By Teah Pelechaty
Growing up, I hated this question. It almost certainly warranted a monologue on my part. I am the daughter of European parents of different nationalities and, by the age of 15, I had already lived in five countries (none of which were that of either parent). I had a passport from one, knew the language of the other and yet any listener would have been hard-pressed to pinpoint my neutral accent inevitably garnered from an international education in English.
My initial response to the question “Where are you from?” was that I was Omani. Having lived in the Sultanate of Oman for the first eight years of my life, it seemed to my nine-year-old self that this would naturally be the case. Yet this answer was generally met with dissatisfaction, as I was neither ethnically Omani nor possessed a passport from the country or spoke its official language. “No, where are you really from?” It was true, I was not Omani, but neither was I from my parents’ home nations nor Malaysian, Australian or a native of any of the other countries I had lived in.
While you may argue that my parents’ peripatetic lifestyle added to the difficulty of answering this apparently simple question, I think it has never necessarily been an easy one for many people, and is becoming increasingly more complex to answer in a very interconnected, globalized world. Plus, let’s face it: the question itself is not always innocent.
In my case, for example, answering the question “Where are you really from?” — even if I could do so with ease — wouldn’t reveal anything about who I really am. It doesn’t reveal where I grew up, or how I grew up and with what culture, that I broke my arm at age seven or that I won my Grade 6 spelling bee.
So, instead, let me ask this: What does this question about origins really tell us about ourselves?
Let’s take a moment to consider the elements that help shape us into the unique individuals we are. As human beings, we are defined by our personal experiences, by the diverse cultures that we have been exposed to, the people in our lives and the memories that we share with them. These elements can emerge from anywhere, surrounded by anyone, and they are not necessarily confined to a single geographic location.
Yes, for many, their country, or even region, of origin plays a significant role in their definition of self. That said, I would argue it is only one of many elements.
In addition to this, the country that may have had the most influence on a person’s life may not be the one stamped in bold letters on their passport, or the one that our outward appearance supposedly most “fits.” And if we’ve paid attention in history or political science class, we already know that the idea of what “fits” rarely corresponds to the demographics on the ground anyway.
So, where are you from? The next time someone asks you this, or you feel the urge to pose the question yourself, consider nuance. It might be time to rethink the meaning behind this run-of-the-mill question, and to reconsider not only the answer to it but also the significance we attach to that answer. I can assure you of one thing: it doesn’t tell you much about who is really standing in front of you.