Updated: Dec 30, 2020
It was an overcast September night. The windows are propped open, inviting the first chill of autumn air. The lights are half-dimmed as neon strobe lights dance across the ceiling, imitating the group of bodies swaying on the makeshift dance floor. A low-pitched party playlist thrummed incessantly in my ears, overpowering the noise of half-shouted conversations. Lipstick stained cups were strewn on the messy table, whilst cans (and a singular shoe) littered the floor. The small shared kitchen creaked and groaned under the metaphorical weight of young adults in debt. Every small noise solicited a quick look at the door from the host, fearing the presence of two: security, or a flatmate who snitches. This was the night of my first university party.
Did that description feel eerie enough? I wanted to establish a sound preface before continuing on to the most alarming part of this tale.
A younger me was weaving through the over-packed room, in frantic search of a magical entity: the mutual friend. However, all of the faces I seemed to pass looked unfamiliar, and I hoped the longer I circulated, the quicker a familiar one would spot me. It’s overwhelming to walk into a room full of strangers, but it’s made easier when even the strangers don’t know each other. The very nature of ‘freshers’ parties allow for their visitors to form brand new friendships and connections, with a shared hope to find some common ground. This was when I spotted the girl who had pseudo-invited me, in animated conversation with four others. I quickly went up to greet the group, with growing anticipation. It was a flurry of awkward hugs and first introductions: What’s your name? What do you study? What block do you live in? It’s relatively straight-forward whilst still providing scope for further conversation.
However, one of the guys standing in the mini circle turned to me smiling, as he asked, “where are you from?” I smiled back and gave him the well-rehearsed answer I had practised over the course of my first week, “–like 45 minutes out from London, near Winchester and Reading?” He looked puzzled. I wondered what other big city I could name to help him locate my hometown of 8 years.
“No, like – where are you really from?”
From that initial moment, those five words (with the emphasis on the ‘really’) were the inception of my introduction-based exhaustion; a weariness that would last throughout my academic career. I know why I am consistently asked this – I am a brown girl, with a mostly American accent, who lives in the U.K. Perhaps, it’s a complex trio. I also recognise that it isn’t that difficult for me to explain that I am an Indian, who grew up in South Africa, Denmark, and America, and then moved to the U.K. in my teens. It is understandable that people are simply curious, and interested to learn about different people’s international upbringings (I know I am), so what exactly is the problem in this question?
In my opinion, the real issue lies in the ‘unacceptance of first-answers’ – a phenomenon that impacts Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) regularly. When an individual tells you where they are from, in response to your original query, why do you feel the need to follow-up as if it is a corporate email:
Hope this email finds you well.
I am following-up in regard to our current conversation, as I have an ongoing query. I feel as though there is a specific necessity to clarify your ethnic origin as it was not explicitly stated in our first communication. The reply I received perplexed me, because my internal assumptions did not align with your actual answer. I would greatly appreciate it if you could provide a more comprehensible response
Everyone I seem to meet.
If I sound inherently grumpy, it’s because I am confused. When you ask us where we’re really from, are you expecting a specific response? Are you expecting the name of a perceivably ‘exotic’ country that you consider outside of the ‘Western World’? Are you expecting a response you can relate to so you can talk about your gap year to Asia?
In the greater dialogue of diaspora, it’s important to recognise identity as something that is not limited to one country, culture, or language. It is a complex, and personal sense of self, which does not need to be validated by how you look or what language you are fluent in. Many immigrant kids, like myself, or even third or fourth generation children feel torn between a perceived juxtaposition of cultures. We grow up grappling with the notion of what a dual identity means. This is accompanied by the accusations of being ‘white-washed’ – that are most prevalent in cultural communities. You only have to pronounce one word wrong for an auntie to call you too Western; too modern; too white. This is isolating in itself but coupled with a constant need to verify your identity to new people is an exhaustive cycle that can contribute to Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome, which is when individuals feel out of place from their cultural backgrounds. In a featured post explaining these issues, non-profit organisation Dear Asian Youth (@dearasianyouth on Instagram) discusses how questions like “where are you really from?” or “how can you speak such good English?” exist as forms of microaggressions. They exist to question your belonging to the country.
“Being deemed ‘other’ in a country that you grew up in can be devastating. There’s a lot of psychological and mental baggage that comes with being rejected from a culture that you thought you belonged in. –No one can discredit your identity whether you fit into society’s standards or not.”
Am I too ‘British’ to be ‘Indian’ or too ‘Indian’ to be considered ‘British’? – questions of this format contribute to a form of identity crisis, that can sometimes feel inescapable as we progress from the academic sphere to the corporate world. The emphasis on the really is a significant shared experience, and is certainly discussed and parodied by online activists and comedians respectively.
My first party experience predated many more similar introductory experiences, however it made me realise there was a way to (sort of) reclaim my ‘introductory’ identity. If I am met with disagreement, “No, I mean where are you from from?” I have decided to hold my ground and repeat whatever answer I first gave. I am proud of my dual identity, and I am even prouder to share this with the world. However, it is uncomfortable, and honestly, a bit rude, to investigate someone’s identity especially when they’ve already answered you once. You’re not a personal details form, I don’t have to legally tell you my ethnic background. I also would like to note, that my refusal to elaborate does not invite you to start guessing. I cringe. If you start naming out South Asian countries, I will congratulate you for your extensive geographical knowledge and move away.
I digress. There is no issue in asking where are you from? –especially in new socialising environments such as the start of a new year, class, or school. The thing that makes university-life so engaging is the diversity of a student body; where you can meet and socialise with people from around the world. However, this is not an opportunity to start your own form of the third degree. If you are still confused, this post concisely summarises: say “Nothing. If the person in question wants to discuss their identity, they can bring it up at their own discretion.”
Ketki currently studies Classics and English Literature at King’s College London. She is the deputy editor-in-chief of Strand Magazine, KCL’s ‘Arts and Culture’ publication. She explores what "multi-cultural identity" looks like, in London and beyond, within her writing. She is the author of the exclusive digital column "Ketki & The City", which explores life at the intersection of Gen Z and diaspora.