The following is not meant to denigrate my origins in any way. I don’t hate where I’m from, I don’t love it either. It’s one of those things upon which I had absolutely no influence, so it leaves me indifferent. Of course, there’s always the possibility that my soul and God were sitting at a desk in space (or heaven, on a cloud or other very comfortable water droplet formations) and planned out my birth in intricate detail, in which case I take it all back, and I say I’m very proud to be where I’m from. I’ll be damned if I ever admit of having made mistakes in my antenatal form…
Anyway, my thoughts aren’t about origins. Being an experienced immigrant, in my 11 years abroad, I’ve heard one question significantly more than others, coming from people I don’t know: “Where are you from?” – and boy, do I hate hearing it!
I presume English speakers aren’t familiar with the feeling. When visiting other English speaking countries, people there know, most times, where they are from just by what accent they have. Except if they visit the USA, in which case, from what I hear, any English speaking visitor has a British accent. The Kiwis are especially thrilled by being relegated to this pool of accents, after being named the holders of “the sexiest English accent” some time in the past.
A problem, however, appears when the visitors or migrants don’t have a recognisable English accent (or are of non-white description, but I won’t get into that as I can’t relate). I have a complex accent, made up of my native one, some American, some Irish and a solid splash of Australian, so I fall into this category. It’s a masterpiece of deception. But having such a deceitful accent comes with one drawback – The Question.
I’m not against being asked where I’m from per se, it’s a big part of who I am and I would expect that anyone who shows interest in my person to want to know. My problem is being asked The Question after only uttering a couple of words, enough so that my interlocutor can identify the intruding twang. I will only refer to this situation from now on.
I realise how this may come as a surprise to people. You might ask “so what’s wrong with that?”. Well, I’m happy to educate.
When asking a migrant where they are from, you are saying one thing, loud and clear: “I notice you are different, explain this to me please”. We, as humans, don’t like different. And don’t you dare give me the “I’m always trying to put myself out of my comfort zone” or “I revel in the unknown” – I’m not talking about trying new flavours in your chicken curry, I’m talking about situations in which we have been primed by evolution to be extra cautious. Like meeting someone new.
Let’s say I’m a guy living in a small tribe on the plains of Africa some thousands of years ago. I have my tribe, my woman and my children forming the immediate circle of trust, the group of people I feel safe with because I know they won’t kill me in my sleep. At least as long as I can keep hunting and bring back food. In the world of yore, anyone not part of this group was an enemy until proven otherwise. This was the case all the way through history until the recent rapid urbanisation of society. All of a sudden, we’re surrounded by people who are not part of the tribe, who we don’t know, but who we must trust as being friendly for fear of going hermit otherwise. In the modern world, our way of coping with this influx of new faces is to expand that original circle of trust, to redefine what the tribe means. The concept of the expanding circle was coined and detailed by Peter Singer, and it’s a nifty explanation to why altruism exists at all considering we evolved with self preservation as primary focus.
So now we have this expanded circle, and it includes people from our town, county, state, and our nation. Most times, however, it doesn’t include people of other nations. Until the little green men from space (or from behind innocuous water droplet formations) attack Earth, this is unlikely to change.
There are numerous arguments as to why the circle should now expand to the globe, and an equally large number of arguments saying why this should never happen. Most of the latter are often misguided, and I’m referring to the coherent ones. Not many people realise that, even a couple of hundred years ago, people could freely travel to any country they wanted, without anyone asking too many questions. Imagine trying to enforce border control before electricity was harnessed – if anything, it would make for a very short Border Patrol episode. This fluidity of movement hasn’t destroyed any country’s national identity, although several political demagogues have claimed this to have happened, in order to arouse feelings of animosity towards certain groups of people.
Once politicians learned that fear and hate towards invaders are much better at controlling and influencing large groups of people than fear of a harsh ruling class, they started using it more and more in order to get what they wanted. This was a particularly useful tool in “democratic” societies (more on those inverted commas some other time), where the governing bodies were still voted in by the people. Whole industries developed on the back of fear, both of outsiders and of everyday life events in general. The most popular pastime of the 20th century, The Cold War, also drew heavily on it.
The more recent nuance of using the “us vs. them” dynamic is not so much actual fear (although that’s still rife, particularly towards Muslims in Christian nations), but an attitude of considering one’s own nation as better than others. Americans are, of course, a great example of this attitude in action. I’m not sure when the USA became the greatest country on Earth, but, from my vast library of movies and TV shows, and a few chats with people who’ve actually lived there, I can hypothesize that it is an omnipresent theme in American society. This mantra is ingrained daily in the minds of the population, starting in primary school and all the way through to old age. There’s the fanatic veneration towards the flag, the world famous spontaneous “USA! USA! USA!” chants in the most unassuming situations, the pledge of allegiance recited regularly in schools and, definitely not least, the belief that America is a global symbol of freedom. What can we expect of a population growing up in this environment? When someone grew up going through all the nationalistic propaganda media conceivable, and ended up believing without a shadow of a doubt that her country and the people in it are the greatest on the planet, what can she be expected to think when she meets someone who is not from her neck of the woods? The implied superiority of provenance is extremely subtle, and I never expect it to be a conscious thought, but could anyone presume it to be absent? I couldn’t even say that about me, and I’ve just tried to explain and expose it for what it truly is, what can be expected of someone who doesn’t ever give it a thought?
It’s not just American propaganda that breeds these feelings, the First World media thrives on pointing out how much better the local society is compared to others, because when readers realise that, it gives them a little jolt of dopamine, and it’s enough to make them come back for more. Politicians love to do the same, because it shows them in a better light. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the media doesn’t criticise internal policy, I’m saying they have an egotistic bias when reporting their country versus the world.
People in developing countries go through a different type of propaganda. Assuming those countries are somewhat free, the media coverage and positioning of the local country is that of submission. Other countries are always shown as better, and since there are roughly 200 countries around the world these days, there will always be one that’s better in some regard. On top of that, with our little primitive brains, we naturally transfer those qualities, in halo form, to the people living there.
Natives of developing countries visiting or living abroad actually add to these feelings, because the first reaction of an immigrant is to notice what’s better rather than what’s worse. I suspect this is something we all do to protect and validate our decision to migrate.
Now let’s imagine a guy from a developing nation migrating to a First World country. He lives there, works there, pays taxes, spends money and, ultimately, after years and years, becomes a citizen. It’s his home. Speaks the language as well as the locals, albeit with a bit of an accent. He meets someone at a party and engages in conversation. After saying “Hi” and “great weather we’re having”, he’s asked “so…where are you from?”. In light of what I said so far, this becomes “I notice you are not from here. I’m cautious towards strangers because I evolved to be cautious, so you are suspicious to me on a level I can’t consciously comprehend. Furthermore, since you’re not from here, you’re probably not as good as I am so now I’m talking to you not as equal but as a hierarchical superior. What do you have to say for yourself?”. I absolutely hate it!
I’ll end my story with a caveat: the uncomfortable perception of The Question is subconscious. I’ve been feeling this way about it for a very long time, and I’m making here an attempt at unpacking this feeling. I can’t say what people think when they ask The Question, and I can’t say that everyone is bothered by it, but I can confidently say that, should this question not be asked in the future, the world would feel ever so slightly more hospitable.