Day 99: but where are you from originally?

A couple of weeks ago He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved sent me the following cartoon: 

where are you from

It made me laugh and laugh because, as he well knows, this is a conversational situation that I (like some of you, I’m sure) have been in numerous times. The cartoon also reminded me that I had written this short essay a couple of years ago, which I wrote really just as a way of seeing if I could find a way to weave this odd series of experiences into a coherent narrative. Coherent or not, when I dug it out this afternoon I thought, oh, this is totally a blog post! I just didn’t know it at the time because I, uh, didn’t have a blog. I’ve edited it a bit and identified the main protagonists by their initials. Apologies to those of you (and that may be, ahem, all of you) who have already heard this story several times ….


After the English bloke and his children left the playground and I was sure they were out of earshot, I whipped around and addressed my mother in an accusatory tone.

“You can’t ask someone “where are you from originally!” I exclaimed.

“But I’m part of that community,” Mum protested.

“But he doesn’t see that!” I insisted. “He just sees a white Englishwoman insinuating that a brown-skinned man can’t be ‘originally’ from England.”

I was being unfair, and I knew it even as I was irritated. My white, Scottish Mum is, in some ways more than me, her biracial daughter, “part of that community.” [1] When she married my Bengali father in 1971 she immediately found herself raising his two (later three) teenage nephews, who came to London after their father, a Bengali civil servant in the wrong place at the wrong time—West Pakistan in 1971—was placed under house arrest.

But none of this was on my mind as I berated my 79-year-old mother at the beachside playground in Santa Monica two years ago.

“And,” I added, my voice rising, “I can’t believe you would ask him that when you know that that’s precisely the question I hated strangers asking me when I was little!”

Mum’s face softened. “I know,” she said.

Twenty minutes earlier my two children had shyly joined in with two boys and a girl, who were purposefully building an enormous sandcastle under one of the climbing frames. Their accents were English. They were visiting from London, the elder boy explained.

“We might move here!” the younger boy piped up.

“I’m from London too!” I offered. “But we live here now.”

Soon the English children’s Dad showed up. He was perhaps in his mid 30s, wearing running clothes, and slightly breathless from jogging on the beach. We chatted away about the differences between London and L.A., about school districts and property values.

And then Mum asked, “and where are you from originally?”

I cringed inwardly as I saw the stranger’s jaw harden ever so slightly as he affirmed, again, “Umm, London, originally. Yep. London born and bred.”

“London born and bred.” It was a phrase I had used a lot myself as a child when strangers on the bus, in the shops, or at the hairdresser’s would query me, not unkindly, but persistently, about where I was from originally. As a child I genuinely misunderstood the question and remember struggling to answer it to the questioner’s satisfaction. “Tufnell Park?” I’d answer doubtfully. “It’s near Holloway?”

Now I proclaimed loftily to my mother, “you can only ask where someone’s from originally if their accent suggests they weren’t raised where they live now.”

A few weeks later I met a new postdoctoral fellow at my institution’s center for eighteenth-century studies. This new postdoc, I’ll call her Z, was a young art historian who studied representations of India in eighteenth-century British art and architecture. Her coloring suggested a South Asian heritage but her accent was difficult to place.

Now I was the one inhibited by my own imperiously decreed diktat, thou shalt not ask ‘where are you from originally’? (Hoisted on one’s own petard &c.)

Eventually, I asked Z, in the most tentative tones, where her accent was from?

Bangladesh, she replied.

Should I mention, I wondered anxiously, that I had family in Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan, where most of my Dad’s family ended up living? Best not to, I decided. I had been to Dhaka once, when I was 11. But I wasn’t remotely from there. It didn’t mean that Z and I had anything in common. And in fact mentioning my Bangladeshi family connection would only serve to hoist me on yet another of my own petards; because yet another pet peeve of mine (I know, I know, I’m so easily irritated) as an Englishwoman living in the U.S., is the whole, “oh where in the UK are you from? My second cousin X lives in, let’s see, where is it? Coventry?” And then the person looks at me expectantly.)

So I decided to go with saying nothing and simply nodding and smiling. Z and I grew to be friendly acquaintances. When I started writing a new essay that touched on representations of India, not my area of expertise, I asked her for help. She responded immediately with enthusiasm and suggestions. I was excited both about this new area of research, and my new friend.

A few weeks later I saw Z at a lecture at the Huntington library. Before I had a chance to approach her she bounded over to me, palpably excited.

She blurted out, “You are the cousin of—” and then she said the name of my first cousin and his wife, I’ll call them T and N, both of whom I’ve known all of my life.

She paused, and, deeply confused, I wondered how on earth she knew this. I had seen N only the week before when she’d been over from Delhi visiting L.A.

“N is my cousin!” Z announced, breathlessly.

It took us a while to put all the pieces together. T is my first cousin, the eldest brother of those no-longer-teenage boys who’d been a part of my life since I was born. N, T’s wife, is Z’s mother’s first cousin. N, unbeknownst to me, had also visited Z while in L.A., it never striking her that we might know each other.

Long before we figured out this strange chain of circumstances, Z and I were firm on one point; we were family. And being, in addition, both dix-huitièmistes, we relished, perhaps more than most, the Fieldingesque plot in which we found ourselves caught up.

If eighteenth-century fiction has taught me anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as too many coincidences. So when a new boy who was “from London,” my son informed me, “just like you, Mom!” joined his third grade class, it did not seem so surprising to me that he turned out to be the younger son of the man from the beach. We were, after all, part of the same community.


[1] That’s right: not only is the duck-rabbit half fowl, half leporidae, but also half Indian, half Scottish.


One thought on “Day 99: but where are you from originally?

  1. Mahin says:

    As I’m sure you can well imagine, your post struck a chord. Of course, in my nomadic experience, growing up I had to deal not only with the question “where are you from originally” but also, the even more confusing, for me, “where are you from?” I remember dreading being asked the question, such a simple one for so many people, because I never quite knew how to answer it. I never felt comfortable saying “”Bangladesh” because, well, could I truly claim to be from a place of which I’d had so little experience? But then, since given my experiences I couldn’t truly claim to “belong” anywhere, how I was I supposed to answer that question? I always felt the need to qualify my response, only to see people’s eyes glaze over as, really, they were simply expecting a one word response to a question that is often par for the course in polite conversation. They weren’t expecting, and probably weren’t interested in, hearing my life story.

    I still can’t stand either question and, when asked invariably answer with a glib “everywhere, and nowhere” response. I guess because that is how I truly feel.

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