Where are you from?

Spending a lot of time in taxis I get asked this question quite often. Unless you still live in the town you were born the answer is not straightforward, especially once you start thinking about it. Is it where you grew up? Where you live now? Where you feel most at home? Where your ancestors lived? Or is it your personal geo-midpoint of the places you’ve lived at, statistically weighted by the time spent at each place?

The Earth as seen from Apollo 17. (Source: NASA)

If you’ve moved around a bit you might go for the lazy option and just say where you were born, followed by some apologetic waffle about having lost your accent. “Yes but my accent comes back after a couple of drinks.” Brits are quite good at this, especially since regional accents have become trendy.

Or you might do something more American and claim that you’re actually half Scottish or Irish, because your great-great uncle’s father-in-law had a third-degree cousin who was married to a Celtic woman.

The French, on the other hand, keep things simpler. They have a binary system to determine your place – in every sense of the word. Either you are French, or you are not. Either you are from Paris, or you are not. It’s simply a case of magnifique or merde, 1 or 0.

Now that we’ve got the stereotypes out of the way, a spoken accent is indeed an important clue to where someone is from. But it’s by no means a reliable indicator, and it can be a social minefield. I could hold an entire pub quiz on getting people to guess what my accent is. I remember one happy occasion where a lady in San Francisco thought I was English (based on the way I said “hello”), but generally people tend to think I’m from 1. South Africa 2. Belgium 3. Holland or 4. Switzerland. (Just for the record, the answers are 1. wrong 2. a bloody insult 3. wrong  4. no thanks.) My accent also used to have a tinge of Australian in it, but that’s long gone – except for the swearing.

Where you’re from – or where other people think you’re from – can have more serious ramifications too. Take the case of Atanas Entchev, a well-known and respected GIS professional who, after having lived in the US for 20 years, suddenly found himself detained in jail over a bureaucratic visa technicality. His son, who has not known a country other than the US, was also detained and threatened with deportation to a country he had never experienced – but apparently that is where he is “from”. Apart from the irony that the Entchevs were detained by people who themselves are immigrants (or descendants of immigrants), it is clear that where you are “from” is not just a very personal question but also requires validation by others. I guess it’s a bit like people asking me how tall I am. Everyone can see I’m six foot seven but still, people somehow feel compelled to comment on it as if it needed official confirmation or mutual agreement. But compared to some basketball players I’m actually quite short – so it also depends on who’s asking.

Ever since humans first migrated from Africa we have never stopped moving around the world. From the Bronze Age to the Romans, from the Vikings to the Americans, many inventions like the wheel or the moon rocket would not have happened if people had not migrated and explored new horizons. Today, immigration is certainly an issue in many countries but gets bad press for all the wrong reasons. We seem to have forgotten that migration is what has shaped humans more than anything else, albeit not always peacefully. Migration also remains vital for today’s economies, as it enables people to cluster around skills rather than ethnicity, producing global centres of excellence. Even if you’re not surrounded by international rocket scientists or artists, people who come from different backgrounds will broaden each other’s minds and foster creativity.

You can also take migration too far, though. I’ve known many people on the global expat circuit whose children ended up with no sense of identity because they had been uprooted too many times. There is probably a happy medium, but migrate we must – at least some of us. Having lived in five countries I am now happily settled in the UK with my family, and can proudly call myself the tallest Luxembourger in Devon. Surfing, walking, whisky – it’s my kind of place. When I’m not there, it is where I’m from.

So rather than ask people where they’re from, ask where they have come from. There is a subtle difference. If the answer is “the supermarket” then so be it. Simple, no?

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6 thoughts on “Where are you from?

  1. great post – I could spend a long time finding my geocentre, just for the hell of it
    option would be “where do you come from” though as you could stress it on any of the words it offers plenty of offence potential depending on context

  2. Thanks for this. My brother is an archivist and has been sending me volumes of details on our family origins. I’m finding myself pulled in, despite misgivings about living in the past. The most fascinating part of this journey for me has revolved around the occupations of ancestors as there seems to be a common thread there. The question of where we come from also resonates in terms of beliefs and pursuits. I’m with you on walking and whisky.

  3. I could have almost written this post (apart from the fact I’m not even 6ft tall!). Last week at the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi, the first thing I did when I stood up on the main stage was to declare that I am Scottish, not Irish; every 2nd person (including some who know me well!) thought I was from the Emerald Isle. I also get Northern Irish, Australian (?), Kiwi and very occasionally South African. My problem is compounded by being British, as well as Scottish and like you, living overseas. I’ve started putting ‘international’ on my conference badges. Whenever taxi drivers or anyone else randomly asks ‘where are you from?’ I immediately throw it back at them and say ‘do you mean where do I live or where was I born and brought up?’ I think cultural identity is important [was Secretary of the Bergen Scottish Society last year, and part of many whisky tastings] but not sure how relevant it will remain as ‘global citizens’ grow in number. I find that my nephews and their friends (mid 20s) are more interested in knowing someone’s Twitter handle or if they’re already friends on Facebook.
    PS when Americans tell me they’re half-Scottish I always ask which half, normally just gets a confused look :)
    PPS when we next meet I’ll tell you about my Tom Hanks ‘Terminal’ experience due to people not understanding geography

  4. Great Post! and again, one I feel a strong connection to being that I am the holder of three passports and all members of my direct family were born in different countries. I was born in one, grew up in another and have spent most of my tertiary education and professional life in another.
    I am often asked as to my nationality, and I have my opinion…however so do others…sometimes in jest…sometimes not. Often people want to know the nationality of my parents…because according to them, that will determine my nationality. I have two responses to this depending on how much I have drunk and who it is. If im nice I say how can I have the nationality of a country I did not vistit until I was 13? If I am not feeling nice, I question their attitudes to race as really this is the confusion. I ask them, “if my parents were from Pakistan but I was born and raised in England…are you saying Im not English and only Pakistani?”

    This confusion with race and nationality is a common problem and gets more confusing when looking at different countries approaches. My sister for example, was denied a passport from her country of birth as neither of my parents were from that country…not a problem for my country of birth though!
    I dread people asking where I am from as my accent is entirely dependent on POV and so my short answer is oftern questioned and the long answer is…well long.

    ps – my accent really does perk up after a couple of drinks!

  5. I grew up in Wisconsin and never realized at there was any accent. When I first moved to NY, I was told frequently that I had a very strong accent… one person said “You sound like from Wisconsin.” Now having lived 10 years in New York, I’ve had people tell me my accent used to be very strong however now it is much more subtle, but I can tell it does creep back some anytime I go visit family. What’s amusing is I have family members all over Wisconsin…all of whom have lived in the state their whole lives, some have strong accents and some don’t. My parents in Green Bay definitely do, but my brother who lives in Madison has hardly any accent at all. It seems the further north you go towards the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (Yooper land) and Canada the stronger the accent gets.

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