Where are you from?

I went out to a Black History Month event last night with an old acquaintance from a book club that I belonged to years ago.  That’s another story and I’ll get to that at some point.  Something happened that just illustrated a point I was trying to make in my previous post.

It’s been my experience when I am asked that question – “Where are you from?” or “Where are you from originally?”  that white people don’t expect me to answer “Red Deer” or “Winnipeg”, but answer that I’m from another country.  I live in Canada, and having lived in both Toronto and Vancouver, which is full of immigrants from all over the world, it’s a fair question I guess.  Except that I am asked solely because of my skin colour.  I don’t think I look remotely “exotic” whatever that means. I am not dressed in an ethnic outfit, nor do I possess an accent or walk around with a city map with a dazed expression on my face.  I just don’t look like I’m derived from the dominant culture.    Just last night, my friend (black female, wearing micro dreads and an audible Trinidadian accent) and I were standing on a skytrain platform in the middle of a conversation and a guy with a guitar starts complaining to us about Translink not having enough opportunities for new buskers.  And then he starts yammering about how he’s played all over the world and even “your president” would be against  blah, blah, blah.  (Apparently there’s something about me that attracts people who want to bond with me.  The guy had a point though, we could use more new buskers. )  Now he’s assumed we’re American because two black women couldn’t be Canadian or from exactly the city they’re living in.  And often when I say that I’m from here, it’s followed up by a dubious look and, “No, where are REALLY from?”  I know black women whose parents were born here, they were born in this city and they still get the question and astonished looks when they get a reply.  This question is to establish a difference or at the very least an “otherness”.  I believe that is the heart of the matter.   In the kindest of ways, perhaps they might be seeking to find out if they can relate to me if they had vacationed or spent time in the country where I am supposedly from.  I no longer spend the time to explain to random strangers that I was actually born in England and my parents who had emigrated there from Barbados then moved to Canada 2 years later.  They’re not asking me that question so they can get to know me better and become my friend.  They just want to satisfy their curiosity or confirm their belief.

Now I do get the same thing from black people.  However, the intent is completely different.  They are trying to establish a cultural connection with me.  To find out if we are from the same place, same side, do we share a commonality. In a place where you are the minority, this is an important question. If a lived in an African country, people would want to know what tribe I was from, if they couldn’t figure it out by my face.

I will give the appropriate answer when I detect a benign attempt for connection and conversation.  I don’t get upset or indignant.  I’m simply used to it. When a barista asks you, “Hey, how are you doing today?”, do you honestly answer, “Well, shitty actually, my husband and I had a fight this morning and I feel kinda fragile and I’m stressed out cause I hate my job, can you throw in a little extra caramel drizzle?” or “Why?  Do you really care?!”  You just say, “Fine, how are you?”.

On a basic human level, we always try to categorize one another:  fertile vs. infertile, married vs. single, careers women vs. SAHM, whatever.   I am not saying it’s the rudest question in the world, I’m just saying that I get asked that because it’s assumed I am not really “Canadian”.  And please don’t go down the road of well, we’re all from Africa really cause I’ve heard that one, too.

And since it’s Black History Month for another 26 days, I may get a little more uppity this month.

5 thoughts on “Where are you from?

  1. Re: the last line, I think you’re entitled. ;)

    Growing up, I never really felt like I was in a minority, race or culture-wise (in other ways, perhaps a different story…). I was white, and half Ukrainian, growing up in predominantly white small towns full of other Ukrainians, with some Poles and German Mennonites & Icelanders thrown in, and perhaps some native kids from a nearby reserve.

    And then I met (& married) dh, who is 100% Italian with immigrant parents & aunts & uncles, some of whom still can barely speak English. I’m probably more “ethnic” than they are, but to them, I was (& still am) “Canadian” or “English” (my Irish/Scottish ancestors would really like that one, I’m sure…!). I’m told that at our first meeting, the aunts marvelled that I had pierced ears, “just like an Italian girl!” After meeting them all & feeling complete culture shock, I called my Irish/Swedish/American mother, and told her I now understood a little of how she must have felt the first time she met my dad’s Ukrainian family. ;)

    I am still the only non-Italian to marry into dh’s mother’s side of the family. I have a bit of company on his dad’s side. We all sit together at bridal showers & such and confound the waiters by asking for tea instead of espresso after the meal. ;)

  2. Oh I wish you could publish this one more widely, maybe for Black History Month? Seriously, people are so ignorant.

    Such good insight here, too. “They’re not asking me that question so they can get to know me better and become my friend. They just want to satisfy their curiosity or confirm their belief” and to establish that sense of “otherness.” You’d think in a multiracial city like Vancouver you’d escape some of that, no?

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