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Where are you from ORIGINALLY?

The WEDDING

I can’t sleep. I went to a wedding last night. No worries, I think I did very well. I didn’t notice myself doing anything embarrassing, though I’ll admit that isn’t the best way to make sure since I’m not the best barometer on these things. Oh, one confession, I used a bad word.

Also, no one told me I was tan. Only one person suggested I straighten my hair. No one commented on my headcovering but someone did offer to go sheitel shoping with me.

And I only got asked “Where you from?” And the person cocked their head to one side with a curious look that translates into: “What are you?”

I said “I’m from New York…but my parents are from the Dominican Republic.”

The person nodded.

Then I said “Yea, I blame my bad Spanish on my parents getting here when they were young.”

To which the person next to me who had heard all this said, “Oh, wow, you were born here?”

Um, clearly, New York is not the capital of the Dominican Republic, right? Sigh. Is my English not so good?

THE BOOK:

Meanwhile, mid-insomnia, I am reading “Don’t Let’s Go to The Dogs Tonight.” The author, Alexandra Fuller has a killer complex over the “Where you from?” question. In America, you get asked “Where you from?” in that way if you are not white. So where do white people go to get asked this question that way: Africa!

Excerpt from the book:

My God, I am the wrong color. The way I am burned by the sun, scorched by flinging sand, prickled by heat. The way my skin erupts in miniature volcanoes of protest in the presence of tsetse flies, mosquitoes, ticks. The way I stand out against the khaki bush like a large marshmallow to a gook with a gun. White. African. White-African.

“But what are you?” I am asked over and over again.

“Where are you from originally?”

Arriving in Rhodesia, Africa. From Derbyshire, England. I was two years old, startled and speaking toddler English. Lungs shocked by thick, hot, humid air. Sense crushed under the weight of so many stimuli.

I say, “I’m African.” But not black. (Aliza’s note: Oooh, I could say, “I’m American but not white.”)

And I say, “I was born in England,” by mistake.

But, “I have lived in Rhodesia (which is now Zimbabwe) and in Malawi (which used to be Nyasaland) and in Zambia (which used to be Northern Rhodesia).”

And I add, “Now I live in America,” through marriage.

And (full disclosure), “But my parents were born of Scottish and English parents.”

What does that make me?”

Mum doesn’t know who she is, either.

She stayed up all night once listening to Scottish music and crying.

“This music”—her nose twitches—“is so beautiful. It makes me homesick.”

Mum has lived in Africa all but three years of her life.

“But this is your home.”

“But my heart”—Mum attempts to thump her chest—“is Scottish.”

Oh, fergodsake. “You hated England,” I point out.

Mum nods, her head swinging, like a chicken with a broken neck. “You’re right,” she says. “But I love Scotland.”

“What,” I ask, challenging,” do you love about Scotland?”

“Oh the…the…” Mum frowns at me, checks to see if I’m tricking her. “The music,” she says at last, and starts to weep again. Mum hates Scotland. She hates drunk-driving laws and the cold. The cold makes her cry, and then she comes down with malaria.”

THE RABBI ASKS THE QUESTIONS:

In other news, a rabbi recently told me that he finally saw what all the fuss was about with the “Where you from?” question. He recently asked a student who wasn’t white, “Where do you live?”

“India. I’m Indian,” the student responded.

The rabbi looked confused. “So you live in India?”

The guy shook his head.

“So where do you live now?”

“Long Island.” But I’m Indian!

The rabbi said, “Ah! I’m from Long Island, too. I really was just asking where you lived, not where you were from.”

ALIZA BLOWS IT OUT OF PROPORTION:

Aside from really getting into the wicked humor of this book, I’m pondering what I would say if asked “Where you from” after I moved to another country and lived there most of my life.

“I’m Australian.”

“But I was born in New York.”

“But my parents are Dominican.” (“Where’s that?”) “That’s in the Caribbean. Columbus landed there. So we’re probably 1/3 African, 1/3 white, 1/3 Native American.”

“Oh, but (full disclosure) there is some Venezuelan, Spaniard and Puerto Rican lineage in our blood.”

How does one little question get so complicated? And how do you respond when someone asks you where you are from?
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7 thoughts on “Where are you from ORIGINALLY?

  1. I say “I am originally from New York, of Colombian-Irish heritage. Jewish by choice, funny by nature.”(and no, I can’t speak Spanish very well, Understand it yes, but not speak)That usually works.

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  2. You will appreciate this story, Aliza.My fiance is Chinese Malaysian. He grew up in Malaysia, he can’t really speak Chinese but knows Malay and English, Malaysia’s official languages, fluently. He’s in school at the same American college I am, and he often plays in classical piano concerts. He was so sick of people asking him where he was from in China that the first line of his program biography now reads, “Hailing from Malaysia…” At his last concert, someone asked him where in China Malaysia was.Other story. I know some Asian Americans whose families have been in this country for 5 or 6 generations, which is longer than mine have. Some of them still get asked, “Where are you really from?” One of my friends answered, “I’m from New York, my mother is from Detroit, my father is from Celevland, my grandparents are from LA…” she continued until someone got sick of hearing her family history. It’s the “perpetual foreigner syndrome.”

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  3. I speak Italian, so I spend a lot of time following what’s going on there. There’s a growing Chinese-Italian population these days. Since Italy has historically been a nation people left to go immigrate elsewhere, they’re not used to having to deal with the influx of Chinese, African and Albanian immigrants that are starting to show up.

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  4. I get a chuckle out of your writing. I deal with the question of where are you from every single day. Ok, I may be exagerating just a lil’ bit but I’ve been dealing with it since I was a child. Venezuelans ask me where I’m from because I don’t fully speak like they do. Dominicans ask me where I’m from because to them I don’t sound dominican either. (I’m half and half.) And, every shabbat someone either looks at me with extreme curiosity or just plainly asks me where I’m from. As a matter of fact this past Shabbat while I had a great time with my hosts, the first question out of one of the hosts friend which I met on that day was “Where are you from?”I guess I’m a sucker for punishment. Converting to judaism I am sure I’m going to get asked that question until the day I go to my grave. Maybe in my tombstone I should write ” Venezuelan, Dominican, assimilated American and Jewish by choice.”

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  5. Believe it or not, I get asked where I am from a lot. Generally, showing off some Jersey pride ends the discussion for many (and the majority of the rest after they toss out some idiotic Jersey joke that they don’t even get themselves). When I think they mean my heritage, I usually just tell them what it is. And, when it’s someone who I think is trying to suggest that I am odd for being the particular heritage that I am, a discourse on the history of my family leads them to regret asking.But here’s a funny (and sadly common) anecdote:Every time I am in a new Jewish community, I introduce myself by my English name. When it gets mispronouced, I tell them that it’s actually two English words smushed together, noting that my name is Welsh, not Hebrew, and that my Hebrew name is Asher.All too frequently the next question is:“So is your family Welsh??”

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