Who gets asked where they’re from?
My mother is asked this all the time by strangers in the street. And she’ll answer, hesitatingly, with the country in which she lived prior to coming here, because that’s what people want to hear, satisfied they’ve correctly deduced her accent. (Or they’ll push for more, because her looks say something else.) But I’m not all too sure she thinks that that is where she’s “from”. It’s telling that this is generally asked by those with what are here the dominant background and the “right” accent.
Sometimes, I’m sure, it’s a question intended to be polite, interested, and inclusive. It’s not for people like me, however; it’s as loaded as a question can be. When I’m asked where I’m from, I feel my confidence and belonging drain from the atmosphere into a tight little ball in my belly. The way that I and many other non-white people experience this question is of extreme rudeness. The asker is trying to mark out our difference for their own curiosity, out of sheer entitlement. We must become all about our otherness, our elsewhereness.
Because the crux of “where are you from?” is that the person being asked is assumed to be from elsewhere. We are never allowed to belong here, and it’s only our history elsewhere, which may or may not exist, that matters. We’re always other. Upon being asked this question, I feel as though my life lived here doesn’t matter, that I’ve been presumptive in taking on any kind of identification with where I live. This town, this country: only for the white folks. Asking this question is a way of levering someone out of their space and belonging.
If you live in a space like I do, where there is a strong sense of a singular national unity and identity, there’s a whole other set of implications. We’re expected to fall into line and participate in a mainstream Australian culture, which is skewed towards the Anglo, at the expense of the parts of our cultures, histories, and identities that make the mainstreamers uncomfortable. We’re required to give up a part of who we are for a shot at belonging. So, when one is asked where one is from, it’s never more evident that non-white people are always other. You can give up parts of who you are to have the answer to “where are you from?” be “here,” but your answer is never going to be right, because they won’t let you be. As long as such people are worried about the other, they’re going to simultaneously require you to mitigate your difference and keep you apart as eternally, inevitably other.
“Where are you from?” is regularly asked among such polite conventions as “How are you today?” or “My name is such and such, what’s yours?” As such, it’s one of those instances in which the structures of politeness safeguard rudeness. It is not quite so blatantly dehumanising as its variation “What are you?” – I wonder how many people have stopped themselves asking that just in time and switched to “Where are you from?” You can’t quite fault a question asked under those circumstances, but are expected to grin and bear it, and politely respond. You’re required to reduce yourself to other, because otherwise you’re the one who will be conceived of as rude.
I enjoy coming up with answers geared at making the asker realise what an awful position in which they’re putting people to whom they put this question. I might redirect the conversation entirely: ‘I am… really hungry right now, are you?’ Or, say, if I answer, ‘Australia,’ someone might say, ‘But where are you really from?’ (That’s the most frequent follow-up question.) I might say ‘Sydney’ and they might ask, ‘But where are your parents from?’ and I might answer with the city they lived in before I was born, and so forth until they get too flustered to continue. It’s telling that ‘Where are you really from?’ is such a common refrain, because you, you with your foreign features and accents and customs, can’t be from here where we are normal. Your fromness here is constructed, and it is the job of the arrogant, entitled asker to get to the reality of where you’re from.
It’s a gut-wrenching question.