”Where are you from”? That feeling. When you don´t easily fit into any clean, closed categories. When your looks don´t match people´s expectations and definitions, and the answer is messy. Confusing. Ambiguous. Sometimes even deemed as politically incorrect and provoking. Like being part black, part white. Or having an upbringing influenced by Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Atheist, as well as Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu principles.
When this question is posed, I often have to deliberate. I must quickly decide whether to give whoever is asking the long or the short version. I always have to consider my relationship to them, and evaluate how interested he or she really is in this story. I have to think about what my mood and level of patience is, as well a how much time we have.
The trouble is, even the short version quickly becomes very complicated. Because the factual answer ”I-am-Ethiopian-Somali-Italian-Maltese-Norwegian-but-I-grew-up-in-England-Italy-Ethiopia-Zimbabwe-Holland-and-my-family-also-has-roots-in- Yemen-India-and-Egypt-now-everyone-lives-all-around-the-world”, usually throws people off. Sometimes puts them off, in fact. If I had a dollar for every glazed look of polite incomprehension or just plain frustration when people are presented with my life narrative. And this explanation, of course, is only touching the surface of my mixed heritage.
Naturally, my replies often probe many follow-up questions, and sometimes just plain statements and exclamations. ”Wow!” ”But which place feels most like home”?, ”Which languages do you speak?”, ”So Exciting!”, or ”How Exotic!”. I never quite know how to respond, because to me this is not out of the ordinary. It is normal. My belonging cannot be quantified in fractions or emphasized in measures. Every place and no place feels like home.
Typically, something is said on the theme of interpreting my looks. Here are some examples of reactions I have received throughout the years: ”Are you sure you are not South American, because that is what you look like”, ”maybe Japanese?” “Peruvian or Spanish?”, ”Never seen freckles on a brown girl before”, ”I would not have thought you were part black if you hadn´t said so, you look white to me”. “You are coloured, would never pass for white”. My personal favorite is a story my father recalls from when I was little. A man came up to us and insisted that we should be very grateful that my skin ”was not white with large brown spots like that of a cow”.
I am bilingual, which means I am fluent in both English and Norwegian. I need both languages to communicate who I am, both integral parts of my life. They are both necessary to express emotion and reason. If one of these languages is not in use, I feel like part of me is missing. Lying dormant. However, people regularly start raising their voices and speaking slowly when they hear or see that I am mixed. Something about this story seems to enhance the impression that I am language or hearing impaired.
Frequently, people just plain give up trying to follow my answers and explanations about where I am from. Recently I attended an event where I was asked this question and preceded to give the medium version (just listing the places in which I and my family have roots in a kind of order). Half way through, one of my conversation partners excused herself and made her way over to speak to someone else. Too many hyphens, too few borders.
Sometimes I omit places of origin, to avoid the awkwardness. I enhance one or two countries, which will make sense in the context, and downplay the rest. Just Norwegian. Half Italian or Ethiopian. Somali. From Holland. Or ”British born”. The great thing is, this helps me connect with a lot of people. But I also very quickly begin to feel like a fraud. I am hampered in further pursuit of a conversation. This is due to the simple fact that I lack more than catch phrases in most languages, as well as a lot of references and cultural codes. I have the roots, the bloodlines, and the stories. But I do not have my own memories from everywhere. In some cases I actually have them, but cannot communicate them in the right words.
Other times I just plain lie. Mimicking someone I know, also of mixed heritage, whose response to this question is to say that he is from Mongolia (although he is not, and has actually never been there). Perhaps this is not the most ethical of strategies, but it is an effective one. Sometimes more comfortable, and socially acceptable. Giving an expected answer, or choosing a place that few are familiar with, rarely gets follow-up questions or statements.
A whole lifetime of living and listening to the story about answering variations of the question ”where are you from”, has left me weary. Dealing with experiences of people processing a disconnect between the given facts and their assumptions, has made me a little cynical. And frankly, just plain fed up. I have grown adamant in my belief in the right to reclaim and define ones own identity, and the right not to be categorized, compared and objectified.
This is my stance:
You are welcome to ask me ”What´s your mix”? But you must be willing to accept my answer. Short, long, complicated, or avoidant. My passport country may not match my appearance or my story. My coloring, hair, eyes and body shape may not be the same as any of my parents, nor any of my children’s. My traits might not mirror yours. My language may not reflect your terms. My loyalties and identification might change and rotate. This too is part of my heritage. What always was and what always will be. The blend, the ”in-between”, the ”neither-nor”, the ”this-and-that” is where I come from. It is who I am.
By October 2014 Guest Blogger: Lill Salole
Lill Salole is a writer and speaker who holds an MA in Psychology. For over a decade, she has been working with issues concerning children and youth growing up in migrant and mixed families. She is particularly interested in issues of identity and belonging, as well as accessing resources in intercultural lives and communities. Salole comes from an international family and had a cross-cultural childhood. She is currently living in Oslo, Norway.
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