“So, where are you REALLY from?”

This week the headlines in London were about a royal aide who continuously asked a British woman of colour where she was from. When the woman replied she was British, the royal aide, who lost her job due to this incident, kept asking her, ‘no but where are you REALLY from?’.


As a person of Indian origin born in the UK, this is a question that I’m often asked when travelling and I’m rarely offended by the question but, however I choose to answer, and I’m lucky I have choices, I usually get perplexed looks.

I usually prefer to give the answer that’s the easiest in some places to understand, and say India; this usually invites a rote-learned response in Hindi which I don’t understand (I speak Assamese), or a namaste (we say namaskar in Assam).

There may follow a short monologue from the person about their friends who live in India (I’ve never lived in India), or about how much they like Bollywood dances ( I’m indifferent), or the Taj Mahal, elephants, how good the call centres are or random stuff (“Do Indians wear hats?” Or “So what’s the difference between a Hindi, (sic), a Buddhist and a Muslim?’.) There was once an assumption that I eat curry every day (I eat curry once a month, less frequently than the average English person).

It seems saying you’re Indian pulls in a lot of assumptions in a way that being American or Anglo Saxon British doesn’t. No one assumes an American likes line dancing or an English person likes Morris Dancing. They get to be more of a blank sheet of paper. Indians don’t always do Indian things.

Even when I’m asked the question in India and I say I’m a Desi (Desi is the Hindi word for being of the country) I sometimes get curious glance that says, what’s the catch?

This segues us nicely in to the second response, “I’m British”, which I am legally and by birth. Several times on my travels I’ve been countered directly with ‘but you don’t look British,’ (usually from people from homogenous culture nations) which ends up usually with a conversation about post colonial legacies.

The other major response, usually from market traders in places like Marrakesh and Agra where they pick up on a lot of foreign slang, is “lovely jubbly'” a phrase no one has used in England since the last episode of Only Fools and Horses over 25 years ago, “fish and chips” or some other stereotype of British culture.

Because I find these conversations banal and tiresome, and depending on my energy levels and inclination to divulge personal information, I started to give answers which don’t invite any comeback. For example, when a market trader asks me “what country?” I sometimes reply, “Madagascar”. This is always followed by silence as the interrogator trawls through his memory banks for any snippet of information about Madagascar; a football club, food, a TV quote: the capital city: a cricket team? Nope. Nothing. Zilch. Square root of diddly squat.

BLISS. Speech is silver. Silence is golden.


It seems therefore there’s no easy answer for me. No single word that gives a complete picture. A response that doesn’t invite repartee.

But there’s an I in identity, so what do I think? Well I try not to overthink. My mum is Indian, my sister is Indian, my dad was Indian. My grandparents were Indian. All my cousins, uncles and Aunties are Indians. Even family friends are called Uncle and Aunties, that’s an Indian trait.

See a pattern emerging here?

I don’t like Churchill, I do like Gandhi, I look Indian, I have a big Indian nose, I have an Indian name. So … I’m an Indian.

But to dot the i’s of identity,.it’s tempting to overthink as it’s rarely that straight. Identity goes beyond nationality, it’s both nature and nurture. To suggest otherwise is just lazy at best. Even though I see myself as being an Indian, my mouth, my accent is English, and in my heart are the Three Lions.

But my mind, the way I think, my character, that is neither. That’s something that belongs to me, something entirely my own. It is just me.


9 Comments

  1. Interesting mix of cultures. I would think the accent would give it away – second gens usually have the accent and probably much of the indoctrination of the new country. Even folks like my wife, who was born and raised in the Philippines but has lived longer here in the US, are probably more American than Filipino. But in either case, you both have roots in other cultures, and I would think that would give a richer, more worldly perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting insight into identity! Your last paragraph summed it all up beautifully though: ultimately it’s what we feel is what we are, a unique combination of our colourful descents and experiences (nature/nurture) overlapped to create an identity which is individual and unique to each of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! and yes its all about how we feel ultimately, but I still feel I haven’t addressed issue in its entirety; the question is where are you from, not how do you feel. And however I answer, it’s never going to be straight, needing qualifiers, hyphens and caveats.

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  3. Don’t bother about my comment. My husband is sick and I can’t take any more upsetting things. Probably a stupid question and, no, I don’t look Indian but my brother, sister and mother did.

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    1. Hi Stockdalewolfe! Thanks for reading my blog and for your excellent and frank comments. I really appreciate any feedback especially as identity is such a complex and ethereal topic. Thanks for taking the courage to comment. Hope your hubby is getting better.

      I think we are talking about different things here. You’re seeking to understand and adopt Indian culture is a great thing, and I’m sure many would find that flattering. Some might find curious (e.g. when Justin Trudeau and family went to India and dressed in traditional Indian attire every day, when they were representing Canada.) . Your attraction to Indian culture is to be applauded as it is rich, ancient and diverse, carries with it wisdom and spiritualism.

      My point was that as a second gen Indian, when asked the question ‘where are you from?’, and I say India, it needs further qualification. It invites further conversation that I don’t necessarily empathise with and says nothing to me about my life as I have never lived there. Not that I mind that conversation, it’s just that I have nothing to add.

      I believe having an identity can for some have little to to do with your nationality. People will disagree with me on that, saying that that make me a citizen of nowhere. But que sera sera. I’ll take that.

      What are your thoughts?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment extensively on my lame comment. Yes, it was two different things we were talking about. I see and understand your dilemma. I suppose you could say you are an “Indian Brit.” But that is probably not done and doesn’t really solve your problem. People making assumptions is the problem, trying to pidgeon-hole you IS the problem. I don’t know what the solution is in this racist world. 🤔

        I don’t love every Indian but quite a few of the ones I have met have been so lovely, and so beautiful and, yes, there are all the good things about Indian culture. I am sorry it has become so westernized but you probably might not agree. The daughter of my Hindi teacher worships the U.S. and that’s why she likes to talk to me even though I am “grandma.” I think that is sad. I want to tell her to treasure what she has. It is far superior to the culture of this country, especially after Trump. Anyhow I didn’t mean to go on so much. I do understand your dilemma and thank you for writing me such a nice reply. Maybe you should just tell them to buzz off when they ask what you are. Not very nice of me but honest. Take care.

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  4. Very interesting! I thank you for writing this. I am Sicilian American and I have this attraction to Indians, perhaps because most of my immediate family looked Indian (my mother even had a birthmark in the third eye that looked like a Bindi). I love Indian clothes and culture and I guess I am somehow guilty of trying to connect by saying something in Hindi. It is looking for a connection that I have no right to want and that seems offensive to you from what you wrote. I studied Hindi on iTalki with a guy I loved and still love who calls me family and treats me as family. This is a treasure to me but somehow is offensive if I say it. I wore Indian kurtis and such and I suppose that is wrong although imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. And truth be told from what I have seen of the culture it reminds me of a happy period in my life with a Sicilian grandfather. Why is wanting to connect so wrong? I have said Namaste and Namaskaram. I love the tradition of putting your hands to your chest in prayer position to greet. It seems like the most wonderful way to greet people. Many of the photographs on my blog are of India through an online live touring company called HeyGo.com. My only other ones are of NewYork City and upstate New York. Do you find my outlook offensive? I apologize in advance if you do.

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