Friday, October 21, 2011

Where are you from?

The other day I was out grocery shopping, and bumped into a person on the street soliciting for a charity (this is a daily thing in the UK; college-aged students are hired by charities to accost--I mean, sign-up--passersby for regular donations).

I've gotten good at politely avoiding these people: "Sorry, not interested." Every so often they get pushy, and I'll explain to them that I prefer not to conduct business transactions on the street. But I try not to say too much. Because frequently, whenever I so much as open my mouth, they jump on my accent.

"Where you are from?"

I think they're trying to be friendly, to get me talking, perhaps willing to donate (or even entertain them while they stand on the street, probably bored out of their minds). But this question has the exact opposite effect. I'll mumble something hurriedly (the other day it was, "Here, I'm from Bristol.") and leave as quickly as possible.

I HATE being asked where I'm from.

And I should say, this doesn't just happen with charity workers. I get it from the supermarket, from people at the bus stop, from cafes. Everywhere I go, I get asked "Where are you from?"

I don't mind so much when it's part of a conversation. But if it's out of the blue, to me it's the equivalent of saying, "You're not from around here. You don't belong." Because, obviously, they're not asking the people with British accents "Where are you from?" I don't mind the question as a tourist, but as someone who's lived in Bristol for four years, I resent being told I don't belong. I can only imagine how annoying this is after twenty years.

Growing up, I was told never to ask where someone's from. I was taught that even if someone has a different skin color to mine, or a different accent, they can still be American. Maybe that's not so much of a British sensibility.

But perhaps I'm being too sensitive. I truly don't think these people mean to be nasty or exclusive. At best, they're curious. Perhaps I just don't like being asked personal questions on the street.

Because minutes later, I went into my favorite deli (Chandos! Love them!), and the two guys behind the counter were debating whether Matt Damon would run for US President. I placed my order, and then one of the guys, one I've chatted with before, asked, "Hey, where are you from again?" and I didn't resent it at all. He wanted to include me in the conversation, get the American perspective on whether Matt Damon would run (uhhh... no).

The funny thing is, I love talking about where I'm from. I love discussing Chicago, snowy winters, the Great Lakes, US politics, American food...

All of this made me wonder whether maybe I need a new "Where are you from?" policy.

Perhaps I should be less prickly and say, Chicago, or Michigan, or the US.

Or perhaps I should take the opportunity to let them know that I find the question upsetting, and I wish they wouldn't ask it, because it implies that people with different accents can't belong here.

More than likely, I'll just glare, mumble "Here," and hurry away again.

What do you think? Is it a fair question? How would you answer it?


  1. Try being asked for over 25 years! I don't blame you for being hurt or upset, Anne, and I find it annoying and sometimes intrusive. In my experience, however, askers are often just looking for a chance to do some UK-bashing ("why would you ever want to live in this dump when you can live in America") or to tell you about their American travels (yes, it's always Florida). I generally ignore the question unless I'm having an actual conversation with people OR I tell them I'm from a small town Saskatchewan. It has made me aware of the fact that I sometimes ask fellow immigrants from, say, Eastern Europe or Africa where they're "from" I'm always just interested and trying to be friendly, but I'm clearly no less intrusive better than the person who asks me the same question! PS How come nobody ever says to us, "I love the way you talk!"??

  2. A month or so ago, I was at the grocery store checkout. This checker overheard me speaking English with my best friend when she was visiting in March, and since then always speaks English with me. That day she asked me "Are you going home?"
    ME: Yes, I just popped out to pick up some things for lunch.
    HER: No, I meant America, when are you going to America.
    ME: Oh! Um, Who knows? I haven't been back since I left 6 years ago...

    I went on to explain that I feel very much at home here, in the Land of Cheese and Chocolate. I honestly had no idea what she was asking!

    My in-laws get this all the time in the US. Every time we we are in a restaurant, the server will say to my British father-in-law: "You're not from around here. Where are you from?" Since he's been 15 years in the US, he usually responds with the name of their local town/suburb. I can remember him saying just once he'd like to go to a restaurant and not be asked that question. People don't stop to think that s/he are probably not the first to ask the person with the accent that question!

  3. I get that a lot here in Boston (the "Where are you from") because we speak 100% Spanish as a family and are children are kind of blond, and we just tend to confuse people. My husband's from Spain, but I'm not, and I often have conversations in shops etc. that go something like:
    Person in shop: Wow, what language are you speaking?
    Me: Spanish.
    Person: Really? Wow. Where are you from?
    Me: Oh, around here. We live in Cambridge.
    Person: No, but where are you FROM? (Mind you, I don't have a Boston accent, but I'm a native speaker of English and sound like it)
    Me: Um, *scratches head* I was born in Pittsfield ...
    And it goes along like that for a while ...
    Native speakers of Spanish (there are quite a few in the Boston area!) often ask me where I'm from too. My Spanish is really good but I have a weird accent they often can't place, because I learned from my Spain-Spanish husband and in Spain, and I've worked hard to eradicate an annoying American accent, but I'm not quite there. Those conversations are usually a little shorter though:
    Person: Are you from ... Argentina? *looks confused*
    Me: My husband's from Spain, but I'm from around here.
    Person: Ah, Spain.
    Oh, dear, this comment is altogether too long. I'm sorry--I must have had too much fun with your question! :-)

  4. I LOVE all of you for coming out of the woodwork to empathize with me on this! So good to hear I'm not alone! And I LOVE hearing your stories, too.

    Jane: The only people who ever tell me they love my accent are elderly men who are way too old to be flirting with me. You're definitely right about the motives though, I do think most of it is just curiosity and making conversation. But I have to say, Jane, after being here 25 years, and with your sense of humor, I can't believe you haven't yet found the perfect answer. Get to work on it, because I could use it!

    Elisabeth: See, stories like your father-in-law's make me think we need to take a stand, tell people to stop asking (especially if it's always the same restaurant!). Good to hear this doesn't just happen in the UK, though. I've got a few funny moments like that, too, where people asked about "home" and I totally misunderstood them.

    Kiperoo: No such thing as going on too long; so nice to have someone to discuss this with! And how maddening that you get the double whammy, from English and Spanish speakers! My husband used to know a university prof in the South who was mixed-race and brought up outside of the US. No one could pinpoint his ethnicity, so the students referred to him as "the Foreigner." *shudder*

    I guess the take home message is that people shouldn't ask complete strangers personal questions!

  5. This is interesting. I used to feel really self-conscious when people ask when I'm from because I don't have a Southern accent (I actually have a California accent -- weird I know). I always thought it was a back-door to putting me down or pointing out that I was different -- but maybe now that I think about it, maybe it was just because they were curious...

  6. Karen: Interesting how many people have struggled with this. And I thought it was just me! The thing is, it could be a totally innocent question, or it could be a subtle insult. I have a friend who has an adopted child of a different race and deals with this constantly. Really, people should just cut it out with asking strangers personal questions.

  7. Was eavesdropping, but wanted to add that I always say, "I love your accent" because when I travel out of the southern states I am asked "Where are you from?". Even though most people are very kind, it always makes me self-conscious.

    In fact, while visiting in one region of the country, my husband and I were discussing directions and a man approached us to give a full-blown political rant. He assumed that we held certain opinions based on our accents! (Kind of funny since part of his rant was on "narrow-minded" people!!! Well, funny now. At the time, I was completely stressed.)

    When my husband is asked where he is from, he keeps a straight face and replies,"New Jersey." The looks he receives are hilarious.

  8. Bridgette: How obnoxious! Especially that man ranting about narrow minded people! Grrr.... now you're making ME angry! But honestly, I feel a lot better hearing that so many of us have had this uncomfortable experience of being asked where we're from. Something about the shared humanity; at least we all get the experience of being the Other. Also I really like the New Jersey answer. I may have to try it! But I wonder what the European equivalent of NJ is...

  9. :) What's the accent from My Fair Lady, cockney? Is that a regional English accent or social class?

  10. Bridgette: A bit of both, is my limited understanding. It's a working class London accent. So that might not totally work... I could say Birmingham, though. I really do love that accent (of which I have no trace ;) ).

  11. Hey Anne,

    So even though I have not had this exact experience, I have faced many questions regarding L and M. Curious people, in airports, in stores, on the street, in museums, always want to know where they are from. I wonder if I should indignantly say, from here. Or from Chicago. Usually, I answer, I suppose in the hope of educating someone. I often think that the situation of the asking and the tone of voice of the questioner goes a long way in my willingness to talk about a personal and delicate subject with complete strangers.
    There is also something in the asking that defines American as NOT what L and M look like, and that is what is most upsetting, I suppose.

    On another note, I finally gave you a blog award. I am passing on the good vibe. I think you gave me one early on when I was getting started blogging, so I feel like this time I am not dropping the ball.

    It is called a Liebster Award and more on it at my blog. I don't want to liter your comment box with links, so you know how to find me.

  12. Peggy: Thanks for stopping by, and thank you also for the lovely mention on your blog! I'm really touched.

    I was actually thinking about you as I wrote this post... at least when people ask me where I'm from, the only person they're offending is me. I would feel even more anxious and upset if the question were directed towards my children. Good for you for trying to teach people something when they ask. I do agree, tone really is everything.

    Amy Dickinson (who writes the Ask Amy column) once advised someone to answer rude questions with: "Why do you ask that?" I'm not sure it quite works in our situations, but I think it's a good way to turn the question on its head and let people consider exactly why they are asking such a question.

  13. As a Brit in the USA I get this an awful lot. And when I complain about it, my American friends tell me I'm being ridiculous and to just get over it. If only they knew...

  14. Anon: Eek, I definitely stand corrected that it's not only a British thing! Now if only we could figure out what to say to get people to understand how annoying it is! Good luck!


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