Where Am I From? I’m From Experience

Happy Sunday everyone! I’ve been thinking, brainstorming, writing, editing and deleting ALL FREAKIN DAY. I just can’t seem to get my point across clearly, but here’s one last shot.

When you introduce yourself, you start with your name right? Your name is the quickest, easiest thing to identify with. If it’s not your name, it’s a funky nickname. Then we say where we’re from.

Here is where I have a problem.

If where we are from is where we’re born, should we base our identity on it?

Take this guy for example, he asks “I am an Afghan born in England, am I English?“. Should he identify with his Afghan roots or embrace where he was born? Some people trying to help him out asked, “Do you feel English?”, No, I don’t, I think to myself. “Do you speak English with an English accent?”. No, I lost that over the years. “Do you have British values?”. What is a British value? Is it Brexit? I guess then I don’t. 

I decided to take the British Citizenship online quiz for a laugh. It turns out if I wasn’t British by birth, I’d have been rejected for citizenship.

Copyright @ ItalianGoodNews
Copyright @ ItalianGoodNews

I don’t live in England, I don’t speak to English people very often, and on the whole I’m not sure if I act English anymore. Since leaving England, my accent has changed dramatically. When I lived in Italy I basically became Italiana. It was very difficult to revert my body language and mannerisms back to British. I tried so hard to control my intonation and stop kissing everyone on the cheek but the Brits saw through it.

where-from

I distinctively remember working behind in England earlier this year and a customer looked at me with pity and asked, “Where are you from, dear?“. This wasn’t the first time I had this sort of attention, my friends and family had given me enough stick for my ‘foreign twang’ as they called it. “Born and bred here!” I told her, and I could sense her desire to ask me, “no but where are you really from?”. What a rude question that is. Not only does she want personal information from me- where my parents were born, where I was raised, which passport I have, she’s also subtly inferring that evidently, I’m not British and there has to be an explanation for it.

 

I’d love to be able to say, “Oh, well my mum’s from X and I’m a quarter Y and my great-granddad came over from Z.” But I literally can’t. My parents, grandparents and great grandparents were born in England. I do have Jewish heritage, does that count for something?! Is that the reason I don’t feel British?

If your mum gives birth 30cm either side of the line, you'll either be from The Netherlands or Belgium.
If your mum gives birth 30cm either side of the line, you’ll either be from The Netherlands or Belgium. Is that enough to construct your identity around?

When did it change? When did I stop feeling like I came from England?

I’ve only been on the road for about 3 years, and I’ve already lost my accent and sense of identity. I thought it would take at least a decade! I felt very much at home in Italy. While in Vietnam and Maldives I embraced the culture and food and saw and did a lot, I think having a large circle of Italian friends really started to blur my English edges. There were times where I never felt more English. Like when they wanted to go out for gelato when I just needed a cup of bloody tea. But then there were times, like when the results of Brexit came out, where I cried and couldn’t understand my own people. Living in Maldives I developed a great understanding of Islamic culture and made many Muslim friends, but liking Muslims doesn’t seem to be a British value. I know it’s a controversial topic, but I actually FELL OUT with family members because our views were so polar opposite.

 

Yesterday I came across a fantastic TED Talk by Taiye Selasi where she challenges the notion of being “from” somewhere. “A person cannot come from a concept“, she argues. “Our passports do not define us”.

me-yoga

I was born in a seaside town in England and lived there for 19 years. Yet the time spent in other countries has taught me a hell of a lot more.

Different places have shaped my experiences.

My experience is where I’m from.

 

Am I suppressing my Englishness? Perhaps. Or just embracing other sides of me? Notice that Denver famously sings, “Country roads, take me home to the place I belong”, not ‘to the place I was born.’. Does it matter if I don’t identify with being English anymore? Little odd for an English Language Teacher…

 

I’ve started getting really anxious about being around Brits. What if they look at me and think, she isn’t British! She isn’t one of us! She doesn’t belong here! I already feel like a foreigner when I land at London Stansted, with my Kenyan bracelets and Indian pants and Italian ham and Maldivian shells. But this is why I said before my 30th birthday I’m going to travel extensively around the UK and Ireland. How can I say I don’t feel English if I’ve hardly seen any of it?

There’s something lonely and scary about not knowing where you’re from, where you belong, where you’re supposed to go back to. 

 

Anyone also struggling to answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ Do you resonate more with a foreign country or countries than with where you were born? How has a place shaped your experiences? Should we base our identity on where we’re from?

If there’s any English out there living abroad who feel they’re losing or have lost their sense of being ‘English’, please get in touch. It would be wonderful to know I’m not alone.

Hi! I’m Sarah. I dropped out of university tired with the mundane life I was living in England. Now I’m an aspiring ex-pat of the world, having already lived and worked in Vietnam, Italy and Maldives. I’m using this blog to document my experiences and hopefully inspire others!

25 Comments

  1. Haha I definitely get you here. As I tell people I’m from England but my accent has a heavy American sound to it and I use American terminology. But my family was born in the Caribbean and took many American holidays. I don’t feel british, Brexit helped with that but I also am just a citizen of the world picking up new habits from abroad that make my life easier.

    1. Do you ever get anyone up in your face asking, “yeah but where are you Really from?”. I understand initial interest from people, but having to place everyone all the time, I don’t understand why we do it. Yeah, picking up habits, I suppose it all comes down to them! I had eggs and sausages for breakfast for YEARS, now I wouldn’t be able to stomach it- biscotti or croissant please!

      1. Adult students normally. But everyday people or new strangers, no. Maybe I have a please don’t ask me please face.
        Very small breakfast stomach now, aaw. I tried but I can’t. In china I got into rice types or noodle ish type breakfasts with spice

  2. I think you’re hardly alone in these feelings, and people who move around within the same country (as I have done) have to face these problems. I was born in one place, and my family moved when I was 11 to a very different place which I claimed for a while and then rejected, but I still don’t know if that means anything.

  3. I am from Sardinia and even if I lived in many places on earth I still feel a real Sardinian person. My parents are from Sardinia too and when a foreign person ask me where are you from?! I just answer: Sardinia that is in Italy! I am Sardinian, than Italian! Something similar to your case maybe!! The best answer is: I am from a place where shaped myself!! 😀

    1. Thanks for sharing Davide. Sardinia is a stunning place, and you certainly sound proud to be from there. I often hear people from Naples say they also are more Napolitano than Italiano ha ha. I love that- you’re from a place which shaped you, you just happened to be born there too!

  4. Really interesting! I have never felt that way so cannot say that it resonates with me but I do understand your viewpoint! I think no should be tied down to a specific place to identify themselves with, you should feel at home where you ACTUALLY feel at home, if you know what I mean 🙂
    xx, Kusum | http://www.sveeteskapes.com

  5. I get this very clearly. You have dealt with the situation well and even more praiseworthy is you have written about it. Many times we hesitate to come out with this kind of subtle harassment.

  6. I can say I LOVE your post, I think it is very interesting even if I can’t say I’ve ever felt the same. Living abroad I was missing my close family and close friends (and the blue sky! as I was living in Shanghai and there was a lot of pollution). So maybe my close family/friends are part of where I am from? I think wherever you feel home, you’re home 🙂 But this is very personal

  7. I suppose this is a common feeling for those who travel often and change their base frequently. I have always been living in one country so I may not be able to relate to your perspective completely. There is so much one is brought up with, and that stays with you, deep inside…like family bonds.

  8. Well, I do feel that way sometimes as I was just born in a place but have been around and have settled elsewhere. So when that question pops up…it is always a dilemma. I hear you!

  9. I have been asking myself the same question. It’s been more than 3 years since I have been living in England and when people ask me where I’m from, I reply with “England”. And then they start questioning me for not having that perfect English accent. I don’t have any roots in my home country anymore and I do feel that since I’m here and since I’ve started traveling, 10 years ago, I don’t identify with my “home country” anymore. But my favorite answer, which unfortunately is laughed at, is “I’m an European citizen”. 🙂

  10. Preach it sister! I totally understand where you are coming from with this, I also receive a fair bit of this sort of flac and I don’t think people realise just how insensitive they are being when continuously asking questions! Why does it matter where my parents or grandparents were born as a way of distinctly defining my nationality? In the end, yes we are all human!

  11. I relate to you so much!
    I was born in Spain, and I’ve lived in 5 different countries during my childhood. Now I’ve been in Ireland for 5 years, and even though I feel 100% integrated, it’s such a weird feeling! I know I’ll never feel or be considered Irish, but I don’t even feel Spanish anymore! I’ve been outside of my country for so long that I feel like a tourist every time I visit, strange right?

  12. Such an interesting read. I have a problem a lil like yours. I am South African by birth and Indian in Heritage. While in Kerala earlier this year everyone assumed I was from India until I started talking and still they wanted to know where my family came from. They dont understand my ancestors moved here over 154 years ago lol go figure.

  13. I can totally relate with what you might go through. I have been to many places in India since childhood and so people don’t really can understand from which state I originally from. Haha.

  14. I’ve also felt the same quite a lot of time and I can hear you gal! I totally agree with you that your passport can’t define you. The best humorous answer I try to give when someone asks is that I’m a global citizen!

  15. This is one of the common question people ask, might be coz of initiating conversation or to develop interests in someone else’s personal life, not sure. Even I spent my childhood by swinging in different cities and can correlate with the situation.

  16. I know exactly how you feel! We are traveling full time for almost 4 years, we spent only few weeks a year in our homeland. I don’t feel Polish anymore- I feel like a citizen of the world 🙂

What do you think? Let me know!

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