RASHMI OBEROI | 30 APRIL, 2017
"Where Are You From?"
There it comes… That dreaded question again…!! It appears to be seemingly harmless when most of us have encountered it under various circumstances and is goes typically like this: “Where are you from?” Most often than not, I get it when people look at my face and then try to fit that in with my accent or lack of it. At times, I am happy to explain. But often, I’m asked where I’m from even before I’ve said a word - as a conversation-opener in a party, on the street, or during my walk or in the gym. It irks me that in some of these situations, the question comes loaded with presumptions.
They're expecting me to give a stereotypical answer. They don’t expect me to say: “From India!” with a nonchalant shrug especially when I am giving this answer with two feet firmly planted in my country. But if "Where do you come from?" means "Where were you born and raised and educated?" then I'm entirely in my right to say ‘India’ for my nomadic existence due to being a ‘Fauji Brat’ had me moving every few years within India and a couple of times abroad!
Someone recently asked me, “If, for the rest of your life, you had to either stay within 100 kilometres of your home, or to forever be more than 100 kilometres away from home, which one would you pick?” I thought about this for a moment. But the only response I could give was: “Where’s ‘home’? I have so many.”
At this point in my life, I have several answers. “Home” could mean the city where I was born and remains special to me or it could mean my parent’s house which is a permanent abode for us after their retirement and where I end up at least once a month, and also spend my holidays or it could mean where I reside presently or it could also mean my fiancé’s home.
At such twisted replies my best friend usually hums and haws and says: “I don't know. I guess it's up to you. Choose the one that makes you tempted to say that you would stay there forever.” And after I think about it that way, I know exactly where home is.
I think the question “Where are you from?” works in a similar way. If you can give multiple answers to a question like that, then it’s entirely up to you to decide which one truly belongs to you.
In some specific cases, of course, you can probably tell which answer they're looking for. If “Where are you from?” is being asked by someone who’s curious about your accent, you give them the country where you acquired it. If “Where are you from?” is coming out of the mouth of a glowering airport security agent at a foreign airport, you give them your nationality, and tack on a ‘sir’ at the end of it, for good measure and a smile.
But if you're just asked where you're from in conversation, then how you respond is entirely up to you. You can answer with the place that you feel the most attached to. You can answer with the city that you live in now. You can answer with a list of every place where your shoes have touched the ground.
There is no one right answer. The right answer is the answer that feels right to you. That's all the affirmation you need. So naturally I do dread this seemingly innocent question from time to time. I begin my response with an awkward pause as I try to assess what the person asking me this query really wants. Where I was born? Where I live now? Where I spent the most years of my life? Where I consider home? Do he or she want my full ‘location history’ or just a polite one-line response?
It might sound like a silly dilemma, but in my 47 years, I've lived in more towns and cities that you would care to count. I don't say this looking for congratulations or sympathy. It's just a fact that makes it hard for me to really claim roots in any place. As society becomes more mobile – and global – many of us don't stay put in one place for long. We move across the country or around the world due to family needs, work, education and job opportunities.
Questions about my hometown or where I'm from are easiest to answer when I'm abroad. Then I can get away with the broad brush of "I'm Indian," although even then some people press me for more specifics: which state, which city? The longest I've ever lived in one place is eight years where I reside currently. When I explain to people that I lived in several states growing up, most of them immediately retort, "Oh, are you a military brat?"
The military tends to move families around every two or so years and sometimes in an even less time frame. The moves often entail separations for the families due to the area of posting and it is a well-known upheaval for us children as well who have to experience the dreaded ‘new kid in school syndrome’ on a frequent basis. I'm not sure who came up with the military brat moniker, but it doesn't exactly have the right connotations. Fortunately, I don't face the cultural and linguistic confusion that some do as they try to sort through what their identity is for I am Indian first and foremost!
We seem to want to put people in boxes, to size them up quickly. In India, we are especially prone to wanting to know which state or part of the country someone is from. I've even had people ask me where my parents are from, as if knowing that will somehow give great insight into our family character. How does it matter whether you are from the north, south, east or west or a concoction?!
I know this question often comes right out of the handbook of polite conversation. When you tell people where you are from, they will often try to relate to you by telling you about when they last visited your country/state/city. It can be a way of connecting as much as sizing people up. But I'm also amused at the increasing number of people I meet who are as tongue-tied by such a simple question as I am.
I understand these questions often come from well-meaning places, but sometimes I wish we could just get rid of them entirely, much like the racial identifier question on job and school applications.
The reality is a lot of us move around frequently. The notion of a ‘hometown’ or ‘place we're from’ can be complex. This is modern life in our ‘world is flat’ globe, and frankly, it's refreshing not to be so easily pinned down.
The problem with “where are you from?” is more in the answer that is expected than the question itself. The question is loaded with subtexts of appearance. While travelling abroad, if I don’t look Indian in the conventional sense of the term, so curiosity seeks to typecast me in another nationality, whether I identify with it or not.
We all know what an ideal fit feels like. It’s like when we discover a shoe that is the perfect size and shape or a place that just feels like home. For me, India is home – Period! And I am happy to say that even in these trying times where radicalisation is brewing, I am not the only one who feels like this ‒ for being Indian is far more important than being type casted by name/place/religion/area/caste…for many of us!