“But Where Are You Really From?”

Today’s item is a question! Why not… it carries weight, therefore it is an item. My time capsule, my rules.

Almost inevitably, when I meet someone new and the conversation lasts more than 2 minutes, I get asked where I am from. Whether I answer “Burnaby” (where I was born), “Port Coquitlam” (where I was raised), or “Vancouver” (where I live now), nobody is ever satisfied with that answer. Because I am not white.  (Or, when I am at salsa clubs, because I don’t speak Spanish, though apparently I look as if I should). So I get the followup question “So where are you REALLY from?”  To which I repeat my earlier answer. At which point, I am met with a furrowed brow and more questions. Eventually, we get to what my interrogator is really getting at, which is my ethnic background. Which wasn’t the original question. At that point, I usually turn it into a guessing game. I figure, if people are going to ask me roundabout questions, I’m going to make them work for the answer they want. (Bonus points go to my now father-in-law, who the first time I met him hauled out an atlas and quite methodically worked his way through most of the continents trying to figure out where my bloodlines ran).

It is a pretty regular experience at social gatherings, this asking about my provenance. My experience is shared by a growing number of people who were born in Canada, but look neither Caucasian nor Native American. Meaning we don’t “look Canadian”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I will acknowledge here also the experience of Caucasian folk who were born and/or raised outside of North America or Europe and have surely have had analogous experiences in their countries of residence. Anyways, I just discovered a Vancouver-based online magazine called Schema that deals with cultural fluidity and diversity in a beautiful and honest way. In particular, I came across an in-depth series of stories called “But Where are You Really From?”

Jen Sookfong Lee writes in the introduction:

Many of us know that feeling, that combination of anger, resentment, hesitation and confusion that bubbles up from your gut whenever someone asks you the question, “Where are you from?” Yes, it’s a simple question, and, yes, you know that the answer can be simple as well, but that’s not the problem. Before you even open your mouth to respond, a very familiar thought runs circles inside your head, “No matter what I say, this person will not understand.”

Yup.  Been there. I’ve been feeling that way since I left the social safety net of my suburban highschool and started meeting new people at university and beyond. So about 13 years of being asked “So where are you from?” on a regular basis and being sometimes amused, sometimes exasperated that “from here” (or “from Vancouver” when I’m travelling) is almost never accepted as an answer. Will I still be getting asked this 30 years from now? I imagine that our notions of national, ethnic, and cultural identity will be a lot more flexible than they are now, but that all remains to be seen. Still a lot of tensions in the world (the burqa debate in France being a prime example); it’ll be interesting to see how the human landscape changes, or in what ways it stays the same. Plus ça change…

Now, mostly I say I’m Canadian. Sometimes (when humour or context suit me), I say I’m Austrian. Which sometimes means “pass the liver sausage already”, but almost always means “a lot of the way I am is because I was raised by my mother. Who was raised in Austria (with ‘Catholic’ and ‘post-war’ and several other things implied).” I never say I’m Bajan. For many reasons, none of which have to do with any like or dislike for Barbados. I hear it’s a beautiful country, I just have no connection to it. I wonder if I will refer to myself as “mixed”, “biracial”, or any term that implies a blend of distinct ethnic bloodlines. Those terms rarely even cross my mind when I describe myself. I kinda just prefer to think of myself as Maria. I even refuse to check boxes on forms that ask me to identify myself as a visible minority.

Perhaps I shall borrow the words of one of the contributors to the Schema series: “I came from my mother’s womb.” 🙂


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