at the bike. They’re Central or Eastern European.

The guy who actually wants to buy the bike takes it for a quick test ride. I’m curious about how far they’ve travelled to come and look at the bike - I’ve had a man from down the road and a man from half an hour away come to look at it so far - so I ask the guy standing with me…

“Where have you come from?”

A whisper of annoyance crosses his face - almost as if he’s rolled his eyes. He gets this question a lot. “Lithu-,” he begins to say.

I stop him, realising how the question sounds, “no, no, sorry, I mean where have you come from in Birmingham today?”

In a bizarre turn of events I’ve asked the question I find so annoying and complex to answer. The way I worded the question was ambiguous at best, so how was he to know what I meant?

Far from caring where he’s ‘originally’ from, I merely want to know the more trivial fact of where in Birmingham he lives. It turns out they live in a neighbourhood a couple of miles away, where my Dad runs a garage.

Complexity is normal

These are the complexities myself and others find ourselves grappling with on an almost daily basis; the complexities caused by colonization; complexities created by globalization; simple questions made ambiguous and complicated by the free movement of people across Europe.

For many people of many generations, many people young and old, answering the question “where are you from?” is far from simple.

Perhaps in the eyes of others it’s clear-cut…

If you’re not born in the country you live in, you’re clearly not ‘from’ the country you’re living in.

Whereas if you’re born in the country you live in then that’s where you’re from.

But what about the 60-year old who moved from their home country at the age of ten? Or the second generation child who’s parents are born in another country from them, who feel they have the same national identity as those who tell them they’re different? Think about the people lucky enough to be born in a country where none of their ancestors originate; how do they know where they’re ‘from’ if they have multiple identities to call upon and grapple with.

So this question is not simple, historically not innocent, and no matter the context - genuinely interested or otherwise, intent meaning race or location in a city - this question deals with the extremely complex and constructed nature of human identity.

I hope the recent move toward nationalism and the right does not increase the sinister intentions behind this question. I would love nothing more than to know that each time someone asked “where are you from?” I knew the only intent was one of genuine curiosity.

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