Skip to content

But Where Are You Really From? (A Different Perspective)

  • by

The now infamous exchange between Ngozi Fulani and Lady Hussey has elicited some interesting discussion and discourse about why pressing for information regarding one’s cultural background has uncomfortable undertones depending on which side of the questioning you are on.

All of the arguments I have heard and read regarding the offensiveness of the question are centred around race and the position of the interrogator and the interrogated. Or in other words, the host citizen and the modern citizen. All of these points I have encountered are salient and don’t need rehashing here.

The aspect of the questioning that isn’t discussed enough was the pressure applied to Ms Fulani when she didn’t respond satisfactorily in the opinion of the interrogator. Particularly as the word traumatic has been used in relation to the exchange and some people have scoffed at this concept. I’d like to share how this is problematic from the perspective of a Third Culture Kid.

The term Third Culture Kid was coined by sociologist Ruth Hillman Useem and describes an individual who has spent a significant part of their developmental years in a culture other than their parents. Third Culture Kids tend to develop a sense of relationship to all of the cultures they have experienced while not having a full ownership in any1.

I don’t feel like getting into my heritage and how my upbringing could aptly (and beautifully) be reflected in a King size patchwork blanket or why my accent doesn’t match my passport because it’s tiring and I still sometimes grapple with my sinewy cultural identity. Which is exactly why my response to the question ‘where are you from’ varies significantly depending on who wants to know. A short answer doesn’t encompass who I am, and a long answer naturally raises questions that I don’t always feel like answering.

My response to that question is heavily dependent on the environment I am in when I am being asked and who is asking. In a social setting where there is synergy and it feels safe to express – sure, we can go there. In a professional setting or any setting where I can’t confirm that it’s safe for me to share, the answer I give you simply has to suffice. I won’t make myself uncomfortable just to satisfy your curiosity.

Divulging your heritage can be a thing of pride and joy or it can open a doorway to being stereotyped in many ways. Those of us who are consistently on the receiving end of the question ‘but where are you really from?’ are pretty good at discerning the motivation so if the first response doesn’t give you what you want and the second response doesn’t either – read the room, fall back.

1 Pollock, D. C., Reken, R. E. Van, & Pollock, M. V. (2001). Third Culture Kids. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *