It’s a busy Saturday evening and I’m waiting in a queue to use the only toilet in a central Birmingham café.
“Where are you from?” asks the short, balding, bespectacled man standing next to me.
This is a simple question, right? I was born in Birmingham, I grew up in Handsworth so I’m from here, Birmingham. When travelling abroad it’s even easier - you’re from the country you were born in. Simple! Right?
Yet when in my ‘home’ country of England, this question is not as innocent nor as simple as it seems. The intent of the inquisitor is everything, even in multicultural Birmingham.
The important and fluid nature of intent
As a teenager growing up in inner-city Birmingham, if someone you didn't know asked where you were from, and you replied with the wrong neighbourhood, it was likely to end in fight or flight. I once had to abandon an un-eaten pizza as my friend and I were chased down the street in a neighbourhood we weren’t from. I physically yearned for that pizza for weeks afterward, denied my feast by artificial boundaries and adolescent tribalism.
As a mixed-race young adult harbouring a confusing combination of light Anglo-Saxon skin, dark brown eyes, and the thickest, darkest Celtic-Indian hair imaginable, the question from strangers remained the same, but the intent changed. Instead of my residential geography it was my geographical heritage under scrutiny. The outcome was often the same, with a bias toward abusive verbal exchanges instead of fisticuffs–often on buses, where neighbourhoods and ethnicities are forced to combine.
So, when I’m ‘at home’ in England, I don’t like this question. It’s a question tainted by my own personal experiences as well as charged with decades of political and cultural history. It holds too many ambiguous meanings and potential outcomes - even more so since Brexit, the election in America, and an exodus of people fleeing war and death in the Middle East, seeking refuge in Europe.
I don’t remember a distinct shift behind the intent but it gradually became clear the question had taken on a different form.
How to answer an ambiguous question
But after years of hearing “where are you from?” I’m tired of answering and often give an answer I know people don’t want. This serves two purposes: it amuses me and lets me test the waters.
So, back in central Birmingham on a busy Saturday I reply with, “From here, Birmingham.”
Friends and acquaintances who experience similar situations all respond with a variation of this phrase for the same reasons as I do–it’s now our natural reaction. We know this isn’t the answer most inquisitors want but, identity subconsciously in question, it’s our way of teasing out true intentions and playing our own little identity game. We’re essentially saying, “We’re from here, what of it?”
A few times this has been openly acknowledged: “Yeah but you know what I mean - your parents definitely aren’t from here.” Mum, Dad, is there something you’re not telling me!?
As if on cue, my bespectacled inquisitor says, “No, no. I mean what are your origins? Where are your parents from?”
Ah. As if the question could ever mean anything else! However, his tone and language suggest he’s genuinely interested…
“Well, both parents are born in England but my Dad’s heritage is Indian and my Mum’s is Irish; my grandparents came over [to England] in the 50s and 60s.”
He’s fascinated, “I had you down as Persian! Are you a student?”
I explain I’ve not long finished a Masters. Now it’s my turn: “Where are you from?” Having had time to study his features it’s clear he has some Mediterranean or Middle Eastern heritage.
Smiling, he says, “I’m actually an Oxford Postdoc. I caught the train up to watch Deadpool [the movie] with a friend.”
Interesting stuff but he hasn’t answered my intended question - just like I didn’t really answer his when he first asked. The toilet occupant exits and I slip in to do my business.
My front garden, a few weeks later
Myself and two others are admiring my Trek Alpha 1.2 racing bike. I’m selling it and they’ve come to take a look. The guy who actually wants to buy the bike takes it for a quick test ride. While he’s gone I ask the guy standing next to me...
“Where have you come from?”
A whisper of annoyance crosses his face - almost as if he's rolled his eyes. He gets this question a lot. “Lithu-,” he begins to say.
I stop him, realising how the question sounded, “No, no, sorry, I mean where have you come from in Birmingham today?”
In a bizarre turn of events I’ve asked the question that I find so annoying and complex to answer. The wording is ambiguous at best so how was he to know what I meant?
Far from caring where he’s ‘originally’ from, I just want to know if he’s come far today. The irony isn’t lost on me.
It turns out they live a couple of miles away, in the same neighbourhood where my Dad runs a garage.
Multiculturalism is complicated
These are the complexities myself and others find ourselves grappling with on a daily basis; complexities created by a combination of colonization, war, and free-market globalization.
And this is why for many people across generations, answering the question “where are you from?” is far from simple.
Perhaps in the eyes of others it’s more clear-cut…
If you’re not born in the country you live in, you're clearly not ‘from’ the country you’re living in. Whereas if you’re born in the country you live in, that’s where you’re ‘from’.
But what about the 70- or 80-year old who moved from their home country at the age of 10 or 20?
Or the second generation child born in England, a different country to that of their parents, who identifies as British and always has? Yet as they grew up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s experienced racism from their peers, who told them they didn’t belong here simply because their skin was a different colour. The irony of it all? Everyone involved identifies as British.
Think about the lucky third generation, born in a country where none of their ancestors are ‘from’; even more confusing if you end up with DNA from two or more different continents.
And then there are those newly-arrived people, often forced by circumstance into a country that’s not their own, and where they are not made to feel at home. How do they experience being asked where they’re from?
Let’s not forget about the fact that if you don’t look like the so-called ‘indigenous’ population then it’s assumed you’re from somewhere else. Where does that leave us in Birmingham and Leicester where over 50% are ‘ethnic minorities’ that have now become the majority?
So this question is not simple or innocent. And no matter the context–genuinely interested or otherwise, whether the intent is race or location–this question deals with the extremely complex and completely constructed nature of human identity. Yet...
86% of Birmingham’s population consider themselves to be British, regardless of ethnicity. Birmingham City Council, 2017
But is it so reassuring to see second and third generation migrants feeling so whole-heartedly British that they worry about ‘foreigners’ (such as Central and Eastern Europeans) coming to ‘take our jobs’? Do they not see the irony in their words; for that is exactly what the ‘British’ people said in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s when our parents and grandparents arrived in Britain to boost the workforce and rebuild a post-war country.
Despite the everyday complexities of identity, living in a multicultural city and, to some extent, society, has its benefits. One of the absolute wonders of living in an open, diverse society is the ability to be inquisitive and curious about the people and cultures you see around you. And just because our heritage and cultures may be different, it doesn’t mean we’re ‘from’ different places. And our differences are often overshadowed by our commonalities.
But the recent move toward nationalism does not bode well. Casual racism and the belief that national identity reign supreme has been legitimised by politicians and the right-wing media. I fear the intent behind the question “where are you from?” will become more sinister more often and for a while yet.
Perhaps some day in the future it will be possible to know that someone is genuinely curious–and that there’s no need to be guarded–when they ask “where are you from?”