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Where are you from?

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

The politics of home.





Where are you from? I have been asked this more times than I can remember. And having lived in several places, the idea of home is sometimes elusive.


I barely lived in my Tamil hometown. It’s of some sadness to my family that having lived so far away from there, my Tamil is rather a modern metropolitanasque rendering. It’s a version of what I picked up from my parents and also borrowed from the movies I grew up watching, peppered with English and Hindi. But most times, my word mixup and jumbled pronunciation just makes for an easy laugh and gives my family more reasons to remark fondly on my silliness.


Time in Singapore was a brief stint from which I only have baby memory. In other words, I remember nothing except for memories I have created in retrospect watching videos my parents took on a rather bulky handycam.


The place I spent most of my life in, Allahabad, no longer holds the home I grew up in. The structure remains, but now is a modified, rented space. It no longer resembles the home I knew.


The place I spent most of my life in, Allahabad, no longer holds the home I grew up in. The structure remains, but now is a modified, rented space. It no longer resembles the home I knew.

My parents currently live in a different city I only visit when I go to see them. I have no roots there. The home they’ve built makes for a strange experience. The house has the persons and objects that serve as reminders of familiarity stemming from childhood yet the setup is as strange as a stranger’s house.


My hostel room in Mumbai, where I lived as an undergraduate, is an in-between space. Without the people who housed it with me then, it’s lost its hold on me. And my little room in the university halls at Leeds, where I spent much time earning my Master’s during lockdown, has changed residents twice. No longer mine to call home.

I now live in London, in a place I’m building up to be home, but far away from the home country that shaped me. Home remains accessible, and yet elusive. And so, when people ask me, where are you from, what do I tell them?


~


‘Where are you from’ is really two questions. One comes from innocent curiosity, asked by someone who wants to know you and your history. One who sees the beauty in colour, but does not compare shade. And then there is one of otherisation; that attempts to place you anywhere but here. At worst, it is a racial profiling to remind you of your place. At best, it is to tell you how much space you are allowed to occupy.


Some months ago, I was at a friend’s birthday party. We had all gathered in a park on a sunny day to enjoy some picnicking. Someone asked me where I was from. Since moving to the UK, for the sake of brevity, and to avoid the painful task of explaining where in India, I simply say ‘India’. While India is huge and various, and I have many homes there, if I venture into the complexities, the answer would run pages. So unless I feel we can afford a long conversation, I start simple.


So yes, I was asked where I was from. In this context, it was the coming together of various social groups where a lot of us were strangers [the only person I knew there was my friend whose birthday it was], so this question was thrown around to everyone from a place of simple knowing.


But then this person specifically picked out the only other brown person in the group and said, ‘you are also Indian right!’, motioning us to talk to each other. I did not know this other brown person, but having heard her converse so far, I could see she had a proper British accent. Not the I-came-here-yesterday-and-picked-up-an-accent kind, but the I-have-lived-here-all-my-life-and-so-I-speak-this-way kind. It was pretty obvious to me she would consider herself British having probably grown up here. I was right. She clarified that her parents were of Indian origin, but she was born and raised here. She explained this with a half smile, half smirk that I am quite familiar with. It’s the yes I look different but why do I have to keep confirming my Britishness look. And I could only sympathise.


Reading about this episode, some would ask - what is so wrong about a person being recognised as Indian if they look Indian? The answer lies very much in the motivation and intent behind this act of identification. What was the point of singling her out for me to talk to? The person could have thought, same culture so same interests. But that would also be a dilution of our metropolitan selves that don’t fit into one culture.


Whenever in the UK I am asked about my origins, I say with much ease and without hesitation that I am Indian. But for my friend’s British-born Indian-origin friend, identity is a more complicated subject. She is expected to be a certain way because she looks a certain way. But she acts like a person from around here, because she is from around here. She is stuck between a camp that wants her to exude Indian-ness (but just enough, not too much) and another camp that is seeing her as betraying her origins due to her Britishness. Yet if she were one to put out her Indianness on colourful display, she would be blamed by some for not trying to assimilate. She could easily be criticised for being not Indian enough, not British enough, too Indian, too British, all at the same time.


Whenever in the UK I am asked about my origins, I say with much ease and without hesitation that I am Indian. But for my friend’s British-born Indian-origin friend, identity is a more complicated subject.

After the awkward introduction, the both of us did converse a fair bit that evening. And the interesting common ground we found was not our Indian roots, but rather our love for Leeds! Turns out we both went to Leeds for university. That is what broke the ice, not our brownness.


Later on in a pub, she opened up about living in a really white town growing up. She talked about how she would be given looks, and had things yelled at her. I told her I have had the looks, but luckily not the crude comments. Even between the two of us, two seemingly similar looking brown skinned people, where do you come from holds different connotations. And therein lies the complexity of identity that many fail to grasp in their blanket opinions on how to feel about race.


~


The last time I was asked where I was from, the question came from a few homeless people I was interviewing. I was asking them how it was for them this winter. They looked at me a bit bewildered to begin with - why is this odd girl going around in the darkness of the evening, prodding us with questions? I wasn’t sure at first if they meant where I was from, as in where I lived currently and set out from that day, or where I was from, as my ethnic/national origin. I replied, “You mean where I come from originally?” Yes, he said. “India”, I responded.


While this exchange was happening, a fellow homeless person gave out a snort and laughed. He said, “You cannot ask these questions anymore!” He was snarkily referring to this controversy involving a British black charity worker Ngozi Fulani who recently was pestered with questions about her origins by a member of the royal household. Despite being born in Britain and clarifying that, the late queen’s lady in waiting (also Prince William’s godmother) kept pressing her to disclose where her people came from.


And I think the incident is really useful in bringing out the subtleties of racial profiling. While where do you come from can indeed be an innocent question posed to anyone, people of colour have scores to say about their unique experiences with that question. A lot of the time it’s used to make you feel like ‘the other’. And yet when challenged, people can hide behind a claim of innocence behind that question. Therein lies the reality of today’s racial politics. In an environment where overt racial slurs and comments are socially unacceptable in many places, people resort to masked commentary. Maybe some do it without conscious understanding. But pointing it out is important for the process of unlearning.


In an environment where overt racial slurs and comments are socially unacceptable in many places, people resort to masked commentary.

My own recent encounter with this question left me confused. On that same day, I was asked that question by three different homeless people. Two of them, who were Polish, reacted positively. They were happy I had come from somewhere else and possibly made it. Despite their own situation, they made this known and made me feel comfortable. And then there were a few British people who took this as an opportunity to react defensively against the incident involving Ngozi Fulani.


But, either way, I came out thinking there is something truly poetic about being asked about home by people who unfortunately are struggling with the concept of home themselves. Their home is transient. And it forced me to think of home without a sense of attachment to a physical space. It made me think of home in the form of all the warmth and love I have had, whichever place I have lived in, whatever place I come from. So the next time someone asks me where I come from, I will be tempted to just say everywhere.

1 Comment


Saskia Wilson
Saskia Wilson
Feb 15, 2023

I enjoyed your post. I would think it gets tiring after a while to have to answer this question. I have been asked this question for years, first in my native France because my last name was foreign – Armenian, then in the US where I have lived for decades, in Georgia, but with a French accent. A week does not go by that someone asks me where I am from. Now living in Tennessee I say I am from Georgia; then they ask - but where are you really from? I have lived longer in Atlanta, GA, than France. Some want to know if I am an illegal alien. Since my accent is not strong, just sounds for…


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