Wednesday, October 7, 2009


“Where are you from?” the total stranger at the elevator asks me. Inwardly, I groan and roll my eyes. This friendly stranger is, of course, oblivious of the awkwardness of this question for  someone like me and for many others. It’s an important question, part of our instant evaluation of another human being. Right after gender and age. People want to know if you’re one of them or an intruder. And if the latter, what kind of intruder, dangerous or not. It’s a primitive, tribal rite and perfectly logical, except that very few people can provide a one-word or even a one-phrase answer these days and who wants to tell their life story to someone they don't know?

The wording of the question is vague and practically impossible to answer anyway. Do you mean "where were you born?" (usually the case) or what city did you live in last? Define "from".

If I try to dodge the question, he’ll insist, if I refuse to answer he’ll be insulted. If I do answer and he doesn't know what category to put me in, usually the case, he’ll become hostile. If he categorises me incorrectly, I'll become hostile. 

He hasn't considered that many of us are not born and bred in the same place anymore. We’re peripatetic, we’re no longer colored by, infused with the qualities of, our birthplace. Some of us have never even seen it, having left as infants. Nor are we necessarily creatures of the place we were educated, nor do we live in one place very long anymore. We move around the world for jobs, adventure, vacation. We have a wider frame of reference and are influenced by far more than our birthplace. So, you're probably not going to understand many of us any better by knowing where we were born. In fact, it may confuse the issue even more. 

Time after time, I see people bending over backwards to accommodate this indiscretion, politely explaining, “I was born in A, but we moved to B and I went to school in C, then we moved to D before coming here.” And voil√†, you've told your life story to a total stranger. Do you want strangers running around with your personal story?  

It’s commonly thought to be a perfectly acceptable icebreaker, even polite to ask this question. But how can it be polite to force a stranger to tell you their life story or to lie to you? Give this some thought please folks, it really is awkward to put us on the spot like this. Answering the question “Whereyoufrom?” is a bore and can lead to insults, jeers, even attacks and sabotage for giving what the asker considers a "wrong" answer, it can even endanger your life if your country is unpopular or happens to be at war with the askers'. Asking "Whereyoufrom?" can cause all kinds of trouble. 

And if you have an accent you're considered fair game as far as indiscreet questions are concerned. “You have an accent, so where you from? Where were you born?  Where does your family live? What does your father do? What do you do? How old are you? How much did your shoes cost? Do you pick your nose?"
And by the way, folks, EVERYONE has an accent no matter where you're "from".

Why don't I just lie, you may ask. Sometimes I do, as we shall see, but one lie leads to others and then it gets complicated. Besides, some of us are lousy liars, even to strangers.

Many people feel there’s something suspicious and louche about a foreigner. They don’t realise that we’re all foreigners and we all have accents, it’s just a matter of displacement: leave the country and, boom, you’re a foreigner. With an accent. The first time I got a passport, I was shocked to realise that I was one of those “foreigners”, those weird untrustworthy people. But I’m not like that, I thought. Exactly. Neither is anybody else. Being a foreigner is like being a "refugee" for Jesse Jackson during Katrina. "But they're not refugees," he protested, thinking it was a shameful thing, "They're Americans!" Yes, but they're also taking refuge, so they're refugees. Nothing wrong with that. Or with being foreign.

If, like me, you didn’t grow up in your birthplace and it had no influence on your life or character, nor did the second place you lived, but the third defined and marked you profoundly but that’s not where you live right now, how do you answer that constant question? If you say any one of the places, the asker starts jumping to the wrong conclusions, making incorrect assumptions and applying all the clich√©s they've seen on TV about that place to you for the rest of your relationship. If you explain, you’ve told your life story. If you lie, you may be interrogated and obliged to lie some more and feel even more uncomfortable. 

Having a national label is not really useful. No nation has a population of homogeneous nationals as represented on television. And none of us chooses where we're born so why should it define us?

"Zanzibar," I lie to the total stranger as we get into the elevator and I know I'm in for a grilling about a place I've never seen. 

So, please folks, don’t ask people where they’re from. 
Let them tell you. 
In due course. 
At the appropriate time.


Clare Dudman said...

I'd never thought about this before - but can see now from what you've said, how insensitive a question it is. Thanks Nora for the education!

Nora Lumiere said...

The French are very good about this. They never ask where you're from, they tell you: "Go back to Germany/Sweden/Mexico," they say, even if you're French.

W* said... know my dear, I understand perfectly your views but I doesn't agree. I could ask such a question... but with a true (and kind) interest. I love "specifity" and difference, so...
But it's true that "there's a way" too.. but not "a time" ! There's a kind of poetry in asking this in an elevator I think... but I'm also french and crazy, so... :-)
Best regards. Respectfully..

Elsie said...

Nora, I also have never thought about this. Though I am usually the victim of the same question (born somewhere else, moved around for 17 years of my life, boarding school in the UK).
It's just dawned on me that I usually lie to people to avoid bewildered looks from them. (One person even asked if i was a gypsy). My lie (saying i'm from my mother's hometown) then leads to confsion over my lak of accent.
Despite this it's still a question that I frequently ask others. You'd think I'd know better - but then I am genuinely interested. I like difference & am inquisitive by nature.

Great post. Made me think. Ahem, so we're you from Nora ;)

Nora Lumiere said...

Thanks for your comment, Elsie. It's a natural enough question that has become impossible for more and more of us to answer in a word. To get around it, I don't ask, I tell: "You're from X, aren't you?" This gives people the chance to say yes or no and leave it at that if they don't want to tell me their life story.
You're from Uzbekistan, aren't you?

Blu said...

I feel like you wrote exactly what is inside my head! where shall I choose ???

Nora Lumiere said...

It's high time this question became politically incorrect. We're tired of being evasive and forced to lie.
Thanks for your comment!

Nora Lumiere said...

From @Luckyde on Twitter:

Just wanted to let ya know I loved that "Where are you from" article you did a while ago. It most definitely applies to me and I wish more people read it so they would realize constantly asking this isn't a normal or nice thing to ask someone.

Nora Lumiere said...

An accent (and we all have one) is not an invitation to be rude.
Thanks for your comment.