On Being Multicultural

“So, where are you from?”

It sounds like an innocent enough question, something that falls in much the same category as “Nice weather, isn’t it?” or “Cute kids you have there!” Except it isn’t. Not for us.

“So, where are you from?”

As a multicultural person, my responses include these. “Ehm, lots of places, actually.” “Ehm, a bit of X, a bit of Y, a bit of Z, and then I lived in A, B, and C. And now here.” “I’m more of a global citizen, actually.” Except those answers aren’t good enough. Even the most detailed response yields a simple: “OK, but WHERE are you FROM?”

When my kids get the question, as they do on a daily basis (and no, I’m not exaggerating), it’s even more complicated, because the answer ought to be more straight forward. “Here. We’re from here,” seemed like a good enough response, given the fact that they were both conceived “here”,  born “here” and have lived “here” all their lives. But no, apparently that isn’t good enough for strangers on the bus, strangers in the queue at the bakery, and strangers, random people we encounter everyday, in the most random places. Since “here” apparently wasn’t good enough, my six-year old has now taken to saying “I don’t know” in a confused voice. And that ain’t fair. Because if HE ain’t from “here”, none of us know where the hell he IS supposed to be from.

Yes, the question can be innocent enough, and I readily admit to having been on the verge of asking it myself all too often. Asking about someone’s heritage can help people connect, sometimes. It can also do the opposite. It can also otherize, so I’ve made a commitment to never, ever asking that question myself. If people want to share, they will. If they don’t, they won’t. And the ethnic background of people I don’t know is none of my bloody business anyway.

Yes, we look different. No, our hair, our skin, our mish-mash-of-random-cultures culture, and our languages aren’t a good enough reason for those random strangers to turn us into a walking bloody anthropological study, not even if they ask the question with a smile. Ask, yeah, go ahead, but don’t get angry if I don’t feel like reducing my varied heritage to one single answer, because my life didn’t play out like that, and I don’t fit into your boxes.

I am NOT from the place I was born in. I am NOT from any of the places my ancestors came from, because they came from different places, and people in every single one of those places have always told me I come from one of the other places my other ancestors came from. I am apparently NOT from the country I live in, the one place I have spent the longest consecutive years of my life in, the country  I am a citizen of — you, random stranger, remind me of that everyday when you ask THAT question. With the very act of asking that question, you tell me I don’t belong, and you tell my children, who have never lived anywhere else, that they don’t belong.

So stop it already. I know you don’t think you’re doing anything wrong, and I know from your angry responses when I don’t give one single, easily identifiable answer, that you think I am the one doing something wrong. But no, people I have never met before and will never meet again do not have some kind of inherent right to know all about my family history just because they can see I look different.

Talk about the weather instead. Please.



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