As I write this now, a man has plonked himself down on the couch next to me, asking me if I’m new to the area, and what time this cafe closes.
I can feel my body tensing up, my eyes quickly darting down towards my laptop because I can’t be arsed for the next line of questioning, which I know will inevitably be related to my race.
It always goes this way and I won’t know what to say. Or he won’t accept my answer. Answering where are you from? will satisfy the curiosity. But it won’t make the discussion any less awkward for me, because I don’t have an answer for why I really look the way that I do and I don’t know if I ever will.
“Your folks, where are they from?” he continues after broaching the topic, around 45 seconds in, hoping that this will tell him what he wants to know.
“And you, where are you from?” He continues, nodding his head.
Because I’m tired of being asked this, I don’t tell him.
Because I’m sick of having to explain my brown skin, dark eyes and coily-in-the-front-wavy-underneath-hair and English accent. I don’t tell him.
Because saying “half my family is Irish” doesn’t satisfy what is really being asking here, which is, why and how how I came to exist as a brown, ethnically ambiguous girl and what the other side of my family is, I stay silent.
And because he kind of smells funky, I’m actually just fucking tired and because he later asks me for money, I don’t tell this person anything.
However that was just one time, because I didn’t feel like it. I’ve actually lost track of the thousands of times people have demanded to know more about the reasons behind me being non-white – and I’ve reluctantly offered up my story (and with it, often a piece of my soul). But whilst travelling it seems the questions intensified, too.
Answering where are you from? whilst travelling
This year I’ve made a conscious effort to connect with people across the African diaspora as I’ve travelled to black spaces. Whilst I’ve loved interacting with a wider cross-section of people than I did back in London and, I realised that looking like a local definitely produces some welcome benefits, I’ve also had to fend off more questions about my appearance than I ever did back in the UK. (Or maybe it feels like more work because I have to explain my life story in a foreign language?)
Most of the time it’s well-meaning enough; answering where are you from? to locals doesn’t offend me or drain me, because they are simply curious as to why I don’t speak Spanish or Creole. They want to know why I don’t fit the traditional mould of an English traveller and how I look like them but I don’t sound like them. And so in these cases, I don’t mind widening their limited perception of Britishness, at all.
In Cuba, Nicaragua, Colombia and the Dominican Republic for example — where I blended in very well — most people just don’t have passports and a lot of locals genuinely weren’t aware of black and brown people in the UK, identifying as British. So when a Cuban tour guide asked how someone like me “could afford to travel” and told me it had to be because I “came from a white family”, I wasn’t mad — just slightly surprised, I guess.
Similarly when a gay couple during Carnaval de Barranquilla ran up to me, mouths agasp and told me that they just didn’t know “girls looking like me” existed in the UK and spoke English, I just laughed and told them that brown people be everywhere.
However there were plenty of times it got annoying whilst travelling too, namely with guys who fetishized me for my race and couldn’t *believe* that I had shattered their dreams of hooking up with a 〜Caribbean girl〜 by daring to open my mouth and allowing my English accent to come tumbling out. (Sorry not sorry). I remember in Cuba when an Italian guy approached me in a bar, spoke to me in Spanish and asked me where I was from. When I replied and he realized I wasn’t actually a native but a Brit, he actually asked to see my passport as proof that I was from the UK. “Your parents, where are they from too?” he demanded. Funnily enough getting ID’d as a flirtation tactic doesn’t quite do it for me — although I also took it as a compliment because Cuban gals are HOT.
How to not get stressed whilst answering where are you from?
If you know your identity in full (lucky you), then answering where are you from? simply and honestly may not be an issue for you. I guess my story is pretty unique in that I don’t fully know my racial background and so, trying to explain why that is is extra tough and brings up things I’d rather not discuss.
If like me, you’d also just rather not chat about it with locals or other travellers then I find replying with something like: “I live in___ but I don’t really talk about my race/family” sometimes shuts the convo down quickly. Then again, sometimes it doesn’t.
If you experience probing questions being a traveller of mixed or black identity then I’d also recommend replying with whatever the hell you feel like, on that particular day. Because it’s your life and you shouldn’t ever feel as if you have to explain yourself to anyone.
Personally, I handle any questions and comments with humour, patience & grace (as long as people don’t piss me off) because it just makes life easier. And when where are you from? is coming from a local, I don’t mind too much, because it’s usually just another way to strike up genuine conversation and bond over melanin.
When it gets awkward…
However, in Morocco, the audacious approach to wanting to know my race got old, quick. Cries of “Mama Africa!”, “Black power” and “Obama!” literally followed me down every winding alley and it was actually quite isolating to experience after a while. Especially as I was in a travel group with all white people and some of them seemed to take pleasure in telling me what I should and shouldn’t find offensive.
I also found it strange in Morocco that most men shouting the questions were my colour? Like, I was in Africa surrounded by Africans and I couldn’t work out why they were shouting “hey Africa” at me.. Saying I was English just didn’t cut it; they wanted DETAILS. Why was I dark-skinned? Why was I mixed? I ended up just lying all the time as I couldn’t be bothered trying to tell my life story in broken English.
If you’re a person who doesn’t think much of asking someone where they’re from, or you wouldn’t think twice about probing further if you didn’t get the answer you felt you deserved, maybe reflect on the impact your questioning can have. Because if you’re white and you’re asking me this in London, where I’ve grown up in my entire life, are you asking me why I’m here? If I’ve yet to go home? If I really belong in the UK? Are you asking me to prove my Britishness to you? Or to own my blackness more?
Think about what you’re asking — what is is that you really want to know?
Do you get asked where are you from? a lot whilst travelling? How do you respond? I need tips! Comment below or email me 🙂