29 Aug 2016

Where are you from? What are they really asking?



Where are you from?
Would you go back?
What brought you here?


These questions are so frequently asked for most migrants. When I was first a migrant, I often wished I had a t-shirt with the answers printed on them. I’m sure the questioner’s intentions are genuine and kind, but I now find myself pausing prior to answering. What do they want to hear? How do I answer? 


‘Where are you from’

I am from England. Images of tea-drinking- weather-obsessed- whinging-poms living in Downton Abbey or Coronation Street appear between me and the questioner. I am not that. If I answer I am from London stereotypes of Camden Market punks, opera and Eastenders pop up. I am not that either. My mother did come from East Ham, and I do drink a lot of tea, but there the stereotypes stop.

I often wonder, when asking where are you from, what are they really asking? It could be:
  • Innocently making conversation. (In the movie, The King’s Hologram, salesman played by Tom Hanks asked everyone, 'what is your name' and, 'where are you from,' as an ice breaking introduction.
  • Can I find out more about you? I want to know if we have anything in common such as shared interests or do we fit together or how do we fit together?  
  • Taiye Selasi pointed out in her Ted talk, that it could be the questioner intentionally or not, is identifying the power base that your country represents.
Taiye Selasi  suggested for example, “Mexico. Poland. Bangladesh. Less power. America. Germany. Japan. More power. China. Russia. Ambiguous.”
From this can we determine who is the superior based on the hierarchy of countries. Presumptuous and yet true. Is a degree from UK always better than a degree from NZ? Migrant professionals often have to spend many months and dollars to register as a professional in their host country.  I appreciate countries have different ideas of minimum standards, but I speculate that more powerful countries overdo the registration requirements as it both sustains their place in the power hierarchy, and gives the host country income from the registration process.

Taiye Selasi suggests that rather than ask where we are from, we should ask, Where are you local? This is discussed in the next blog, Where are you from or where are you local? To find out where you are local consider rituals relationships and restrictions.


When I am asked, "Where are you from?" I often say, 'I'm from Enfield, famous for the Scrabble factory.' This tells them little. I have avoided revealing my country of origin. I may go on to say Enfield is in north London, about 5 miles before the green belt. Most, not all, know where London is and so the enquirer gets their country answer. This 'Enfield plus' answer tells them that I am not living inner city nor necessarily rural. It suggests that the questioner may have to dig deeper to find out about me, which is good. I feel this tells them enough for now. If I were to apply the 'where are you local?' I would say a rural community with access to the city.

Would you ever go back?

What is really being asked? Perhaps it is:
  • Are you here forever or for an extended trip? 
  • How committed are you to this country? 
  • Is it worth me spending time getting to know you more?
I find it hard to answer this, mainly because I can't predict how I will feel in the future. By saying I would never go back, brings up mixed feelings; I am downgrading the country I was brought up in, dismissing the people and positive experiences of my formative years. I don't like this feeling of disloyalty. Also by saying I would never go back, you may hear your place of birth is the best  place to live. It is different rather than better. The differences suit me, but that does not mean it is an overall better pace to live for everyone all the time. So my response is usually, I would never say I would never go back.


What brought you here?

What is really being asked? Perhaps is is:
  • Why are you here? 
  • What is wrong with your country or origin or right with my country?
  • Is the problem with you or the country you came from? 
  • What have you got to offer my country?
There are many reasons migrants migrate. The interviewees in my book talk about a sense of adventure, better lifestyle, and marriage as being some of the reasons for migrating. For me it was visiting here, liking it enough to stay a bit longer. I didn't make a conscious decision to migrate, whether that was a help or not feels irrelevant now. I have a good life here. I probably would have had a good life in England, but right now I'm don't want change countries. Each country has advantages and disadvantages (also discussed in my book.) I have met migrants who have moved back to their country of origin and migrated again, in a search for their perception of a perfect place to live. I have also met migrants positive about their migration who see no reason to dwell on their country of origin. Migrants are motivated. It takes an effort to change countries. Migrants are usually employed. There are many stories of migrants being employed below their skill level.  Migrants are often keen to share their culture. They offer diversity, new ideas, and new insights. A successful migrant was defined by NZ Immigration to be someone who contributes to country (paying taxes) and community (voluntary work or sharing of culture.)  If that is the definition of a successful migrant, I do believe many migrants including myself can consider themselves to be successful migrants.


In answering where are you from, would you ever go back, and what brought you here, migrants are challenged on their reason for being here. It is not always easy to answer these questions generously. Migrants are often targeted as being the reason for a country's problem. They will feel judged and measured against the native born. In spite of all of this, migrants usually answer the questions politely, often like a guest, focusing on what the questioner wants to hear rather than what they would like to say. (Benefits of migrant groups, where they can discuss their feeling more openly.) For migrants, keep up the diplomacy and try to thread some truths into those that are ready to hear.

Finally I can't omit one of my favourite you tube clips to show how 'Where are you from?' can be so irrelevant. Thanks Ken Tanaka.


Are there any other questions you get asked? I would love to hear your comments.





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