Tackling the ‘where are you from originally?’ question

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I’ve mentioned before that my indeterminate brown-ness juxtaposed with my British accent tends to confuse people, especially when I’m on the road. The way I see it, I can answer ‘where are you from’ in three ways:

  1. Say London. If probed, give the back-story.
  2. Say London. If probed, feign ignorance and doggedly repeat that I’m from London.
  3. Say London but volunteer the back-story as that’s probably what they’re after anyway.

I tend to go with option 1. Option 2 seems impolite (as does making a point about it), while option 3 seems unwarranted, at least initially. Unlike some of my fellow ‘indeterminates’, I don’t actually mind the question; I just wish people asked it more directly. It seems that expats and fellow tourists struggle with this far more than locals. Instead of asking me where my family are from (which in my opinion is the best way to ask the question), they will skirt around the issue, asking all sorts of related questions but not the question itself.

In Samoa, I commented to Peter that it was amusing how many people had asked where I was from ‘originally’. He looked at me in confusion: “I haven’t heard anyone ask you that. You usually just tell them, don’t you?” he asked, as if I were some faded pop star peddling a biography no-one wants to read.

“Erm, no. People ask it without asking it and I don’t like to ignore them.”

The very next morning, we met a fellow backpacker who over breakfast asked where we were from. “London,” replied Peter. The guy glanced at me briefly and said, “Both of you?” Peter, suddenly seeing what I meant, snapped back: “Yes, both of us.

A few weeks later, this time in French Polynesia, a Frenchman asks where we’re from. Peter tells him we’re from the UK. Later, when I make a joke about the English weather, he says: “Oh, you’re from the UK too?” I nod my confirmation. A little while after that, Peter mentions that I speak a bit of Spanish. The Frenchman turns to me with sudden enlightenment and says, “Ohh, you’re Spanish.” I meet his eyes squarely. “No, I’m just learning Spanish.” The whole thing would have been easier if he’d just asked the damn question.

So, here it is: If you want to know where someone is from originally, say: “Where is your family from?” and if some guy asks you the question, just tell him what he wants to know. It’s not racist, mainly curious. Yes, it’s tiring but it’s a whole lot easier than answering 17 other questions while the guy bounces around playing Sherlock.

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