Why I Can’t Bear the Question “But Where Are You REALLY From?

Make sure to watch the video before reading this post. It illustrates my point so perfectly!

Imagine the following scenario: me in a random corner shop after having paid for my shopping.

Shopkeeper: ‘So, where are you from?’
(This isn’t such an unusual question as unfortunately I still have a slight accent when speaking English. Luckily, it isn’t too bad and people can’t recognise it’s Dutch right away.)

Me: ‘From the Netherlands, Holland.’ (I sometimes add ‘Holland’ when the questioner looks confused because they can’t place where the Netherlands would be.)

Shopkeeper: ‘But where are you REALLY from?’

Me: (What I SHOULD say:) ‘From my mother’s womb.’
(But what I usually say when I’m annoyed by some nosy stranger asking me this question:) ‘From the Netherlands. Okay, have a nice day, bye!’

What the shopkeeper obviously meant to ask is where my ancestors were from and what my ethnic background is, considering I’m not a blonde with blue eyes and therefore don’t fit the stereotypical image of a Dutch girl. I don’t understand why a complete stranger should find this so interesting to know, especially considering there are so many people with an Indian, Bangladeshi or Pakistani background here in the UK and I don’t particularly stand out compared to many other girls who live in this country.  Hubby says I should take it as a compliment because I look ‘exotic’ and people are curious, but I just find it annoying. Perhaps I would’ve felt different about it if I had indeed been asked this question only since I’ve been living in the UK, but I think it’s been the most asked question by strangers my whole life, whether whilst being on holiday or when I was still living in the Netherlands.

Not all Dutchies have blonde hair, fair skin and blue eyes

Yes, I know that I don’t have blonde hair or blue eyes, but I was born in Amsterdam, feel 100% Western, probably speak and write better Dutch than the average person in the Netherlands (not trying to sound arrogant here!), so to be asked where I’m REALLY from is quite confronting and also a bit hurtful. While I normally feel ‘just me’ – so just a regular Dutch girl – every time I’m being asked this question, I’m confronted with the fact that I’m ‘of colour’. There’s no denying I am a bit ‘different’ of course. Obviously I do have darker skin and I’m I’ve been brought up with some non-Western values, traditions and food (yum!). However, I identify myself as Dutch, not as a second-generation immigrant. I certainly don’t feel torn between two cultures, so why should the fact that I might look ‘different’ justify a stranger questioning my nationality?

No, I don’t have the urge to find ‘my roots’ in India

What ticks me off most of all is that the answer ‘I’m from the Netherlands’ never seems to satisfy the person asking the rather thoughtless question. As I mentioned in the example above, I usually end the pointless conversation by repeating my first answer. This is my strategy when a random stranger like a shopkeeper – oh yes, this happens so often – asks me this personal question. When it’s someone I know and I feel like they’re genuinely interested in knowing more about me, I (usually first sigh and then) answer by saying my mum was born in Suriname but that my great-grandparents were from India and Pakistan. As soon as I mention India, I can see the eyes of the questioner light up. There we go again, I think to myself, here comes the other question.

‘Oh, I love India!’ the questioner says. ‘Have you ever been there?’ (That’s the question.)

Me: ‘No, why should I go there?’

Questioner: ‘To find out more about your roots.’ (Ugh, they actually said that word.)

Me: ‘Well, I don’t feel like I have any connections with India. My maternal grandmother’s family were from India. Furthermore, my grandmother was Muslim, so no I’m not particularly interested in India or Hinduism in that sense. (I am, however, interested in different cultures and religions and I love reading religious fables, mythological and folklore tales.)
My mum was born in Suriname and that’s where my ‘family roots’ are although I don’t know anyone there. If I were to visit Suriname, it would be with my mum so she can show me the places that were significant to her (although she emigrated to the Netherlands over 40 years ago and probably wouldn’t recognise any of the places anymore).

Questioner: ‘Oh yes, I understand. But you should really go to India. It’s such an amazing country and the people are SO sweet!’

Me: (screaming on the inside) ‘To be honest, I’m not interested in visiting the country. I’m not sure about visiting a country with such a strict class system and great gap between the filthy rich small elite and the average citizen. I’d feel very sad to see that all knowing I can’t do much to help. However most of all, the fact that I kind of look like them physically, but am so different because I’m Western would probably make me feel very uncomfortable. Locals might assume I speak the language, but I don’t (I understand some, but there are so many different dialects in India!), and I don’t share the same values or traditions. I wouldn’t know how to hold myself there actually.’

Questioner: ‘Hmmm, interesting. I hadn’t thought of it like that.’

So, dear reader, may I ask you just this one favour? Try to be a bit more sensible about the kind of questions you ask someone, especially a stranger. While you might just be curious and think you’re asking an innocent question, it could cause the person in question quite some grief.

Do you recognise yourself in this blog post? As always I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts,
Zarina xx