“Where are you originally from” is one of the first questions that most of us come to learn as children and is arguably one of the most common conversation starters that we continue to carry into adulthood. At first glance, it’s an ordinary set of words that we don’t tend to put too much thought into. After all, how else are we supposed to break the ice when meeting someone new?
But the real debate is what most people actually want to know when asking that question. Is it a person’s birthplace? Where they are based now? Where their family resides? And while all of the above are quite valid wonderings that could be based on sheer curiosity, they can sometimes mean something entirely different to people of colour.
I, for one, have to answer that question daily, wherever I go – whether that’s at my local Sainsbury’s, in an Uber or any social setting for that matter. Despite having lived in the UK for seven years, I don’t think anyone’s ever assumed I was from here (“originally,” as most like to point out). Granted, I do have an American accent and the looks of an Asian woman, but who’s to say my family and I couldn’t have been living here for generations? In fact, on more than one occasion, many people tend to utter the “Where are you from” bomb even before I even open my mouth. That’s also not to say I don’t appreciate other people’s curiosity or that I want to pretend to be a British citizen. The reality is quite the opposite. I’m quite proud of my Central Asian roots and the fact that I was born and raised in Kazakhstan.
My problem is that people never seem to feel “satisfied” with my answer. It’s always the same scenario: a stranger asks me where I’m from, and for the sake of not pouring out my entire life story, I just say that I’m based in East London (because that’s the truth, duh). Annoyingly, most of the time, it doesn’t stop there. And this is where the classic “No, I meant, where are you from from, like originally” question comes in. Any of my friends who have ever witnessed my reaction to this question will confirm that it’s always the same – an unimpressed look, followed by an uncomfortably long sigh, which I’m sure a lot of people of colour can relate to.
I wasn’t always “triggered” by that question. In fact, when I first moved to the UK, I didn’t realise how much it would frustrate me in the future. I would always politely respond without giving it too much thought. But as the years went on and I had to endure it repeatedly, I realised that it wouldn’t matter if I spent one, five or ten years in this country – that question will always follow me, even if I become a British citizen. I have friends who are children of first and second-generation immigrants who, annoyingly, experience the same daily. And knowing that it’s 2022 (almost 2023) and that’s the reality that we have to live in is beyond crazy to me.
Why is it that our society still automatically labels anyone who doesn’t look “familiar” enough as an outcast by implying that they’re not “originally from here”? And the fact that it’s also happening in London, one of the biggest cultural hubs in the UK (and the world), is beyond my understanding. I’m curious, what are the criteria by which people decide that one person may not be from here and another is?
I also realise that a lot of people who might be asking that question may not do so with malicious intent. After having long conversations with those who have asked me, “Where are you from from,” I realised that quite a few did it out of curiosity, without meaning to “offend” me. But what I cannot stress enough is that there are different ways to be curious sensibly.