avatarLucinda Munro Cook

Summarize

The World-Wide All-Time Favorite Question

I dread it, but I’m too complicated to lie

Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

How many times do you meet people and their first question is “Where are you from?”

Countless times, right?

‘Where are you from?’ is an ice-breaker, a throw-away question; seemingly innocuous, the answer is loaded with social clues that let the interrogator know how to relate to you. A one-word answer is expected.

I wish it was in my nature to dumb it down, but ask me where I’m from and I stall if I even imagine claiming a nationality.

Ask me where I’m from, and depending on my age at the time, you would get a range of answers from “Australia” to “I’m a Bendjesserit” to “Nowhere” to “Everywhere” to “I’m a diplomat brat” to “It’s complicated” to “I’m an eternal foreigner” to my recent favorite “I’m a Transnational” (though I might have to stop using that one; I wrote some fan mail to a famous author, asking whether they are a Transnational, like me, and that author’s assistant wrote me back in a huff saying: ‘Certainly not! transnational means terrorist.’)

Explain yourself

No matter what my short answer may be, I usually have to explain myself further, e.g. My father was a diplomat, we moved around a lot. I grew up changing countries every two years, and I changed schools seventeen times by the time I was seventeen.

Sometimes — rarely — the person asking the question is also a Transnational, and clicks with me straight away. About meeting other trans-nationally brought-up people, suffice to say this for now: I can often spot another Transnational from ten feet away — before they’ve even opened their mouth.

As for the majority of fixed-culture people, their reactions to my answer fall into a few categories.

Bandwagon wannabes

One of the most common reactions I get from fixed-culture people is what I call ‘wanting to jump on my band-wagon’.

“Oh,” they say, “I’m like that too!”

This is friendly but also completely misses the point.

It is friendly in that they obviously want to identify with me, but annoying in that they are white-washing my self-identification and negating my difference.

I am exotic, and they want to be exotic too, but if they’ve been raised in one country, they’re not.

(Maybe I’ll start using that one:

“Where are you from, Lucinda?”

“I’m Exotic.”

…exactly what it says on the tin! But I digress.)

Young jumpers

Often the people who want to jump on my bandwagon have been brought up transiently — within one country — and do indeed have points of similarity; they didn’t have a choice, and they went to lots of schools, they lost their childhood friends and connections over and over, and they had to learn how to fit in as a newcomer, relentlessly.

But they only have one cultural reference.

Even if they have two cultural references, that is not so strange. Plenty of children are brought to a new country as immigrants, or have parents from two different cultures.

Even if they have three cultural references (for example, if they have expat parents from two different cultures but were raised in a third one) that is not so strange either.

They may well have had a peripatetic childhood or be culturally diverse, but they are not Transnationals.

Adult jumpers

Then you get bandwagon jumpers who travel the world as adults, and seem to believe that that qualifies them as a Transnational and a “Citizen of the World”.

It may qualify them as amateur anthropologists, and kudos to their adventuresome spirit, but that is not the same thing as a child forced to uproot again and again, while willy-nilly absorbing the ‘rules’ of their current country.

‘You lucky, privileged so-and so!’ Projectionists

Another typical reaction of settled people is along the lines of “You privileged brat!”.

I am privileged, and eternally grateful for it. But 99% of projectionists are also privileged, and rather than being grateful for it they’re ignorant of the untold luxuries they take for granted. They are jealous of me!

These adults have an ambition or life wish to “travel the world”, and they project that adult wish onto the fact of me. I can say with authority that no child has the ambition or wish to be uprooted constantly, losing every single person in their life bar their immediate family, and “travel the world”.

Children by definition do not get to make such life choices. They do what they’re told and go where they’re taken.

Reductionists

Yet another category of fixed-culture people are the reductionists, who point blank deny my self-identification and dismiss me with one sentence that is not so much a question as a smug statement of superiority, and is comparable to calling me an out-and-out liar: “Well, where were you born then, you can only be born in one place!” Reductionists often follow that up with “Why are you here, why don’t you go back to Australia?” Charming.

No foreigners

What are we like then, if we’re not like you jumpers or projectors?

As a child, not only was I raised in six countries, but I had babysitters, teachers, neighbours and friends from innumerable countries all over the world. Though I might remember their specific nationalities, none of them were foreign to me. Or at least, none were more foreign than any other.

For us Transnationals, that is a cultural marker, a characteristic that does not end with childhood.

It is part of our very being, and means that while we are eternally outsiders we are also naturally adept at fitting in.

Accepting cultural differences and standards is a trait of Transnationals, even as adults. It’s a trait that’s often met with distrust by fixed-culture people.

Adept at adopting and adapting

One example of this ‘fitting in’ manifests in me through my accent. My accent changes, involuntarily, to that of the people around me. It often makes settled people mistrust me.

Or, I seem to be such a local that I’m misbelieved if I point out that I don’t share some typical childhood experience.

Even in literature, the rare Transnational character you come across in a novel is always minor to the plot. They are invariably portrayed as duplicitous, shallow, crazy, or all three.

Unfounded mistrust is one of the hardest attitudes to bear, and yet it’s a dependable burden of any Transnational.

It’s not the particulars that matter

For Transnationals, it’s not the particulars of where we were raised that matters. It’s the fact that many different cultures were woven into the fabric of our being, inextricably and invisibly, when we were children.

Children are, by definition, still forming, and rely a lot on body-language, subtle visual clues and attitudes of the adults and children around them — as well as the language and music, the sights in the streets and places they go— in order to “read”, make sense of and fit into, the world.

You need a specific culture to make yoghurt

When I strive to describe my multi-cultural upbringing in a nutshell, I often rely on making a comparison between milk and yogurt: you need a specific culture and specific conditions for yogurt to set; I am still milk. I will ever be milk.

Do you really want to know?

Why do people ask the question so often? They need to know, but they don’t want to hear my answer. All over the world, fixed-culture adults need to fit other people into an ‘Origins Box.’ I’m guessing they need to know in order to know how to relate to them.

I’m thinking of that famous 70’s experiment on gender, where they filmed how adults talked to a bunch of babies in cots, in an exhibition room. The babies were dressed either in pink, blue or yellow.

The pink ones were cooed at in a high tone of voice and assumed to be girls; the blue ones were assumed to be boys and the tone of voice was not so much cooing as gruffly jocose; the yellow babies were, to a man, completely and utterly ignored. No one talked to them because no one knew how to talk to them if they didn’t know their gender.

If there is a universal need to fit people into an ‘Origins Box’, does that not also mean that people have a universal need to fit into such a conventional ‘Origins Box’, themselves?

Am I condemned to the fate of a baby dressed in yellow, fruitlessly searching for the magic clue to project, to let strangers know how to relate to me?

I’ll leave you with a favourite anecdote about a child at my six-year-old sister’s birthday party.

Asked where they were from, they replied stoutly:

“From a taxi, with my mother.”

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