What You're Really Asking When You Ask Someone "Where Do You Live?"
Where do you live?
NEW DELHI: Ever since I moved to New Delhi, the three questions -- whether I am at a work event or meeting, at a party or date -- that I inevitably get asked are:
1. Where are you from?
2. What do you do?
3. Where do you live?
All three questions seem innocuous at first glance. You’d think it’s perfectly acceptable, in the name of knowing more about the person you’re engaging with, to ask any/all of the above questions. Plus, asking such questions is the norm. Let me relate a typical Friday night.
Person I just met: So, where are you from?
Me: All over the world really. I’ve lived in London, New Delhi, Milan, Mumbai, Vienna and LA.
Person I just met: Okay, but where are you really from?
Me: (Sigh) I guess you could say the US. Well, my parents are American though I’ve spent most of my life outside of America.
Person I just met: (Satisfied with my answer) Oh cool. So what are you doing in India?
Me: I love India. I’m working here in New Delhi now.
Person I just met: What do you do?
Me: I do a bit of consulting work.
Person I just met: And where do you live?
Me: Does it matter?
Person I just met: No, no but y’know, where you live in Delhi makes all the difference… you don’t want to be stuck in Noida or something (laughs).
The sad part is, many people will not even realise what’s so terribly wrong with the exchange that I have reproduced above.
Let me start one by one.
“Where are you from?”
The problem with “where are you from?” is more in the answer that is expected than the question itself. As evident in the exchange above, no one is ever satisfied with my response evoking London, New Delhi, Milan et al… all cities that I have spent a formative part of my life in and have called home at some time or the other. The person in question, however, finds my answer “America” entirely acceptable, even though I’ve spent a collective total of four years (of my almost thirty) in that country.
The question is loaded with subtexts of appearance. I don’t look Indian in the conventional sense of the term, so curiosity seeks to typecast me in a neat nationality, whether I identify with it or not.
To elucidate the point further, take the example of say someone born to ethnically Indian parents in the US. Let’s call her Pia. Pia, has lived her entire life in Boston. She’s been to India only a couple of times, to visit family. She doesn’t speak an Indian language. She watches no Indian shows and cannot cook any Indian food. She’s lived in America her entire life. Her passport says “USA” but more importantly, her mind, soul and heart say the same. Yet, everywhere she goes, people ask her: “Where are you from?” “Boston,” she replies. “No, but where are you really from?” she’s asked. “My parents are from India, but I was born and brought up here,” she replies. The questioners are satisfied. Pia, not so much.
There is an excellent article in Citylab that delves further into the problems with the question, “where are you from?” I quote: “When directed towards minorities, the veiled question assumes foreignness. Given that the original inhabitants of the country weren’t white, the very first “settlers” of America were Hispanic, and that Chinese were among the first immigrants to the country, the idea that somehow these ethnicities are different from the mainstream, or not as American, is grating to many.For Asian Americans in particular, these assumptions of foreignness have been especially damaging. This group, which includes several ethnicities, has been “othered” through racist immigration and naturalization policies that lasted until 1965 and cost people their homes, jobs, and freedom.”
Or take a Ted Talk by Writer Pico Iyer—who is of Indian descent, but has lived in America, Tokyo, and the UK. He examines the confusion felt by the question “where are you from?” saying, “They're expecting me to say India, and they're absolutely right insofar as 100 percent of my blood and ancestry does come from India. Except, I've never lived one day of my life there. I can't speak even one word of its more than 22,000 dialects. So I don't think I've really earned the right to call myself an Indian. And if "Where do you come from?" means "Where were you born and raised and educated?" then I'm entirely of that funny little country known as England, except I left England as soon as I completed my undergraduate education, and all the time I was growing up, I was the only kid in all my classes who didn't begin to look like the classic English heroes represented in our textbooks. And if "Where do you come from?" means "Where do you pay your taxes? Where do you see your doctor and your dentist?" then I'm very much of the United States, and I have been for 48 years now, since I was a really small child. Except, for many of those years, I've had to carry around this funny little pink card with green lines running through my face identifying me as a permanent alien. I do actually feel more alien the longer I live there.”
“What do you do?”
The question “what do you do?” may seem like the perfect conversation starter, but is an equally loaded question as “where you from?”
Whilst “where are you from?” has implications relating to ethnicity and background, “what do you do?” is centred on questions of class, socioeconomic status and mobility.
“What do I do?” I eat food; I drink water; I dance like noone is watching. But that’s not what you want to know when you ask that question.
You want to know how I earn my paycheck, and how much I earn. Am I a waitress or a VP of a multinational retail chain? Am I salaried clerk or someone with the luxury to try my hand at being an entrepreneur?
Am I above you or below you? Am I worth your time?
I am making a conscious effort to answer the question “what do you do?” with things that I am passionate about doing. They include reading, travelling, writing, playing the piano and yes, my job.
Let me recount a typical exchange with this approach.
Person I met three minutes ago: So, what do you do?
Me: Well I enjoy reading Indian fiction, and I make sure I travel as much as I can. I’m also learning how to cook South Indian food… and I play the piano, which I haven’t been doing as much as I’d like.
Person I met three minutes ago: *Blank stare for ten seconds* Oh, haha. That’s cool. I just floated a food app. (Proceeds to hand over business card). I’m the CEO at XYZ Food Corp. You said you were working in New Delhi. Doing what?
Me: *sigh* I’m a consultant.
Person I met three minutes ago: *Satisfied (but how?)* Oh cool! Consultancy is where it’s at!
“Where do you live?”
This is the question I struggle with most, because whilst the first two questions have the pretence of genuine interest, the question “where do you live?” fails on that account entirely.
Why should it matter where I live? Why should I share that information with someone I just met? Why should that be an acceptable question to ask?
In New Delhi/NCR, the question “where do you live?” is asked to stereotype you. It may as well be: “are your parents super rich, averagely rich, less-than-average rich but still rich, or (shock and horror) middle class?”
The localities that are acceptable answers include the farm house areas, parts of south and central Delhi, and maybe parts of Gurgaon (there’s a hierarchy in these answers as well, but I’ll save the readers that excruciating detail).
The unacceptable answers are the rest of Delhi/NCR, i.e, the majority. God help you if you live in West Delhi, or Dwarka, Ghaziabad. You just went down ten notches in the asker’s books.
“Where do you live?” also catches me off guard, because unlike “where are you from?” and “what do you do?” -- that are asked no matter where in the world you might be -- “where do you live?” is a question unique to India.
It’s acceptable, in Delhi and in Bombay, to ask people where they live -- when the question has no bearing on anything whatsoever, other than the obvious purpose of stereotyping and judging the person.
So the next time someone asks you “where do you live?” say “the planet earth” and move on.