Not long after we moved to Switzerland, I saw this ad with the phrase “Where are you from?” at a bus stop and thought, “oh, so this is a thing”.
Just a few days before, I had one of those awkward conversations around a question that all ethnically or racially ambiguous people are very familiar with: “where are you from?” which eventually, inevitably evolves into what they really mean to ask which is, “but what are you?”
I’ve been posed with this question most of my life, and it normally doesn’t bother me but it does leave a lot of space to get at best, uncomfortable and at worst, racist. Living in the United States I had what I thought was a very straightforward answer to lessen the opportunity for uncomfortable or racist situations, and usually, the answer was satisfactory to the asker: I’m Mexican and Irish.
But then I went to Ireland at 17, and they wondered why this very obviously American person was claiming to be Irish. I was shocked! I felt so rejected! I’d spent much of my childhood Irish dancing and identifying so strongly with Irish culture, not to mention having this very Irish name and now felt like I didn’t have the right to claim that part of me. It was eye-opening, to say the least. It made me question labeling myself as a Latina, too. Am I, this mostly white presenting person who doesn’t speak Spanish, allowed to call myself that? My straightforward answer to explain myself became so much less so.
When we moved abroad, it never occurred to me that I would be posed with this question in a newly complicated way, but obviously many are faced with this conundrum. When you’re new somewhere and you’re meeting others from all over the world, this question becomes part of your day-to-day life. But like the HSBC ad suggests, how do you answer such a seemingly simple question like “where are you from?”, when the answer is so complicated? Place of birth, where you grew up, where you moved from, your ethnicity . . . they may very well all be different answers, and for many people living abroad, they often are.
If your answer is complicated, living abroad will force you to take the time to think about all of the things — the places, the traditions, the sounds, the tastes, the smells, the textures — that make up your experience, and how you weave all of those things into your life in a place that may have absolutely nothing to do with any of them.
For me and my family, the isolation of Covid-times has helped to illuminate the parts of our identity that are important to us. People all over the world, particularly those who have emigrated somewhere else, have been separated from loved ones. It’s like the whole world is suffering a strange form of homesickness. And what do you do when you’re homesick? You try to bring a little bit of home to wherever you are. Over this last year, I’ve turned to things that feel that way, that feels like home. The moment I realized that the smell of cilantro takes me right back to family meals growing up, I started diving deep into locating all the Mexican grocery stores in the Zürich area (there are several!) to make more Mexican food than I have in my entire life. It’s why I’m holding a little dance class on St. Patrick’s Day to teach my sons 7s and 3s (check it out on our Instagram Live!). It’s why we are here in Switzerland making sure we can all speak my husband’s native language, German. It’s why we ordered good old American biscuits and gravy from a local American chef who specializes in Texas cooking, where we spent our last two years in the U.S.
When you are made up of lots of things, it can feel like you’re not “enough” of any one thing to really be it. It’s a deeply personal form of imposter syndrome that many mixed-race and “global citizens” face. But instead of trying to categorize ourselves for the comfort of others, or for the ease of answering a question, putting percentages on countries, why don’t we see it as the superpower that it really is: a multifaceted, more nuanced view of the world that many never get to see, and the ability to pick and choose the things that make us feel whole from so many different sources. It can be difficult, it can be isolating to feel not enough of something, but it really is so fulfilling to unapologetically enjoy and feel “home” in whatever you decide that is to you while you are so far away from there. As they say in the song, “home is wherever I’m with you”, and that could truly be an anthem for those of us living abroad. Make sure that “home” is firmly planted inside of you, so that you can take it with you wherever you go.
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2 thoughts on ““Where Are You From?” – A Loaded Question for Many Living Abroad”
Kealan – this is such a great article! I identify with many parts of it. There was recently a podcast episode from Rough Translation that was all about this!
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