In London during the summer, drinking cocktails in my brother’s local bar, I fell into conversation with our friendly waiter. She was dark-haired and olive skinned, with a wicked laugh and an excellent way with an Old Fashioned. We were enjoying a bit of waiter-punter banter before I brought the whole thing to an uncomfortable halt when, intrigued by her musical non-English accent, I asked a version of a question that’s been under a lot of scrutiny lately. “Where,” I asked the woman I’d just met a few minutes previously, “are you from?”
Not where are you really from, which got the late Queen Elizabeth’s lady friend into a bit of bother the other week, just the common or garden where are you from – a question that until that moment I’d never considered might land like a conversational grenade. My waiter’s brow furrowed as she explained that while I seemed like a nice person she hoped I would understand that she did not wish to answer the question of her geographical origins. She went off to get my drink and left me nonplussed, processing the interaction.
Where are you from? It’s a question I ask of people several times a week, sometimes a day, in the normal course of events. Up to that moment in a London bar, I imagined where are you from to be a friendly question. To my mind, it showed an interest in someone. It was usually a fruitful conversational gambit that opened several other avenues along the getting-to-know-you path.
I thought back to my own days as a waiter in London. Customers asked where I was from all the time and I never minded the question. Being young and constantly broke, I often used the question and answer session to endear myself to the customer and hopefully garner a bigger tip. I loved talking about where I was from, it eased the homesickness a bit.
The waiter returned with my drink. I felt an apology was in order as I’d clearly irritated her with my question. “Sorry for asking that, you absolutely don’t have to tell me where you are from,” I said. “Thank you,” she replied and, not having many customers to attend to in the near empty bar, she began to explain why she did not want to answer the question.
She said working in a bar, she enjoyed talking to people, the public nature of the job. But having lived in London a long time, and made it her home, she had gradually become annoyed by the where are you from question which she estimated she was asked up to 30 times a day. As she now considered herself a Londoner, she felt the question was a reminder from English people – it was mostly English people who asked – that she would never belong to their country. That she would always first and foremost be just an olive-skinned person with an accent to them. Someone who was “other”.
In the past few months, she’d begun to politely refuse to answer the question. Most people were fine with this. Some (groups of men, she found) would use her non-disclosure as a challenge and spend the whole night in a relentless guess-the-country game they found hilarious, but which left her enraged and despondent. We parted ways on friendly terms. I was grateful for yet another one of those encounters with a stranger that leaves you thinking and a little bit changed.
Is it not growing tiresome – even tactless – to use someone’s most obvious difference as the default catalyst for conversation with them, however innocuously?
I was still thinking when I got back from London. I thought I’d write a column about the exchange but the following week in that serendipitous way of the world a woman called Kathryn Phelan beat me to it. In a piece called “I’m tired of being asked where I’m from” she wrote about how fed up she was, after 10 years in Ireland, of being asked that question.
She asked, with nearly 13 per cent of Ireland’s population made up of foreign nationals, “is it not growing tiresome – even tactless – to use someone’s most obvious difference as the default catalyst for conversation with them, however innocuously? After 10 years, I find myself wishing that this search for connection was not also a daily reminder that I don’t fully belong.” Phelan went on to say the inevitability of the “where are you from” was uniquely Irish but as my waiter in London knows all too well, it’s also an English thing.
Phelan’s article resulted in some letters to the Editor. One person thought she was being “precious”, another that she should “adapt” to the conversational habits of Irish people.
But on the back of her article and my London experience, I decided to stop asking people where they are from. I often forgot. Like the other night on the Luas when I accidentally asked a fellow passenger where she was from (Morocco) and ended up in a joyous conversation about tagines (not a fan) and hummus (love it). I’ve realised how often I tended lazily towards the where are you from question and took the time to find other things to ask instead.
Sometimes I even asked “do you mind being asked where you were from?” and got interesting answers from “of course not, I’m brown-skinned and I speak with an Indian accent” to “it’s just very boring after the 15th time that day”. My friend of Asian origin told me she views it as an innate part of Irish curiosity. “It’s usually doled out with warmth as part of the natural Irish penchant for lubricating every encounter with chat and digging for info in a well-meaning way”.
What I’ve learned since London is that the seemingly harmless where are you from can be more loaded than it seems.
That waiter did tell me where she was from the end. It was a gorgeous story that spanned three countries and two continents which, if you don’t mind, I’ll keep to myself.