The Vagenda

But Where Are You FROM From?

I’ve had them all: Latina, Egyptian, Iranian, Italian, Greek, Indian. And I’m not talking about a world map covering a plethora of lovers. Rather, these are the nationalities people come up with when they take it upon themselves to guess where I’m really from.
This guessing game is usually preceded by the ambiguous, “So, where are you from?” which is special code for, You don’t quite fit any sort of nationality in terms of physical looks, nor how you dress (I have a strong Roman nose and am usually found in Pavement t-shirts), and I’m confused. In other words, what they actually want to know is: where are your parents from? 
Asking this outright seems to be a big taboo in British society, so it’s cloaked in what appears to be a genial and civil conversation starter. Also, identifying yourself as British per se is apparently not enough, and somewhat a taboo in itself. However, I refuse to play their wicked game, so I’ll generally reply with, “Manchester, arrrr kid”, and perhaps give them a short rendition of my well-practiced Manc swagger – and, if I’m feeling particularly jovial, point out that of course I’m related to Morrissey and have appeared in numerous episodes of Shameless and/or Cold Feet. This usually results in a completely perplexed look and either a sharp change of topic. But those who are a bit more ballsy will continue to dig into the ‘parental origins’ front.
In all honesty, I’d rather them ask, “What are you?”, as crude and crassly simplistic as this may be. But the truth is, whatever I look like shouldn’t be important. It’s what I identify with the most that defines me, or at least it should. International, national, and/or regional identity is something we seem to be struggling with as a society at large; the uncomfortable connotations that come with positively identifying as English or British are hard to balance with a well-placed sense of patriotism. As much as I’d like to purport the equal opportunities line and get ‘British Asian – Pakistani’/ ‘Asian – British Pakistani’, ‘Pakistani Asian – British’ or just plain ‘BROWN’ tattooed on my forehead, I honestly don’t see the relevance. Aren’t we meant to have transcended race, like we apparently have gender? Surely, while we have male models walking for female targeted fashion collections, the colour of someone’s skin should be the last thing on our minds? Alas, the existence (and huge success) of skin whitening creams such as ‘Fair and Lovely’ in the Indian and Pakistani markets whisper that this isn’t going to happen any day soon.
So, what am I? Evidently I am not a number.  Thanks to my obstinate and headstrong mother (in a good way), my primary identity is that of a feminist within a larger cultural context. Yep, first and foremost, I’m an international feminist.
However, by and large within the British-Asian-Pakistani community this is still a dirty word. In fact, as an Asian girl who seems to span the cultural genres and graduated in War Studies, I’m approached with severe caution by certain elements within the said community. When introduced to people alongside my culturally acceptable doctor sister, people usually refrain from stating what exactly I graduated in – and if they are told I usually get a round of, “WALL STUDIES?? What’s that then?!” And that’s not even bringing to the table the notion of a ‘self-proclaimed feminist’.
Strangely, a lot of the time the resistance to feminism in my community is not even directly to do with ‘cultural stereotypes of the place of a woman’. Instead, the general unfounded connotations that are attached to the word ‘feminist’  (read: lesbian/asexual/long drawn out teen angst/promiscuity, etc. etc. ad infinitum) within certain cultures – in my case the Pakistani contingency in the UK – are amplified. Assumptions are made about the person behind the feminist label, and they’re not usually kind.
But that’s not to say that things aren’t moving forward. As an Asian woman who has always been encouraged to embrace my feminist side, I’m glad to report that more women of South East Asian backgrounds are shedding cultural ideas of feminism by the bucketload. I’m experiencing more self-proclaimed Asian feminists than I ever have done before, and that’s hella encouraging.
So the next time somebody asks me what I am, I’m happily responding with the F word.

28 thoughts on “But Where Are You FROM From?

  1. This post is so true! I hate being asked “where I’m from/where I was born/where are my roots/where do I originate from” … I could go on! No one is ever satisfied with my response “Leeds” for some reason? Next time, I shall say “feminist” :-)

  2. My house mate has taken to saying ‘are you asking if i’m a bit brown?’ This usually makes people sufficiently awkward that they shut up, or they say ‘yes actually’ which gets to the point and at least she can answer a direct question (or, equally, choose not to) :)

  3. It continues to be a mystery to me why anyone should consider it their business to enquire from where your parents originate. I found that, in the UK at least, this nonsense stopped when I hit 30. May be these days I look as if I’d deck anyone who asked. I used to say “Camden Town”. It’s hard to convey the irritation that descends when this answer is clearly not enough. ‘But you’re beige’, you hear them thinking, ‘you can’t come from Camden Town. Your answer doesn’t count. We want to be stick a pin in the map of exotic parts and say ‘Oh, Malaysia / Brazil / Laos / Barbados / Madagascar. Thought so’.

  4. As a Brazilian living in Germany, I have faced very often the opposite reaction: I am almost transparent white (which usually causes people to ask me if I am sick and was for long years a nightmare), which always gets me to hear “but aren’t brazilians darker?”. And I often get myself thinking on what to say without having to give a historical talk on my country, on prejudice and on how we end up not fitting stereotypes. It seems pointless though, some people will just not believe that I am telling the truth, as if it would be a funny thing to lie about. Maybe I will start saying I am a feminist from Earth. Nice text!

  5. THIS IS ME. I can’t last more than a week without people asking me where I’m from. Most people guess Indian but I’ve got so plently of suggestions so far, the ones recently being Egyptian, Spanish, half something or other, got Persian yesterday. I’m Iraqi Jewish but it doesn’t stop Indian men (usually) from hounding me about it. I’ve gone into shops and asked the guy behind the counter for chewing gum and ended up being interrogated about my ethnicity. I’ve even had my way blocked by an Indian guy who wouldn’t let me pass through the door unless I told him where I was from. I’ve had Indian grannies mumbling Gujarati to me in ethnic supermarkets and being constantly asked question by old British men who think they live in the days of the Rajah and say ‘salaam alekum’ to me. One security guard in my uni library wouldn’t leave me alone until he named every continent and every country he could think of. I can’t move a step sometimes without being questioned about it. I look like I come from anywhere but why is this a regular point of conversation? It’s not even asked in a friendly way. Sometimes a guy blocks my way and won’t let me go until I tell him, it gets on my nerves

  6. Regular occurrence this is.

    Stranger: “So where are you from?”
    Me: “Manchester”
    Stranger: “No, but where are you FROM?”
    Stranger: *looks embarrassed* “But you’re not English are you?”
    Me: “I was born in Crumpsall at North Manchester Hospital, so yeh, I am. Assuming though that you actually mean why am I a funny shade of yellow and why do I have a weird surname? My Dad’s a Croat, innit.”

    And I fuck you not, on one occasion, somebody actually said to me “Is that near Afghanistan? There’s a war there isn’t there?” *face plant*

  7. I grew up in a very small, very white (very catholic) town where the only foreigner was my mother who was born in America but lived the majority of her life in England. She still had a bit of a twang in her accent and therefore could not fit in as ‘English’ even though when she goes back to visit family she isn’t thought of as ‘American’. So I grew up feeling like a bit of an oddity, especially when people lost their shit when they found out I had never had a mince pie because my Mom made apple pie at Christmas – it was like ‘HOLY HELL WE NEVER KNEW YOU WERE HALF FOREIGNER’

    So when I went to university and met other people that were born in England but had families from different origins I felt like less of an oddity. I guess I have had it easy in that I’m white and have an English accent, no-one has ever asked me where i’m from until I say sidewalk or pop, and then I get the ‘holy hell your a damn yankee thing’

    The point of this story is that I would like to know how much you can ask someone about their origins and when does it get offensive? I have met some of my best friends and also my fiancé because someone asked ‘so where are you/ your parents from?’ I would hate to think that I had offended someone whilst getting to know them, in future should I wait until I’m told rather than asking?

  8. This is similar to an article I’ve written ( I get this constantly. These days, that question should be irrelevant; there is no such thing as a pure race anyway, but people are having kids with whoever they want now; those children shouldn’t be made to feel like they don’t fit in, or need to decide which ‘category’ they belong in. Funnily enough, when I ‘m in leeds, in mostly white areas, noone asks where I’m from (perhaps out of politeness?) but when I return home to the melting pot that is London, all guys seem to ask me is where I’m from; they love to play that old guessing game, coming up with answers like ‘malaysian’, ‘egyptian’, and ‘ummm, some kind of spanish’…all wrong! And they are never satisfied with my usual answer, which is London!

  9. I don’t get the big deal. Sometimes I want to know what someone’s background is because I’m interested in that person. It’s like getting angry about someone asking you what your job is. It’s just standard interesting information (?????).

  10. I think the point is rather context based. When people stop you in a shop or in the street and rather than politely inquire as to where you’re from, they force you to more or less defend yourself. It may well be a standard question in the natural flow of conversation, but it’s up to an individual person to choose whether they answer it. We rarely stop people in the street to ask whether they are straight or gay because we can’t quite tell from their appearance, so why should it be any different for race??

  11. This is such a tricky subject. I tend to agree with AbiH – isn’t it just contextual information? They’re getting to know you and it’s an obvious question to ask. I am white but my surname is extremely unusual and definitely not English, and I’m constantly asked about my family background as a result, and I don’t find it offensive in the slightest. People are simply curious and what’s wrong with that? This article seems to go too far in the super-PC direction, and fuels fears that we simply can’t ask anybody anything for fear of offence. If questions are asked in a rude way, or they are somehow implying that you are a lesser person as a result of your brown skin, then obviously this is racism and simply wrong, but if it’s merely a curious question as to your background, that’s no worse than asking where you bought a necklace or how long you’ve been growing your hair if it’s incredibly long.

    My boyfriend is 6’8″ and is always, always asked how tall he is. People literally point and stare and say “OMYGOD YOU’RE SO TALL” as if he otherwise wouldn’t know. He always takes it as a compliment and answers whatever questions they may have, no matter how awkward they may appear. I don’t really see how this is any different; both height and parental origins are simply accidents of birth and don’t impact on who you are as a person, but because we as humans are curious, we like to know backgrounds and information. The more we say “this is so inappropriate, how dare you ask such a personal question?” the less we’ll find out about each other. Also isn’t it better to ask and see that we are, in fact, all the same, despite our skin colour (or strange surnames or ridiculous height), rather than shy away from the elephant in the room and never delve into the fascinating facts behind our initial assumptions?

  12. I agree! If i ask a friend/ new person about their backgrounds its because Im interested. In the same way me and my white friends would have this conversation to see what bits of different places theyve got in them. Its so interesting to find out someones a bit irish, a bit english and a bit danish for example. Im sure people who’s origins are more ambiguous by the way they look might get asked this question more often but its all the same; its an interesting conversation topic. If I asked someone about their origins and they got defensice I’d be pretty offended myself.

  13. I know that this is going to sound crass coming from someone that’s white (though I’m not British, I’m French/Spanish) but maybe sometimes people want to know someone’s ethnic origin simply out of genuine curiosity and haven’t got some sort of xenophobic agenda? I know that personally, I find it very interesting – yes sure, where we or our parents come from is not relevant to many things, but it’s still a part of who we are, I think. I certainly understand that wording is also important though.

  14. I completely agree – I’d hope that I’d ask the question a bit more tactfully than some of the examples above, but when I ask someone about where their family is from, I mean it in the best possible way. I love travelling, I have lived in different countries in my life, love languages and learning about cultures other than my own – and my own background is quite mixed.

    It’s not just skin colour, if it’s appropriate I ask people with clearly non-English accents where they’re from, and how they came to be living in the UK, too. I find it extremely interesting to know about people’s background and lives.

    My boyfriend is half-Japanese, half-Welsh, and when I first met him that was a really interesting topic of conversation to have, and it says a lot about his culture and influences and childhood – even if he is entirely British by birth and passport.

    I can totally see how it’s a problem if the person questioning is clearly doing it from a prejudiced, stereotyped or ignorant point of view, but I find that most people respond really positively if you’re open with them about what you mean and that you’re just genuinely interested in them.

    Really sorry if this post comes across as naive or wide-eyed, but that’s just my honest experience…

  15. As a varied mix of races and cultures myself, I do ask people this question but just because I am fascinated by the glorious mixes this earth throws up. I don’t feel it comes from a racist place when I ask it, and when I’m asked, I enjoy describing my heritages. I suppose it’s about judging the context and reason behind the questioning.

  16. I agree, Trelly Stegosaur. I’ve never minded anyone asking me where I was from and not being able to pin me down “ethnically” (I’m originally Italian but don’t “look it”, what with being a natural blonde with blue eyes). I never understood all the defensiveness about wanting to know about someone’s origins. Are we still so insecure that we must necessarily read racism or small-mindedness into it?

  17. I am from Brazil. So am I supposed to be exotic in British eyes? First of all, please define “exotic”. Second, you seem to be as prejudiced as the people you complain about when they allegedly think you are beige.

    You, Anna, are just one of them: ignorant and prejudiced. And people like you disgust me completely.

  18. Oh this happens to me ALL the time, too.
    To clarify a little for people wondering if it’s offensive- for me personally it’s only really annoying when those usually COMPLETE strangers who just won’t accept “London” as an answer, and just ask you the same question again, as if you must of had some funny turn to make you lie about your answer. Those people are irritating. So it’s mainly how you ask- just don’t insult me by ignoring the fact I ALREADY TOLD YOU I’M FROM LONDON. Note: Asking where my parents are from, is very a different question to me, which I’m usually happy to answer.

    I never really find it offensive if someone is asking about my heritage and family because they are genuinely interested.

    Funnily, I went to Morocco last week, and despite my having a UK passport, with place of birth “LONDON” and on the arrivals card, writing, “NATIONALITY: BRITISH”, when asked by the man at the desk where I was from, and me answering, he then asked where I was FROM from, on account of my not-so-English name, so I said “oh, yeah, my Dad’s from Egypt”. He then CROSSED OUT the “BRITISH” on my nationality, and wrote “EGYPTIAN”.

  19. I can only presume that Anna uses ‘exotic’ as a way of emphasising some people’s ridiculous need to categorise those they meet, often as “The Other”- a concept often associated with the use of ‘exotic’ as a term to lump together a large number of places/people/nationalities. If Anna did in fact mean for this to be interpreted as such, as an almost ironic device,then perhaps “inverted commas” may avoid offence in the future :)

  20. Liv, I do understand what you mean. But this is not a inverted commas problem. Would you say that a person born in the US is “the other” or “exotic”? What about Switzerland? Norway? Germany? Canada? I don’t think you would. “The other” and “exotic”, in European/North American conception, mean “the rest”. It is intended to show how dominant you are over “the rest”. I am living in Birmingham at the moment and I see that happening almost every day in different levels.
    I really don’t blame people like Anna because to think like this is part of European culture since the Age of Discovery. It is still colonial thinking and this is not going to change unless we stop that.

  21. I see what you mean…it does worry me that some phrases such as this are seen as not ‘making sense’ when applied to those of European/North American heritage, as if it is the centre of the metaphysical and linguistic universe and can’t be ‘the other’ of anywhere else. Hopefully articles and discussions such as this will cause people to check their language and behaviour, but I must admit to often feeling completely overwhelmed by problems such as this. In the areas of the world where colonial thinking is most rife, awareness is so low…even when studying politics (a level) this was not a concept even touched on or alluded to until the end of the second year. And even in a class full of intelligent,’open minded’, relatively informed people I failed to explain fully how I found the use of the term ‘ethnic foods’ problematic (available on a sainsbury’s aisle sign near you). Arggghhh.