Every person with some kind of diverse background gets asked the same question over and over again. Where are you from? Recently this question has gained a bad reputation to the extent that people don’t dare to ask where someone is from anymore. Why is that and how can we find a solution?
Why do people ask?
Most people ask purely out of curiosity. They want to know someones genetic makeup. Others are interested in hearing your life story. Some want to know what your culture is. They do not fully understand the impact of the question.
Why do some people take offence?
By asking “Where are you from?” just because someone looks different, you are immediately implying that they are not from “here” wherever that is. Most people that are born in Europe or have lived most of their life somewhere, identify themselves with that place. My situation is for example very different but will come back to that later.
But, I’m just curious what is your genetic makeup is!
As we know, the topic of where someone is from has been very popular during the last 8 years or so. Especially after DNA tests have been available commercially. Here is a chart of the popularity of those services over the years. Clearly, it’s a trend to know your own or other genetic makeup.
By asking where are you from, however, you will rarely find that out! Also, how far do you want to go? My ancestors are from Yemen and surely from Omo Valley before that. Aren’t we all from somewhere at some point?
It’s not always quick and simple to explain!
When someone asks me where I’m from which is once a week at least, I always have two answers prepared. One short and inaccurate, and one long with a detailed explanation. It depends on who is asking it and how well I know them. The shortest answer possible: Originally from the Middle East, but lived most of my life in Europe. You see, it’s generic enough. A longer answer would be: “ Well, I’m born in Baghdad, but moved to Amman when I was nine years old. I lived in Amman for 2 years and then I moved to The Hague where I have gained my nationality and spent a good 8 years. In 2007 however, I moved to London to study and spent another 8 years there. Now, I’m entering my 6th year in Helsinki.”
In each of those cities, I have spent an important period of my life. In Iraq, it was my super tough childhood during the sanctions, where we learn to stretch every penny etc. In Jordan, I lived a period without my father, but with my extended family also in extreme hardship. In the Netherlands, I attended primary and secondary school. That’s where I have developed most of my habits, emotional intelligence and lingual and artistic abilities and made lifelong friends. In the UK, I studied, worked, got married and created a vast network of friends and people. In Finland, we bought our house, got our daughter and experienced the most stable life we could have wished for. On top of all of that, we travel 5-6 times a year and meet and identify with people from all around the world. So, where am I from? You tell me, as I really have no clue. I used to call it an identity crisis, but now I’m thankful for it. I can empathise with people from many different backgrounds. My experience, trumps my genetic makeup, my ethnic background or where I’m “REALLY” from
You can still ask the question! 6 tips
So, you are interested in someone’s story. No matter how complex or simple. Here are 6 tips on how to ask the question and what to do with the answer!
- Assume that the person identifies the same as you.
- If this is the first time speaking to someone, don’t ask. Get to know them first, so that the person doesn’t feel that you are judging them on that basis.
- Wait for the topic to surface organically, for example, if someone mentions they go back “home” once a year. It’s perfectly fine to ask where that is
- Accept the answer and don’t go deeper unless the person voluntarily does so.
- Never ask, where someone is “REALLY” from.
- Ask “what is your family’s heritage?” or “what is your cultural background?”
Lastly, don’t be surprised!
When someone asks me where I’m from, I always answer and never take offence to the question. Especially, since I know that they don’t have any ill intent. I always however ask the question back. Most people that are not diverse looking get super surprised and say WHO, ME!? I’m from here! Only because you don’t look Asian or whatever. It doesn’t mean that you are exempt from this question. So, simply answer it as you would like to be answered 🙂 Maybe take a 23andme DNA test if you really want to sound interesting!
PS: I often discuss and express these issues in my designs here @adesignfactory