Posted by / Category Cultural Differences, London /

I have been in Sydney for 10 days or so now and I have just realised that nobody has asked me the dreaded question:

‘Where are you from?’

Or, even worse, after they hear my strong French accent. ‘Are you from France?’

Do you know what? It’s refreshing. I am glad not to have to justify myself for once. In London, I am always ‘the French one’, and I keep being asked where I am from all the time. I am used to it by now. Sometimes I answer ‘Oh, I come from around the corner’, and then I get something like ‘No, no, where are you REALLY from?’. I promise, I am really from around the corner.

Seriously? Don’t you think it’s a tad offensive to ask someone where they are from?

Over here, in Sydney, nobody cares where I am from. It’s an accepted fact that the society is multi-cultural and yes, come to think of it I find Australians more welcoming.

 

Maybe one day I’ll be from Sydney

In London, when I am asked where I am from, it makes me feel like I don’t belong there. Yes, despite my British passport. Not to mention that when I start ‘admitting’ that yes, I happen to be French-born (which is none of anybody’s business by the way), it often leads to more and more unhelpful comments, such as ‘Oh, I did French for GCSE’ (good for you), or ‘I have spent such nice holidays in Provence!’ or ‘Don’t you miss the food?’. I am pretty sure that such questions are asked without any malice, but I struggle with the fact that I feel like I am being put in a box with a lovely ‘French’ label on it. Because let’s face it, being French is only a small part of what I am. So why is it so important to them? Am I not entitled to be, well, just me, warts, accent and all?

The problem with the question ‘Where are you from?’ is also that it implies that you are not from here. It means that you don’t fit the usual ‘cliches’, you are not the way you are supposed to be. It feels a bit as if my authenticity is questioned.In short, it makes me feel like I don’t belong here.

Obviously a lot depends on how it is asked, what the context is, and why your interlocutor wants to know. But believe me, if you were in my shoes and constantly asked about where you are from, you would get annoyed after a while.

Because at the end of the day, what does it matter where I am from? If we are together, in the here and now, it shouldn’t have any importance whatsoever, right? What do you think?

 

  • Ronald

    Agreed! But FRENCH yummy mummy… you are right. The keys are it is up to any individual to VOLUNTEER info – but not for others to ask. It is a reminder that irrelevant personal questions are just offensive and not conversation no matter how desperate to converse. If you’d have been called Odette or Françoise,,,,

    Finally, bear in mind when you are next asked about the weather: banal is better than offensive!

    • Talking about the weather is always my fallback plan. You can’t go wrong when you talk about the weather, this much I know. As for Sydney, there is something refreshing over here. I can’t put my finger on it. I just love it.

  • James Casserly

    Completely in agreement with you Muriel. I don’t know anywhere outside of Ireland/UK and the US that people seem to think it ok to ask this, usually asking total strangers or bare acquaintances. I never ask anyone where they are from. It’s none of my business, and quite frankly has nothing to do with who they are as a person. I’m glad you are finding Sydney a refreshing change 🙂

    • Thank you James. I am glad that you understand. I suppose it’s all in the context, but at some point too much is too much. Yes, I am French. So what? And yes, I love Sydney. It might be winter, but it’s great!

  • Totally get this. I’m American, but I’ve lived in Scotland for nearly 25 years. Only recently, people have stopped asking me when I’m going home. Because I go home every night. To my house. In Scotland. With my husband and my child, both of whom are Scottish, yes. Ha!

    • Glad you get it! I think you understand this post because, like me, you are not living in your home country. I sometimes wonder why it is so hard to understand that people might be from a different place, but hey, there you go, right?

  • Allison Elizabeth Brown

    Wow, I have a completely different perspective! I love to ask about where people are from because I LOVE learning about other people’s culture and about other people in general. When I hear someone speak in a foreign language, I am intrigued and interested. We have hosted 9 exchange students from about 6 different countries. We now have family all around the world. If someone were to ask me where I was from, I would be flattered that someone is interested in learning about me, my country, and my culture. Definitely would not be offended!

    • It’s all in the context, Allison. As you have exchange students I suppose it’s a different thing. It’s a pretty natural question. It’s not exactly the same in London, and I often hear it in a professional context, which I find really unhelpful. Not being asked where I am from in Sydney is a refreshing change!

  • Glenda Cates

    I wouldn’t be offended as I like sharing where I am from and learning where others are from. As it allows me to learn about new Countries and cultures and to make new friends. Have a nice day.

  • Doug Jarvie

    Maybe you could just give them your web address. That should tell them what they want to know. 🙂

    • Thank you Doug. I don’t really mind being asked where I am from if the other person is genuinely interested in my background, but I resent people who just want to let me know that they absolutely LOVE French food and know of a great French restaurant. It happens a lot more that you think! As for political correctness, I don’t really care…

  • Oui In France

    Hi Muriel! As an American in France, I get the “where are you from” question a fair amount and while it’s easy to get defensive after a while (trust me, I have), I find that most people just want to connect and find common ground. Even if in the moment they seem nosy and annoying. As you said, there’s no malice involved. People are just curious. I have to remind myself of that. I can see it both ways. Allison’s comment below was a great one.

    • Thanks for sharing the post Diane, and sorry for all the controversy 🙂 I suppose I have been asked far too many times where I was from. I also think that it’s difficult to understand what I mean if you haven’t worked in a foreign country, as an expat. That said, maybe it’s just part of an expat’s life? I wonder…

      • Oui In France

        No problem at all! I enjoy your posts and think they are good conversation starters. Some people just don’t know how to use social media in a respectful way, that’s all!

        Yes, some people don’t understand what it’s like to be asked seemingly innocent questions over and over. Like you said, it’s especially true if they haven’t worked abroad. It’s hard when you’re making a full effort to integrate and blend in if people always find you to be different. At work, I would sometimes be more annoyed by the question if I was particularly stressed and other times it was nothing. But I try to let it go because people are usually innocent and just genuinely curious. I have to admit I am the foreign one in France so for people not to be curious about where I’m from would be weird. But still, I understand your point of view. It gets tiring, especially when you’re trying to live your life.

  • Ciao from a Canadian in Italy! I completely relate to this post, I always get a tiny bit irked when people ask but I suppose it does depend HOW they ask as well…I’m a second-gen Chinese-Canadian but because I’m a visible minority in Italy, I get alot of the “where are you from” and when I answer, they repeat the question as you mentioned by saying “where are you REALLY from” because it’s impossible to look like me and be “Canadian”…I often have to explain that my parents were born in Canada, as well as my brother and I and even then, many people think I’m lying or not understanding their question, it’s so annoying sometimes. Especially because in Canada, people don’t tend to ask questions! I wrote something about this here: http://www.questadolcevita.com/blog/my-canadian-identity-abroad-in-italy-the-conundrum

    I know people write that it’s a compliment to be asked, but it really depends on the tone and the way it’s asked. I’ve been asked with by strangers who are genuinely curious and interested, I’ve been asked in ways that intend to make you feel like you’re invading your “adopted” country. It all depends. Thanks to Diane from Oui in France (below), she forwarded me your post!

  • I don’t know about that, Muriel.
    Being Jewish- and meeting another Jewish person- that would be amost typical question. So typical, that it’s called Jewish Geography.