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Where Are You From?

How do you answer that question?

For me it depends on a number of things; first off who are you and what are your reasons for that question? I’ve been asked that question at the bus stop, in grocery stores, at the library, at school, at work, at the club, at the gym, at parties… and for every one person that asks I’m sure there are several others who are thinking it.

Straight up, if you are a black person asking me I am more likely to give you a straight answer: Zambia. If you are anyone else, I weigh my circumstances and I may give you a roundabout reply: Northern BC.

When a black person asks me I know they’re looking for a familiar tie, something relatable. We are both two similar faces in a predominantly white population and we’re looking for a neighbour, an instant friend.

For some context I live in Northern British Columbia, Canada. West Coast. Where I live right now there are probably less than 100 black people here. More now with growing industries. Down south, Vancouver, Victoria, there is a larger black population but still, the community is not very large.

Some situations:

My friend and I are sitting on the grass listening to music downtown Victoria. A black man in about his 60’s, shirtless with a t-shirt wrapped around his head is dancing on his own about 30 feet over. I know the inevitable is going to happen so I give him a polite smile and find a place on the grass chatting with my friend. It isn’t long before he saunters over, sort of half squatting facing us and says hi to me and asks where I’m from. Zambia. He chats for a bit, I nod politely, silently willing him away. Parlez-vous français? He asks. I shake my head no. Wrong country bud. But I look to my left and see if my white friend is willing to give herself away. Oui. She replies. T-shirt wrapped head man is absolutely tickled and turns to my friend for some French chat. I am secretly pleased that she gets the attention.

I think he was surprised to find a similarity in someone that he didn’t expect. He wasn’t trying to be obnoxious or intrusive, he just saw someone who looked like him and he was curious. Fair enough.

There are also situations where a non-black person will ask me where I’m from and then proceed to tell me how they were born in Zambia or Tanzania. Times like that I’m like, neat. I don’t know what context you were there for, I don’t know what context made you leave. There are many countries that evicted non-native populations from their countries once the country gained their independence or other situations and I’m not about to ask how you ended up here in Canada. I’m sure it’s a great story, but I just want to make a bank deposit and be on my way, thanks.

An interesting situation however is when they, too, are from Zambia and greet me in a local language whether it be Bemba, Lamba, Nyanja and I reply with a weak smile and an apologetic shrug. ‘Ah-ah!’, they say, looking both sad and surprised.

A funny thing happened when we were visiting Salt Spring Island this summer. We were the only black people from what I could see that day and my mom noticed as we were on the ferry leaving; not one person asked us where we were from. Normally if the 4 of us are out together, restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, we will be asked those 4 words. But not that time.

Now this question has a lot of sides to it. I’m a visible minority. People are curious. If I were in Zambia I’m sure I would still be asked this question. Probably going on how I dress, how I style my hair, and definitely how I speak. I speak like a Mzungu. My attempt at speaking my language would give me away immediately. But I haven’t experienced that. Yet.

I wasn’t a Canadian citizen until I was 11 years old. I was Zambian. But all I knew was my Canadian life. So I didn’t think anything of it, really, until I relinquished that citizenship. And not even then, but years later.

I was inspired to write this post because of something that happened back in October when I first moved home.

I’m at the library and an older white lady in her 70’s is in the aisle looking for a book near me. I’m looking at the back of a Michael Jackson biography as she says Hi, how are you? I smile at her and reply, Good thanks, how are you? She smiles and goes about looking for her book. Then before she wanders off she stops and looks up at me (she made me feel tall, and I’m only 5’4).

“Where are you from?” She asks conversationally, not accusatory at all but I’m not feeling it and I give her a sweet smile and say “Ooh, I grew up here.” I go back to browsing the shelves thinking I’d thrown a wrench in her plans.
“Where are your parents from?”
Come on lady, gimme a break, I think to myself. I sighed and said “Zambia”. That word seemed to have no meaning to her and she went on to tell me about her son’s wife (funny she didn’t call her her daughter-in-law or am I just reading too much into that?) who is from Rwanda. I nodded. This wife of her son is now building a school in Rwanda. Neato. I told her, “Have you gone to visit?” She replied with “Ooh I visited long before she was there. Africa is a fascinating country.”

With that she wandered off which was only upsetting to me because I really wanted to give her the o_O look and walk off myself, but she beat me to it. Africa is a fascinating country. That’s a whole OTHER conversation my friends.

This post is more of a brain barf. There are so many sides to this conversation and it really opens up a huge opportunity for discourse about culture, identity, citizenship, meaning… but it’s something I wanted to share with you.

Do you get asked ‘where are you from’? How do you answer? Does your answer change?

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8 thoughts on “Where Are You From?

  1. I met the same old lady at the hospital while waiting for my xray. The lady whose son is married to a Rwandan. She sounded sick in her conversation. It was a repetitive and rehearsed curiosity.

  2. The answer to that question, i guess, depends on where you are at such a time. If i’m back home in Nigeria, for instance, and i get asked that question, i’d take it to mean what tribe do you come from? Or what city do you live in? If i’m outside my country home, say in Ghana, i’d take it to mean ‘what country are you from?’ My answers would be just apt. I’m seldom asked that question tho.

    • Yeah, it is dependent on where I am. I guess it’s one of those things that I will always be asked. But yeah the specificity of the question is usually dependent on where the person asking is from. You wouldn’t tell a fellow Nigerian you’re from Nigeria while you’re in Nigeria. That would be pointless. I’ll be honest though it can get annoying.

  3. Interesting. I get asked that question a lot and I’m in South Africa. Usually after I fail to understand something someone says in one of the 11 national languages.

    Its not meant to start conversation and usually has an accusatory tone to it.

    Sometimes the person asking will point out the other Zimbabweans in the room and tell me that they speak the language…. why don’t I?

    • Oooh man! I’m wondering if I would get that in Zambia, especially if I’m around Muzungu who are speaking Bemba or Lamba. It’s not something that can be avoided I guess.

  4. Totally relate with you. Firstly, I cant speak my mother tongue well. SO I always get flack for ‘sounding white’ or ‘having a weird accent’.. i.e. the typical coconut. I don’t even want to get into that conversation. Meh.

    But I am studying in South Africa and the university I attend is multi-national. So whenever someone asks where are you from, usually it is from a genuine, curious place. Very few incidences happen when it is meant in a demeaning manner, although I may be naive.

    I know I always have the urge to ask other people, mostly black, where they are from when they have a cool different accent. I love africa and it always feels amazing when I can connect with someone from northern africa.

    I was in Germany a few years black and I was the only black person in the whole region lol Ok im sure there were one or two others, but certainly not many. I managed to meet 2 other black people in the 2 months i was there. And people there always asked me where I was from etc. Such a weird position to be in because I was never sure what their agenda was.

    Anyways, sorry I barfed on your barf.

    • I really like the atmosphere of university where people have the potential to be from absolutely anywhere in the world. And, like you, I can only shrug when people tsk tsk about me not knowing my language. That’s just how it goes. Thanks for adding your experiences 🙂

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