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.


Day 94: so matters fell out

“But so matters fell out, and so I must relate them; and if any reader is shocked at their appearing unnatural, I cannot help it. I must remind such persons that I am not writing a system, but a history, and I am not obliged to reconcile every matter to the received notions concerning truth and nature.”

Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (1749)

When I was eighteen, about a month after my father died, I started working as a “mother’s help” for a family who lived in Muswell Hill. It was the beginning of my “gap” year between secondary school and university. I was supposedly earning money to go “traveling” in some vague way, later in the year. But, although I’m not sure I admitted this to anyone at the time because I felt ashamed of it, I had not the least inclination to travel. Instead I wanted to curl up in a ball at the bottom of my bed and go to sleep forever.

Looking back, I can say now with some confidence that, as a mother’s help, I was probably not especially helpful.

My duties were not terribly onerous. They included picking up my employers’ two-year old son from preschool, giving him lunch and putting him down for a nap, ironing and doing some light housework, taking him to the park in the afternoon, and playing with both children once his five-year old sister returned home from school.

I met the two-year old boy when his mother interviewed me for the position, and was instantly smitten with him. Sucking his thumb, he shot me shy smiles through messy brown curls. His favorite things in the world were cubumbers [sic], pirates, and the chimney sweep song, “Step in Time,” from Mary Poppins, which we watched almost every day (just the scene with that song, and no other. That was possibly the worst part of the entire job).

I didn’t meet his sister until I started the job and I fell for her just as hard and fast. She had dark, sparkly eyes and copper-colored curls. She was startlingly intelligent and forthright.

I remember vividly one exchange in which she said to me very seriously and fiercely, “you know that God IS real, don’t you?”

I replied with something wishy-washy about some people believe this and some people believe that and blah blah blah, and she was having none of it. I’ve had similar exchanges with my daughter, who reminds me now very much of my five year-old charge as she was back in 1990.

Every day I would come home full of stories about the silly or amazing or funny things that the two children had done or said. I’m sure my Mum and brother got quite sick of hearing about them both.

I was devoted to the children and also quite conscientious about my ironing duties, which I performed while the two-year old was napping. However, it will surprise no-one who knows me well to learn that I was fairly derelict when it came to the “light housework” part of the job. I was always forgetting to take out the rubbish or to leave enough time after coming home from the park to tidy up the kids’ bedrooms before I left for the day.

Apart from my congenital laxness when it comes to tidiness, I’ll admit that I didn’t take the tidying part of the job very seriously because the family employed a cleaning lady who came three times a week, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It was the cleanest house I had ever seen.

I initially committed to working for the family for six months, with the idea that I would travel for the second half of the year before starting university. But as the end of the six month period drew closer, and all my old friends from school gradually embarked on great adventures around the globe, I felt more and more overwhelmed by the idea of going anywhere, ever. I just wanted to be with the children and do the ironing. To my Mum and brother’s bafflement, I even started ironing everyone’s clothes at home, including items, like T-shirts, that really didn’t require ironing. I spent a lot of time ironing. It felt soothing, predictable, and deeply comforting.

I remember now going to see a film at the Holloway Odeon with an old friend from school; she was now working in Boots the chemist and was thinking about training as a pharmacist. She picked me up from our house on Dalmeny road in her car. I hadn’t seen her for months and babbled excitedly about my job and how much I loved the kids.

At some point I remember her asking curiously, “but I would have thought you would have gone to uni? You had the grades, and everything.”

I explained a little sheepishly, that, yes, I was going to uni, I had just deferred my place for a year.

But I understand now why she was confused. Just as I didn’t feel excited about traveling, I didn’t feel excited about going away to university. It was not something I talked about. The prospect filled me with dread.

While I was working for the family, the mother would ask me periodically how my travel plans were shaping up. I would always sort of brush off the question. I was still thinking about it, I’d explain. As the months passed she asked me more frequently. One day, maybe five months into the job, I told her that I had changed my mind about traveling and decided to keep working so I could save up more money. I explained that I’d be happy to stay on working for them, maybe even right up until I left for university.

I remember when I told her realizing all at once that I had completely misread the situation; I had thought that she would be thrilled to hear I could stay on. But instead, I realized, mortified, that she had been counting on my leaving then. She explained, haltingly and not unkindly that she thought it was better if we just stuck to the initial six-month plan. I remember asking, my voice breaking, if I had done something wrong. And she said no, no, not at all, I was great with the children, but she just wanted someone a bit older, someone who could drive, who was more used to taking care of a house.

I remember, in tears, telling Lynne, the cleaning lady, that I would be leaving and her being gratifyingly indignant on my behalf. You’re bloody fantastic with those children, she said emphatically. And why does she need you to do more tidying, she’s got me three times a week, she added, shaking her head.

It’s funny though, that now, looking back, as a mother myself, I have much more sympathy with my former employer. I’m sure for her it felt like, great, just what I need, not only do I have a toddler and a five-year-old, now I also have a messy teenager moping around the house, and I’m PAYING her, what the fuck?

Not to mention that I feel all the more aware, retrospectively, of how incompetent I was as a mother’s help when I compare myself to the immensely capable and good-humored women whom I have hired in recent years to help me in the same role.

But at the time, good grief, it was wrenching. I wept on the bus home that day. And after I left, I missed the children dreadfully. I would still babysit them once in a while, but eventually, of course, I moved on; I did go traveling; I did go to university; and eventually I fell out of touch with the family altogether.

I thought about the children quite often in the years that followed, and after the advent of the internet I Googled their names and searched for them on facebook, realizing they would now be teenagers. Their names were fairly common, however, and although I found some likely candidates, I couldn’t think of what exactly I would have to say to them even if I turned up the right people. Perhaps it would seem creepy, I worried, to contact them after so many years.

Although, as I just said, I’ve thought about them intermittently in the twenty-five years since I last saw them, I’m writing this post now not because of a passing bout of nostalgia but rather precipitated by a certain odd series of recent events.

After I separated, I suddenly became aware, in that way you do when some life event attunes you to different murmurings in the world around you, that the word spinster, possibly the most unlikely word ever to be making a comeback, was in fact making a comeback. Friends kept forwarding me articles about spinsters. A grad student approached me about writing a dissertation on the category of the spinster in the late eighteenth century. To my surprise, the grad student in question was unaware of the recent spate of publications on spinsterism, and so with the idea of giving her a sense of the term’s currency in print and web media, I went online to gather up a few links to send her.

I was sitting at my desk in my office on campus. One link took me to a New Yorker article I hadn’t read previously. I gasped out loud when I saw the name of the author: it was the same name as that of the little girl I had looked after when I was eighteen.

I quickly ascertained that it was in fact, the same person. I was able to figure this out by finding a picture of the article’s author; I recognized her instantly; when I reported this fact to her when I wrote to her later, she replied, to my amusement, “I’m a little disturbed that I seem not to have changed much in appearance!” (Of course she shouldn’t have been disturbed; all it means is that she’s still a beauty.) Yet more bizarrely, I discovered with just a bit more searching that she was in the midst of completing a PhD in English at my grad school institution.

O, la!

Roll your eyes all you like, dear readers, but it was impossible for someone like me, who has spent years writing about the likelihood of extraordinary coincidences occurring, of the possibility of the “marvellous in life,” in Burke’s phrase, not to get extremely over-excited about this turn of affairs.

Happily, my former charge was equally excited. “What an extraordinary coincidence, or set of coincidences!” she wrote back in her reply to me.

Because I’m a super-nerd, the subject line of my email to her was “so matters fell out.”

And because she is obviously a super-nerd too, one of whom I am very very proud, not that I can claim one iota of credit for her brilliance, she didn’t mind one bit.