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?
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?