“But Where are You From From?”


 Reflections from a confused expatriate.


I have come to disconnect my brain from my words every time I answer the question of where I am from. No matter whether I tell you I am Italian, which means I want this conversation to end as quickly as possible, or whether I tell you I am Mexican, which means I am feeling patient, or whether I explain the story of my life; at this point I feel nothing but exhaustion for the epic I need to tell in order to account for all the pieces.

When I get asked deeper questions, however, my wall of distance breaks. When I try to explain that (even though I can claim no Brazilian nationality) the only language I had no accent in was Portuguese (which is no longer true) my accent fumbles and changes, suddenly aware of its linguistic contradictions and peculiarities. When I state that I have never lived in Italy, even though all of my family is from there, and that in fact I had not even visited Rome until last summer, I begin to believe that the most Italian thing about me is my ability to cook a dozen types of pasta. When someone asks about some particular Mexican slang, and I have an even more vague notion about what it means than they do, I visualize why I always get spoken to in English while in the land of my birth.

In one of my classes this semester, I sat in silence and watched several American students discuss what it means to be an immigrant in the book White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. Very little of what they said made any sense to me. I did not resent them for speaking, or even for being, in my opinion, often wrong. But when the teaching fellow asked me to contribute to the discussion, I could not. I could not even explain why I could not – all of the explanations I had memorized over the years, in their various different forms and versions, suddenly all seemed wrong. When made to really think about the issue of nationality, and immigration, and belonging, my mind drew a blank.

The truth is, I don’t know where I’m from. If you catch me in my darkest moments, I will respond: “nowhere”. But I honestly do not, ever, blame you for asking. It is not your fault that I feel this way, and most likely you have no idea that I do. Your inability to place my accent is through no fault of your own, and neither is your curiosity about on what authority I base my distaste for Border Café and how it balances with my blonde hair and blue eyes. The mini existential crisis I have when you ask me what country I would fight for in a hypothetical World War III is in no way, I assume, something you meant to induce.

I have been told by my American friends that it is impolite to ask someone “where they’re from from”, because it might come off as racist, discriminatory, and be triggering and shame-inducing. From the personal corner of my experience in the matter, I respectfully disagree. In the particular context in which we live in, on this specific college campus, I find that this is rarely the case. I cannot think of a single instance in which someone has asked me that question in order to judge me, shame me, or exclude me, and not out of sheer curiosity and excitement. I have never gathered any response more offensive than “my favorite pasta is Alfredo!” And for all my identity uncertainty I do not feel ashamed of any of my potential nationalities. What’s more, I believe that treating the question as a taboo is a positive feedback loop of offensiveness, in which we are taught that asking someone where they’re from is offensive because not all answers are accepted. That, in my opinion, is what induces shame: the idea that some nationalities are “bad” answers. And that to avoid making people uncomfortable by having to admit they are from these “bad” nationalities, we should just not ask the question at all.

But there are, or rather there should be, no “bad” answers to such a question. One was born in a certain place to certain parents, and there is nothing one can do to change that. It is futile, and possibly harmful, to feel shame over something so inconsequential, and that one cannot in any way change. I do not want to think badly of you for being curious about how I can be a blonde Mexican, I do not want to punish or frighten away your innocent curiosity, because the only way we can learn to live together without violence and fear is to understand each other. You cannot understand me, and I cannot understand you, without questions being asked, and answers being given. I cannot expect you to “like” or accept my culture if you are not allowed to explore it and find aspects of it (and there are many in every culture) that you can enjoy.

So, do continue to ask me where I’m from if you want to – I want us to live together peacefully and openly.

Francesca Cornero (francescacornero@college.harvard.edu) is starting a petition to make “the basement of William James” an acceptable nationality.