I am writing this while on a short holiday in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, before heading to Spain and England. It is summer here in Europe and because we travel a lot during this period, we often get asked “Where are you from?” Depending on my mood, my answer ranges from my birthplace to current city or country of residence. Often, I give information on my nationality/citizenship, and I will tell you why later. In some cases, the enquirer really just wants to know the main language I speak and my religion.
During the world cup, when I wore my gold and green outfit, some strangers smiled and commented, “You’re from Brazil” thinking that I had something blue invisible to the naked eye. Whereas, friends and acquaintances teased me “Socceroos, go, go..” My gold and yellow dress, green sandal and green bag said it all. They did not question my citizenship (Are you Australian?), appearance (but you look Asian), etc. On other occasions, however, I have to answer a follow-up question “Yes, but where do you really come from, your family?”
A fortnight ago, a close friend invited me to her barbecue dinner party. Her house is 15 minutes on foot from where we live, and since it was a sunny day, I decided to walk. France had just won the 2018 World Cup and knowing that there would be jubilant crowd, I put on my blue, white and red apparel. The time it took me to her place doubled as I had to stop and shake hands, take photos for others and kiss strangers. Everybody was so happy, friendly, and courteous. How I wished it was like that every day. No one asked me “where are you from”? Instead, many nodded and shouted amicably “On a gagné” (We won). They ignored my physical attributes and my non-French accent. They made me feel like I was one of them, which wasn’t my intention. I am a lover and partaker of peaceful and jovial celebrations, festivals, and traditional gatherings.
I, too, sometimes ask people “where are you from”, but it’s only to start a conversation. When I recognise the accent, I even say, “You’re from _______, aren’t you”? So far, no one has been offended by this question; instead, people have been friendly and helpful.
The answer to the question “where are you from” is generally based on one’s personal identity related to national and cultural belongingness. Though I was born in the Philippines and typically look south-east Asian, I often say with pride “Down Under” then add a few Aussie slang words and expressions as it’s my country of citizenship and where I have my educational, professional and social roots (my dear relatives and friends live there). Furthermore, I have this sense of pride and familiarity with Australia being considered by many people in other countries (such as those in France and Luxembourg) as a great place with fair and peaceful inhabitants, which is always a bonus to new and old relationships.
When the situation warrants the question “where are you from”, I present myself as a global citizen with a Filipino heritage and dual nationality (Australian and French).
Regarding France, one thing that amazes me in this astonishing country is that 2nd and 3rd generations of North African immigrants still call themselves Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, etc. Recently, I said to one of my students, “Why did you say you’re from Algeria when you were not born and have never lived here? For me, you’re French”. He said, “That’s nice, I feel French when I’m with those who think I’m French”. Many French people don’t make me feel that way, so it’s ridiculous to claim I’m one of them”. This situation demonstrates that the question “where are you from” has a temporal element.
As well, the answer to the question “where are you from” has moral and political grounds, as my case with Australia. I can identify with its values of simplicity over exuberance, resilience and reward for effort, and layback mentality. Compared to the majority of nations, it is a more middle class country with more efficient social and welfare services.
Have you asked someone “Where are you from”? Did their answers meet your expectations?