Saturday, 31 January 2015 10:23

Where are you from?

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Where are you from? In all the years I lived in Kenya this was not something that I recall being asked, certainly not directly in so many words. You were there and everyone around sort of took you for granted. Your name, ethnicity and physical bearing generally were self-evident markers of identity that put you in a certain socio-economic framework. You did not meet “others” casually in a social or other everyday setting. What it boiled down to was that you “belonged” and were “in situ” there as an established presence.

That is one way of looking at it but, depending on the context, the question can be interpreted without any such loaded preconceptions. For instance, at a regional meeting or conference of business executives or academic colleagues, it would be perfectly in order to inquire of a fellow participant where they may be from, meaning either which institution they represent or its locality. But outside the comfort zone of one`s home environment, the question mostly arises when you travel, whether in your own country or abroad, because that is when you interact with all kinds of people not known to you, anywhere and everywhere. Inevitably therefore, where you (or they) are from becomes a point of interest, either out of necessity or natural curiosity.

I discovered this when I first came to London as a teenage student in the late 1950s. The reason was obvious: one was among literally a few million people in a vast metropolis where more or less everyone came from somewhere. The Empire was still alive, though in rapid decline, with many ex-colonial, especially ex-India, types around. The mention of Kenya invariably led to a discussion of Mau Mau, but sometimes the other person either could not place it or insisted on knowing where I was from India. An early lesson learnt was how to navigate the mix of ethnicity, colour, nationality and geography, and to dispel some of the surrounding assumptions and misunderstandings.

Since then things have moved on. Later, when our folks from East Africa began to arrive here in the `60s and `70s in large numbers, they were still very much in the “immigrant” mould. They had to get used to the ways of the country. Language may not have been exactly a barrier, but its cultural nuances were still an unknown territory. The question where are you from? was usually considered to be about one`s country of origin, and often it led to further enquiries or explanations by way of background.

In the next phase, as immigrants became more settled, a different scenario emerged. When strangers asked where are you from?, depending on your level of integration, familiarity and self-confidence, you might construe it as which country you were originally from, when what they wished to know was where you lived in the country. On the other hand, often they (whether local or not) really did want to know which part of the world you came from.

Now the Asian `immigrants` of yesteryear have been subsumed into the general British population, and with that there has been a change in the language used. Where are you from? has become where do you live? - precisely to avoid misinterpretation of both the intent behind the question and the information being sought.

In Canada and the USA, where are you from? comes up routinely on road trips - at gas stations, food outlets, motels, tourist attractions. In both countries, also, geographical mobility is such an ingrained feature of life that it is quite common for people to move from place to place for a variety of reasons, and so the question where are you from? has long been part of the normal currency of conversation at first contact, irrespective of what people may look like. In any case, nowadays Americans and Canadians make allowances for non-white and Latino immigrants and other foreigners in their midst in such encounters. In my own experience of frequent travels in North America over the last four decades, when I say I am from England, it usually evokes a warm response and leads to some interesting exchanges.

In India one is often asked, `are you Indian?`, because there one is invariably classified as “phoren” (foreign) on the basis of nationality, or by all manner of outward indicators. This was so in the late `60s, when I first visited the country, but since then, with the spread of the new Indian diaspora across Africa, the Middle East, Europe, the Americas and Australasia, a new terminology has come into vogue, namely NRI (non-resident Indian) and PIO (person of Indian origin). I have always argued that not having been born and never having been “resident” there, I cannot be an NRI, nor is the alternative PIO really applicable to people who themselves did not originate or migrate from India but whose parents or grand-parents may have (in my case a hundred years ago), for whom a more appropriate description might be “persons of Indian descent”. This then is an area where nationality and ethnicity overlap, and the result is oversimplification due to a lack of clarity.

And yet, from an entirely different perspective, “Indian” has become more valued as an ethnic and cultural label, depicting a linkage with India, because in Britain, “`Muslim” and “Asian” have now become synonymous and are constantly used alternately. Because of this, and also of the rising incidence of Islamophobia, those with an Indian origin or ancestry are choosing to emphasize their Indian credentials, and even some people of “Pakistani heritage” are finding it more respectable to refer to their historical roots in the Indian sub-continent, within however an overarching British Asian umbrella.

Of course there are many variations on this theme of where are you from?. The notion of “home” is one. Traditionally Britons think of home as where one was born or grew up - hence young people either leave home (meaning the parental home) or may still be living there, with “home town” in the same vein. But “home” also has a different connotation, because, on the domestic front, there are four “home nations” within the United Kingdom - England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There is a long and continuing history of internal cross-migrations across the country as a whole and many Scottish or Welsh people, for example, think of their particular corner of Britain as “home”. And further back in time, those who served in the Empire also referred to Britain (or more commonly the UK) as “home” (as in “home leave”), which also rubbed off on the subject races. The first generation West Indian immigrants ritually spoke of “going home” or “back home” because, even after spending all their working lives in Britain and despite all their protestations of being British, they did not feel wholly at home here on account of racial discrimination in housing, jobs and in social and public life.

That kind of language and sentiment resonated with first generation Indo-Pakistani immigrants too, as many of them harboured or expressed a desire to “return home” to retire, though far fewer of them than West Indians actually did so. Those who had begun to think of Britain as their permanent home, with children and grand-children born there, might therefore be bemused if asked “how often to you go home?”.

Home as where you live and hope to die, rather than where you may have sprung from, is still not quite part of the received wisdom of most native Britons. Equally, the idea of a home away from home for long-term emigrants becomes, over time, an imagined space born of or filled with nostalgia and longing, only to be indulged in wishful thinking rather than practical reality. That applies to Britons who have migrated to their Anglo-Saxon sister nations across the world as much as to those who have come over to their shores.

The British obsession with place of birth is another example. Invariably, popular media coverage of negative stories or opinion relating to or involving people with a “foreign” or “immigrant” connection will highlight where they were born, but it would be glossed over if the person concerned were to have achieved something positive or laudable. By an inversion of the same logic, if a Briton has emigrated and, say, wins a Nobel prize as a national of his or her adopted country, then their British origin will be mentioned with pride. But surely this is also true of Kenyans, for example vicariously in relation to Barack Obama or athletes who may have moved abroad for financial reasons, or of Indians in regard to their many ex-compatriots who are high profile CEOs and the like in America!

As for the nomenclature itself, a degree of confusion and prejudice has crept in. The acronym BAME, which stands generically for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities, appears everywhere - in official reports, statistics and other literature, often with the addition of “mixed race” – and is self-explanatory. But some politicians and commentators habitually downgrade as “second and third generation immigrants” the descendants of first arrivals, successive generations of whom are undoubtedly fully-fledged British-born citizens, increasingly detached from the “homeland” affiliations of their forebears.

The terms “immigrants” and “migrants” are also used interchangeably, though the latter is usually applied to new arrivals, who may have come into the country as short-term workers, students or in some other temporary capacity, whether with a view to settlement or not. Then there are the “asylum seekers”, often lumped together with “refugees”, though they only acquire that status after going through a rigorous process. Fortunately, “alien”` has gone out of fashion, no doubt because, in the popular imagination, it is equated with space invaders rather than human beings!

Kenyans too of course face similar challenges overseas. In the USA, first generation Kenyan immigrants (like their counterparts from other parts of Africa) cannot easily pass off or into the mainstream as African-Americans proper because of all kinds of apparent differences – linguistic, cultural and social. Skin colour may qualify them as `black`, but they are different from the original species of African-Americans, who have a slave ancestry and are `native` to the soil (though distinct from the `first` indigenous people) in the sense of having been there over centuries. So African-American, yes technically, but these dynamics may also set them apart as newcomers.

Émigré African Kenyans are also, in common with other minorities in transition everywhere, thus having to grapple with what are universal rites of passage - not only in America but wherever else they may have settled.

Finally, by an extraordinary turn of chance in our media-dominated society, where are you from? has been re-fashioned by some well-known British personalities into “where am I from?” in the guise of `Who Do You Think You Are?`- a popular BBC television series in which `(c)elebrities trace their family trees, discovering surprises from their past`. One such person is Nitin Ganatra, whose tv programme note, in September 2013, described him as an `EastEnders star` who `moved to England from Kenya when he was just three years old` and who had `questions about his identity and ... why his family left Kenya, and why they immigrated to Africa from India in the first place`. It involved him journeying back to Kenya and to the family's ancestral home in Gujarat and making some emotional discoveries along the way. This then was a perfect illustration of rationalising the trajectory of migration and bringing it full circle!

Ramnik Shah
© 2014

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