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The One Question That Makes Me Cringe

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It sounds innocuous, and it’s often the first thing a stranger asks.

It helps new friends identify you, and establishes commonalities between you.

It’s how you are categorized and characterized.

It’s the question: “Where are you from?”

Those four little words are enough to send me into a spiral of self-doubt. They accelerate my heartbeat and propel my mind into a vortex of uncertainty, leaving me incapable of stringing more than a few words together.

Simply put, I don’t understand the question.

Not everyone can identify their roots easily... Colosseum watercolor by Ippolito Caffi, courtesy of the National Art Gallery in Washington DC

Not everyone can identify their roots easily… Colosseum watercolor by Ippolito Caffi, courtesy of the National Art Gallery in Washington DC

Where are you from? What could be simpler?

I heard it again last night. Yes, you, by the buffet table, the one in the pale blue shirt with the elegant red and navy tie despite the summer heat. You, so at ease in your Scandinaviousness, so clearly, so unequivocally Nordic, each singsong syllable stretched to breaking.

What you meant as friendly interest was to me a hailstorm of little barbed queries, a complex steeplechase of potholes and pitfalls just waiting to swallow me up.

I’m not being obtuse, I’m just… not sure what you mean. Are you asking… Where were you born? What ethnic group do you belong to? What religion are you? Where did you go to school/college? Where did your parents come from? Where did you grow up? What passport do you carry?

If you’re being polite, you’re putting me through hell for no good reason. If you’re truly interested, bear with me; my stomach will eventually untwist enough to release a coherent reply.

You see, I can’t answer you. Really, I can’t.

I was born in Paris, raised in Spain, Italy, Canada, Algeria and Iran. I have a French and a Canadian passport, and I’m a citizen of Turkey. I could probably claim Israel too. Growing up I changed schools nearly every year and each one was in a different country. I even managed to attend four universities (two of them online) before getting my little pieces of paper.

My mother’s family was Jewish and Catholic, my father’s Muslim.

Each of my grandparents was from somewhere else: the Netherlands, Turkey, France, Jordan. So you see, I can’t tell you where I’m from because I don’t really know myself.

I grew up speaking French and Turkish and eventually Spanish. Now I’m most comfortable in English so I can’t even claim a mother tongue.

When I eat Serrano ham or churros, I think in Spanish. Foie gras and a baguette? I’m French, naturellement. Baklava and dolma? Oh, bless my Turkish roots!

And that’s why ‘that’ question terrifies me. It reduces me to a label that keeps coming unstuck as though the glue beneath it had dried.

That may be why I hate small talk, because you’ll think I’m an idiot when my face turns pale at your most innocent and well-meaning of questions.

I’m not imagining things. In fact most of the world’s people have never left home. According to Pew Social Trends, four in ten Americans still live where they were born. The United Nations says only 3.2% of the world’s people live in a country other than that of their birth: of the world’s more than seven billion people, a mere 232 million have crossed a border to live somewhere else.

We may be uncommon, but someone told me we had a name: Third-Culture Kids, or TCKs. (A third culture kid is someone who has spent a significant portion of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture.)

Now I would love to claim this tribe as my own. It would soothe my rootlessness and give me a sense of community. I could finally answer that question. “I’m a TCK,” I’d say. And leave it at that.

But no. I grew up outside my parents’ culture – cultures which not even they could comfortably claim. My father may have been Turkish, but he spent his childhood as a nomad, the war in Britain and was stationed as a diplomat in Paris when he met my mother. My mother may have been born in Paris but she grew up in Cairo and Alexandria, where her father lived, returning to France only after the war.

So what does that make me? A sixth-culture kid, perhaps. Or maybe an eighth-culture kid.

Does the question even have an answer?

At some point I decided I’d have to craft an answer, ready to thrust at any unsuspecting stranger brave enough to ask. The answer would be well-fashioned, conclusive and clear.

“Actually, I was born in France but left when I was five weeks old on the Orient Express to go to Greece and Turkey before moving to Belgium and then London and sailing to Canada at the age of one.”

That didn’t go too well. Let’s try again.

“You see, my parents were brought up in the Middle East and you know how things are confusing in that part of the world and my father was a Muslim although he didn’t practice and my mother was a Euro-Egyptian – oh, wait, you don’t know what that means??”

Back to the drawing board.

“Well, I went to school in Spain and Italy (and Iran and Canada but only for a bit) and to university in Canada and Switzerland (although I did my Master’s online in the UK and Australia)…”

Forget it.

I can’t explain myself intelligently to a casual questioner.

And then I joined the UN and went to my first social function (aka ‘the place where most of the work gets done’). I observed as people introduced themselves to one another, avoiding them all by mimicking a deep conversation with a nearby wall.

“Hello, I’m Pumphee Andersson, I was born in Bangkok but grew up in Chile and Korea and have worked in Geneva since I returned from Cameroon.”

“Hi, I’m Mari Carmen Takashima, I’m from Spain but grew up in Paraguay and Rwanda. I’ve been going to school in Japan, trying to reconnect with my father’s culture.”

“Pleased to meet you, I’m Humphrey Okegwe-Ferguson, my mother is Scottish, you know, and I’m from Nigeria although I’ve never lived there. I love it here in Geneva, don’t you?”

I had found my tribe.

And I instantly understood I could never belong to a place so I stopped trying.

Home was, simply, wherever I chose to make it. It was nowhere, and it could be everywhere.

Like a diet that finally works I felt light and liberated, the liberation tinged with the slight sadness of knowing that what I had sought had been with me all along.

My search for belonging led to what I’ll discreetly call “an unruly youth”. It passed. I became accustomed to constant change and developed two qualities I treasure: adaptability and resilience.

I learned to make friends instantly because I’d be moving soon.

I learned languages easily and no place ever felt foreign, just new.

Over the years I began to articulate a sense of self.

I wasn’t a TCK. Nor was I a foreigner or an immigrant. I wasn’t even an expat, since that entails actually being from somewhere.

These days, Mr Scandinavian with the glorious tie, your question no longer makes me cringe. Just know that each time you ask, you’ll get a different answer.

I’m not from anywhere. I’m just from… here.

51 Comments

  1. nannette enriquez on July 5, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    I guess it does not matter where you move from, as long as you learn to adapt. Thank you for sharing, I enjoyed your article.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 5, 2014 at 2:44 pm

      Thank you – and yes, if you don’t adapt then you’ll never feel at home anywhere!

  2. Lisa | LLworldtour on July 5, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    I LOVE your story and background and just yesterday I was talking about you to a mutual friend (who says hi) trying to answer the same question about you! It was fun for me of course, because I think you’re so cool. 🙂 But I understand your feelings, I have the same ones when someone today asks me “what do you do?” Aack!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 5, 2014 at 3:23 pm

      Thank you Lisa – but now your question is making me think – I might have to panic at that one too! 😉

      • Alba on July 5, 2014 at 7:34 pm

        I concur! The question “what do you do?” Or worse, “what are you?(professionally)?” Makes me cringe the most. Not only do I not know what to answer, but if I do it ends up being so long winded that even I end up being confused…
        I loved this article, by the way!

        • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 5, 2014 at 7:40 pm

          Thank you Alba! Problem is, we are curious, we want to know about each other and that is a GOOD thing! Otherwise how would we interact? It’s useful to watch someone you first meet – if they seem uncomfortable, you’re probably on a slippery slope and take note! I wouldn’t want anyone to stop asking, though – I just want them to be willing to hear the answer 🙂

  3. Lance on July 5, 2014 at 7:20 pm

    This is a beautiful piece! I frequently ask the “where are you from” question. But rather than looking for the simple answer, I’d love it if you responded with your story. This makes you interesting to talk with. This shouldn’t be something to be feared – it should be a point of pride. Loved it!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 5, 2014 at 7:23 pm

      Thank you Lance! Now pull up a chair, and let me tell you a story… It all began with my grandfather, one of seven brothers, all of whom left their native village in southern Provence and emigrated to different parts of the world… I now have cousins in Canada, Australia, Brazil, England, Egypt (that was my grandfather), the USA and Belgium. If only they’d had email and Facebook then I might actually know who they are! 🙂

    • lisa on July 5, 2014 at 10:48 pm

      I’m with Lance on this one! Actually I’m not a big fan of people answering the question simply, because for me at least, conversation is about sharing stories. When I ask someone where they’re from, I’m not looking to check off a box on a form, I want to know something about them. So your answer would thrill me, no matter how much of the story you told (or didn’t).

  4. Ali on July 5, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    I love this post! You told me a couple pieces of this when we met, but not nearly this much. So interesting! You were obviously destined to be a traveler. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, but I do understand how that’s one of the first questions people ask, especially when you’re traveling. “I live in France but I’m from a million places and no place at all” could be a nice answer 🙂 Thanks for sharing this with us!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 5, 2014 at 9:46 pm

      I remember Porto! I was destined to be a traveler, but what I love is that so many people I meet on the road travel even more than I do – and often they’re the ones who are leaving home for the first time. Discovery is a great thing!

  5. Fida on July 5, 2014 at 9:05 pm

    This is such an entertaining read – and I laughed all the way. I can relate, not because I face the same dilemma as you – gosh, I wish. I mean, it’s such an empty question. It has nothing to do with me, it does not answer who I am but often I get judged a certain way when I reply tell them. I often answer: from home (home for me is wherever I am at the moment) – at least that often starts a discussion – if the one asked it is curious enough 🙂

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 5, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      Love it! From home… I’ll try that next time 🙂

  6. Annabel on July 5, 2014 at 9:20 pm

    Well, after having known you since 1995 (that makes 20 next year), most of what you wrote was news to me, well, in that detail. I think it’s cool because the ‘cringe’ questions obviously weren’t important :). Knowing you simply happened over time!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 5, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      I can’t believe I never told you all this – all those South African evenings?? Ah yes – we were too busy locking the steering wheel of the car and locking the car into the cage and locking ourselves into the house! 😉 And it’s been wonderful knowing you all these years and meeting up with you in Cuba… in Switzerland… in France…

  7. Viv on July 5, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    Love it! I often get that question too as my accent is rather confused (even on a good day), and it depends on the accent of the person I’m speaking with (I’m truly not trying to mimic… it just happens). If I’m not into much conversation my reply will be brief and I’ll pick one of the two countries I hold passports to – that will totally mess with their mind:) Anyway, we’re all citizens of the world as we watch the same sun rise and sun set in various parts of the globe.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 5, 2014 at 9:40 pm

      Oh dear, I mimic… and I don’t realize it until someone looks at me strangely! But yes, I’ll try to skid by but ultimately this colors my worldview, the one in which I love diversity but dislike borders 🙂

  8. Adam Pervez on July 5, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    Wow. I have a similarly confusing background but you lived in more places than me growing up. Something that happened to me on the road all the time was people asking me where I’m from. I say I’m from the U.S. Then they look puzzled and say I don’t look American since I have brown skin. I replied “Does my president look American” and those five words simultaneously taught a valuable lesson and changed the subject.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 5, 2014 at 10:16 pm

      A good lesson indeed! And it’s nice to break down a few preconceptions along the way…

  9. Patricia Schultz on July 5, 2014 at 10:48 pm

    Loved it all…including this info: “…four in ten Americans still live where they were born. The United Nations says only 3.2% of the world’s people live in a country other than that of their birth: of the world’s more than seven billion people, a mere 232 million have crossed a border to live somewhere else.”

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 6, 2014 at 5:11 am

      Thanks Patricia – amazing stats, and I bet they’re in flux, with the percentage growing each day.

  10. lisa on July 5, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    If all else fails, there is always the new classic: “It’s complicated.” 🙂 I enjoyed this post very much!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 6, 2014 at 5:10 am

      Hah, perfect!!

  11. Anita on July 5, 2014 at 11:11 pm

    Loved this story, Leyla, beautifully told. I don’t have your colorful provenance, but as a long-time expat, have at times experienced the discomfort of the “Where are you from?” question. I liked Ali’s answer!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 6, 2014 at 5:10 am

      Thanks Anita, I did too – and it’s not really about the question (which is legitimate) but about the answer, which just throws us off sometimes… I’ll try that sometime!

  12. Jeanette Archbold on July 6, 2014 at 5:21 am

    Very interesting! I don’t envy you if you decide to do your family genealogy, it’s going to be complicated, expensive and utterly frustrating!

    No wonder you have wanderlust!
    Jeanette

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 6, 2014 at 5:26 am

      LOL – I did once think of doing some ancestral research but the generation before my grandparents’ is even more frustrating – I’d have to be rich!

  13. Barbara Weibel on July 7, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    Ah! I too hate that question. Home is (almost) always where I am, and that changes with regularity. Strangely, the place I feel the least comfortable in these days in the USA, which is where I was born. I just tell people I’m a citizen of the world or a digital nomad with no permanent home.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 7, 2014 at 4:26 pm

      And I suspect this is a lifestyle we’ll see expanding in future – it’s an increasingly popular option and with the world opening up online we have possibilities for work and connection that we couldn’t have even imagined 20 years ago!

  14. Lee Anne Willson on July 7, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    Great post!

    While my genetic and experiential heritage is not as broad as yours – rather closer to the simplest TCK – I also find “where are you from?” confusing. So here are some answers I use:

    “I live in Iowa (but I didn’t grow up there).”
    “I was born in Honolulu (but we left there when I was 9)”
    “I grew up in Honolulu, Stockholm, and Reno (I’m a native Hawaiian with a Swedish veneer and cowboy clothes – my friends say that explains a lot).”
    “A bit of all over (where are you from)?”
    [The parts in ( ) are only sometimes in my answers.]

    These are at least relatively short, and one of them usually suits a given occasion – and if followed by the same question back it sorts the “I really would rather talk about myself” questioners from the “I’m genuinely curious” ones. The genuinely curious then follow up and get a longer answer, the others launch into their own narrative (and I’m usually genuinely curious).

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 8, 2014 at 6:37 am

      I love all of these and will try every single one, Lee Anne! But you’re absolutely right about weeding out the egos – because they’re the ones that cause the angst. I love talking about my background if I think someone actually wants to know – often, they’re just being polite and you’re right, they quickly want to move on to the REAL question – about themselves. And that’s fine too, it just helps to know.

  15. Sheila Archer on July 7, 2014 at 11:30 pm

    Brilliant! People always want to know where I’m from because they can’t quite pin me. Merci beaucoup!!!!!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 8, 2014 at 6:34 am

      Avec plaisir!

  16. Colleen Corbin on July 8, 2014 at 2:56 am

    Where are you from?
    Earth.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 8, 2014 at 6:35 am

      LOL – that’ll cover it!

  17. Kristina on July 16, 2014 at 1:32 am

    I’m a citizen of the world.

    Works every time.

  18. David on July 16, 2014 at 6:08 am

    Wow …. being on the road myself at the moment in Malaysia I have had hundreds of people come up to me and ask that simple question …. which is surely the only one which can break the ice between strangers and which can only be interpreted as being friendly. What else would you have them ask .. how much money have you got? … You surprise me …

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 16, 2014 at 8:07 am

      What to ask? Is this your first time in Malaysia? Have you been to Asia before? What do you think of Malay food? Are you traveling on your own? Where are you headed after this? What’s your name? What do you do? Is this your first time traveling? Where were you before Malaysia? And another bunch. And after the first 2-3 questions, having established you’re actually interested in my answer, then go ahead, ask, and pull up a chair… 🙂

  19. Emily on July 16, 2014 at 10:39 am

    Very well explained how one ”simple” question isn’t so simple sometimes. My dreaded question is ”Where do you live/do you live here?”. Not the emotional landmine yours is (or was!), but still much more complicated than the asker anticipated as I live in several countries a year (and never my native country, if that makes sense). After four years of being a nomad this is no longer a complicated answer to give: ”Yes, I live here. But next month, I’ll more than likely live somewhere else. ” Not complicated for me, but guaranteed to put a ”What the heck?” look on the face of the person asking!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 16, 2014 at 11:47 am

      LOL Emily – that’s a great one too! I live in France but work in Switzerland and commute every day… now for 30,000 of my neighbors this is normal but… I always have to clarify which ‘home’ I mean, the day home or the weekend home!

  20. Polly Parkin on July 16, 2014 at 11:24 am

    Leyla, you’re a show-off! That was a really neat way of telling us all the wonderful places you’ve been, the languages you speak and the wonderful international background you have. Being a woman of the world is definitely something to show-off about. A story to inspire.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 16, 2014 at 11:47 am

      Thanks for making me laugh, Polly! 🙂

  21. Frank on July 20, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    Simple answer for me: Canada. It gets more complex from there though, as I was riased in Nova Scotia, went to school in New Brunswick for five years, lived in Alberta for seven years in three different places (one of them twice).

    Unless you are a homebody, it’s not the easiest question to answer…!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 20, 2014 at 10:11 pm

      Being part Canadian, I get that – went to school in Montreal, Hamilton and Vancouver – for extremely brief periods each time except Montreal, which was McGill University but yes, even within the country it’s confusing!

  22. JO on July 30, 2014 at 8:24 am

    Answer: I’m a Woman of the World!

  23. Living Valencia on August 4, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    Great story. I ´m sure a lot of people are identified with you. I didn´t know “Colosseum watercolor” by Ippolito Caffi!!!!!!

  24. […] and at 12 it was songs. I wrote for a newspaper and for radio and then back to Europe (where I had grown up) as speechwriter for IATA, the International Air Transport Association. I wrote brochures and […]

  25. […] seems to be that kind of a travelller who was destined to be a nomad – she was born in France, grew up in five different countries and moved again in her early thirties. After years of travelling through several continents she now […]

  26. […] seems to be that kind of a travelller who was destined to be a nomad – she was born in France, grew up in five different countries and moved again in her early thirties. After years of travelling through several continents she now […]

  27. Halina Goldstein on February 21, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    I love this article! Because it expands our usual view of “belonging” (or not). Because I love your writing. And also because I live in Mr. and Mrs. Scandinavia’s own country while having been born in Berlin (by Jewish parents who were originally from Poland which then became Soviet Union), and then spent most of my childhood in Poland (except the years we were in Berlin), and then moved to Denmark, but then my family is in the USA and in Israel, and while I still speak Polish with my sister and Danish with my friends, for reasons that make no sense I have a special affiliation with North America, but then also South America, so now I’m learning Brazilian Portuguese… All that has certainly been adding to the sense of not-belonging wherever I live, but then again it continues to transform to the ultimate sense of belonging in the World itself. 🙂

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on February 21, 2016 at 4:06 pm

      I do so understand this all! Change the countries and it could be me…

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