“Where are you from?” About two years ago I would have thought that was a great question to ask – a great way to make conversation and get to know someone. Over my lifetime, I’ve asked it dozens of times. Probably over a hundred. And even that might be conservative.
It turns out, though, that those four little words can be quite loaded – and I had no idea.
To me where I am originally from (the island of Newfoundland, on the very east end of Canada) is a huge part of the person I am. There are vast linguistic and cultural differences there from even other parts of Canada. Where I live (Ottawa, Ontario) is very different from where I am from. Ottawa is part of my current life; Newfoundland is my cultural heritage.
I’ve always been interested in cultures and love learning about them. It’s not what’s the same about us that makes people interesting to me – it’s what’s different. It’s in the differences that I learn and grow and come to appreciate so many things.
So for me, asking someone where they are from has always come from a place of wanting to respect a person’s heritage enough to ask about it and wanting to increase my own understanding of places around the world.
I have learned, though, that to the person on the receiving end of that question, it might not come across that way.
One of my friends here is of African descent, by way of Barbados. She grew up in Manitoba, one of Canada’s prairie provinces. She’s the one who opened my eyes to the potentially darker side of this question.
For her and, I have learned since, many people who don’t sound or look like they “belong” in Canada, that question can make them really feel like they don’t, in fact, belong. She explained to me that when she answers that she’s from Manitoba, there is frequently a follow-up of, “No…but where are you really from?” Because a person of her colour, obviously, couldn’t possibly be “from” Manitoba.
We had a really good conversation about it that day and it made me uncomfortable. I wanted to resist it. I even thought to myself, “That’s ridiculous. She’s being over-sensitive.”
I realized later that I thought those things simply because of how uncomfortable I felt. I had flashbacks of times I had asked that question over the years. I didn’t like the thought that when I thought I was showing interest in them, I may actually have been insulting them. I didn’t want that to be the case, so I resisted the idea.
We often do that, don’t we? In so many situations it’s easier to put the “fault” of something back onto someone else. And my initial, defensive reaction was to do just that.
Since that conversation about two years ago, I have thought a lot about this idea. In fact, I’ve tried to write this post a bunch of times already and have never really been able to get it to where I’m comfortable with it or to write it in a way that readers would be comfortable with it.
Today I realized that making people (myself or others) comfortable with it shouldn’t be part of the equation.
That’s not to say I’m intentionally dismissing your feelings. What I mean is that it’s normal for this to be an uncomfortable subject, especially when it’s new to you and if you are an asker of that question.
Plus, sometimes it’s good to be made uncomfortable and if you are uncomfortable right now, please read on.
In today’s world, I think we need to be uncomfortable more often. Reading only things that already match our thoughts and ideas – things that we are comfortable with – only serves to more firmly ensconce us on that particular “side” of an issue. We will only learn and progress – as individuals and as communities – when we allow ourselves to learn about and try to see the other side of things. Frequently that means we will be uncomfortable. And, seriously, that’s OK – even more than OK.
Before I go further, let me explain that for me this is not a question of “political correctness”. I don’t even like that term. It might just be a question of semantics, but to me it implies that something should be changed solely to appease one group or another because politicians are afraid of that particular group. I get that laws need to be changed sometimes in order for changes to happen and particularly for rights to be given, but changing individual attitudes and behaviours is more than that.
For me when we change how we act, what we say and what we accept from those around us – it shouldn’t be because it’s the “politically correct” thing to do, but because it’s the right thing to do, out of simple human decency and respect.
This is one of those situations. Just because I’m curious about someone’s background and I don’t have any ill-will or malicious intent in my question doesn’t mean I have carte blanche to ask it whenever the urge strikes me. If I’m genuinely interested in that individual – and not just satisfying my own curiosity – then the first thing I should consider is whether or not my question would be welcome in the first place. (Another one of those reminders from the universe that it’s not, for some reason, all about me. 😉 )
Interestingly, I have even realized that I have not always enjoyed being asked that question myself.
As I said, I grew up in Newfoundland. European settlement of Newfoundland, which began in the 1500s, was primarily by English and Irish settlers, with some pockets of French communities depending on what was happening between Britain and France at any given moment. There are almost as many variations of English spoken in Newfoundland as there are communities. It is, I’m sure, a linquistic academic’s dream. (For more information about that, see the Wikipedia articles Newfoundland (island) and Newfoundland English.) In my “natural state”, I have an accent.
I lived almost 14 years in Calgary, Alberta. More often than not, as soon as someone heard me speak, they invariably asked either the general “Where are you from?” or the specific “Are you from Newfoundland?”
When I confirmed that I was, indeed from Newfoundland, the reactions were generally (in the other person’s mind, no doubt) very positive: “Oh! I love Newfies!” or “Newfies are the hardest workers!” There were also the comments about us being the biggest drinkers, too, which always came up when people found out that I was from Newfoundland and didn’t drink. “How is that possible???” they would ask with sincere incredulity. Happily, I never ran into the stereotype of “stupid Newfies”.
I either had to learn to just laugh it all off and take a 10-minute detour to every conversation when I first met someone or I had to learn to hide my accent and stop using those colourful expressions. Luckily, I have a knack for languages and accents and could hide that pretty easily. I also learned fairly quickly to avoid expressions that non-Newfoundlanders wouldn’t understand. (I should be clear: I never did this because of any sense of shame of being from Newfoundland; it was strictly because of how annoying and bothersome the interactions were.)
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t equate those experiences with the experiences that people of colour or who have immigrated to Canada deal with. Hardly. For one thing, I at least had a choice to be able to hide my linguistic identity. That choice is not available to people of a different colour or who aren’t able to blend in with the language so easily.
But thinking of my own experiences with that question has given me a bit of a different perspective into what it might be like for others on the receiving end of it. It also helped me realize that, even if there isn’t a sense of being made to feel like you don’t belong or perhaps of being “less than”, not everybody even wants to talk about where they are “from”. So I try to be respectful of that now.
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”Maya Angelou