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

portrait of me wearing oversized paper glasses in orange, the national colour of the Netherlands

Make sure to watch the video below 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

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

  1. Yes! This annoys me so much. I am a non-Chinese Hong Konger and the first thing I get asked, even when meeting other locals, is where are you from? With locals, I normally just reply with, ‘I’m a Hong Konger’ in Cantonese and they stop questioning.

    When I’m travelling and tell people I’m from HK, a lot of people react with, ‘But you dont look Chinese’, or ‘where are you really from?’
    I have even had people argue with me about it and tell me that I must be European! I mean, really?!

    Also, screw those people that tell you to go to India to find your roots. I have friends who are also HKers with Indian ancestry and they get told similar things. Or people refer to India as their ‘home’ when it’s a foreign country to them! Ethnicity or ancestry doesn’t dictate where you are from and I really dont understand how people still think it does in the 21st century!

  2. This is so honest and open, thank you for sharing. I’m so sorry that you’ve had these kinds of experiences, and I hope that they stop, sooner rather than later. People are so bloody nosey, and don’t understand how hurtful ‘simple’ comments like this can be.

    1. Thank you Simone! I wrote it a whole ago and re-sharing it now feels minor in the bigger picture of today’s situation, but then again, I realised that even though we might be used to certain things, it doesn’t mean it should be normalised in any way. You know, I probably have far more examples but am just used to it and take them (kind of) for granted…

  3. Hoi Zarina, wat goed dat je dit aankaart. Ik kende de clip al van wat langer geleden en ik moet zeggen dat deze mij deed nadenken over het gedrag van mensen inclulsief mijzelf. Het is een heel herkenbare clip, ik heb ook weleens meegemaakt dat mensen zo benaderd werden. Vaak is het een onschuldige vraag, “waar kom je vandaan”, maar inderdaad, zodra die tweede “waar kom je écht vandaan” er achteraan komt dan is het heel anders. En eigenlijk is zelfs de vraag (of hij nu aan een wit iemand of iemand van kleur gesteld wordt): “waar woon je” al een vraag die met het antwoord de kijk van de een op de ander beïnvloedt. Want als het antwoord bijvoorbeeld Spijkerkwartier, Arnhem is, of Schilderswijk, Den Haag, of Jordaan, Amsterdam, of een bepaalde een regio, stad, land of wat dan ook, geeft aannames over iemands identiteit (dat hoeven géén vooroordelen te zijn, hoor).
    Dat het voor jou en anderen een heel vervelende vraag is in in mijn ogen begrijpelijk en logisch. Hopelijk gaan mensen door blogposts als deze nadenken over hun gedrag. Ik vind Alice Gee’s oplossing wel hilarisch, desondanks!
    Lieve groeten xx

  4. Je broer krijgt deze vraag ook best vaak, hij beantwoord hem altijd open, wat makkelijker is voor hem omdat hij ook in Suriname is geboren. Toch herken ik wel alles uit je blog waar het aan komt op je gevoelens: hij is een Nederlander en beschouwt zichzelf als zodanig. Heeft ook totaal geen interesse om terug te keren naar Suriname, of om India te bezoeken. Wat wij vaker zien gebeuren is dat mensen eerst terughoudend zijn naar hem toe, en als ze merken dat hij perfect NL praat, soms zelfs met een lekker vet A´dams accentje om ze nog meer op het verkeerde been te zetten, en dezelfde soort humor heeft, ontdooien ze meteen. Alsof hij, misschien als man zijnde (?), toch een beetje bedreigend is. Zo heel erg open is Nederland niet, iets wat ik, als roodharige, blauwogige Friezin altijd erg jammer heb gevonden.
    Ik ben trots op je, dat je dit schrijft, dat je het de wereld in zet, en ook eens van de “andere kant” laat zien.

    1. Dankjewel voor je fijne en openhartige reactie ook. Ik heb het er eigenlijk nooit met bhaaj of Jimmy over gehad, toch eens doen! Toen mij die vraag weer eens werd gesteld op vakantie, bedacht ik me dat ik er eens iets mee zou moeten doen. Ik leg het (na een moment van irritatie) maar meestal naast me neer, maar misschien krijgen de mensen nu iets meer inzicht in de gevolgen van deze ‘onschuldige’ vraag.

  5. Totally agree. When I tell people I am Canadian they don’t accept that in the UK sometimes. Have made up answers about being eskimo. My family immigrated from Taiwan.

  6. I can relate but the opposite way, People actually DON’T ask me where I am from, well rarely. Is it because I look and sound Arab? My girlfriend is Irish and she is asked often in front of me but they never ask me, and I always try to figure that one out.

    1. Bedankt voor je reactie Karen! Ik vind het toch altijd wel spannend om een persoonlijkere blog te schrijven, want de hele wereld kan het immers lezen en er een mening over geven, maar tot nu toe zijn juist de blogs die de mensen het meeste lijken te waarderen 🙂

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