When travelling, or working with people from different countries, this is a question you will be asked a lot. And I mean a lot. In almost every interaction. They even ask you now when entering a museum, where no doubt some kind of statistic is created out of it. Perhaps, if we all started saying “Wales”, all the information panels would be translated into Welsh!
It’s a question that has me puzzled, yet I ask it myself all the time. I never really felt it contributed much to the idea of “who someone is”. Yet not to ask it seemed impossible too. And how to answer? Where, really, really, do we come from?
As I was walking along the Via Laeitana the other day, a nice dark-haired “Spanish” lady smiled and stopped me and asked if I had ever heard of “doctors without borders”. I said, “Si, pero no hablo Español. She replied in English, “Oh, that’s no problem! Where are you from?” I said “Germany” as that is where I have lived for the past 25 years and I wasn’t sure of the relevance, seeing as she wanted money from me and not a tourist review. She raised her eyebrow rather gallicly and said “You don’t SOUND German!” I almost apologised. Next time I vill speek viz a German akzent. But we had a very interesting conversation (in English) and she told me about doctors without borders and I told her about translators without borders and after parting with some money, on I went. Later, sitting on a bench in the sun I was approached by a young dreadlocked “American” guy for a cigarette. “Sorry, I don’t smoke,” (why do we ex-smokers always feel so damn apologetic about the fact we have given up, or is it a British thing, simply apologising for everything?) but, instead of just wandering off, he said, “Where are you from?” This time I said “England.” And he nodded and walked off, as though his mission were complete. Was it the wrong answer? Or did he feel the interaction had had some degree of success once he had placed me geographically?
Of their very nature, many translators have a geographically chequered past, mixing Spanish, German, French, Welsh and English liberally in their linguistic evolution, yet even we, when first meeting, want to know: “Where are you from?” Convoluted conversations ensue with strings of place names: “From Warrington, but moved away at the age of seven, then spent three years in Malaysia, before moving back to Britain,” or “From Newcastle, but have lived in France for thirty years.”
I was born in Islington, London, but at two weeks I was in Hamburg. At three months in Berlin and at one year back in Southall, where on the streets only Hindi and Punjabi were spoken, and the fashion stores had Indian mannequins sporting saris.
I spent my early years being looked after by a Malaysian nanny, then a German one, spent time in a German kindergarten; London schools followed. I moved to Liverpool, to Manchester, then Berlin. Put me in a pub full of lairy Mancunians and the warm burr will also trip off my tongue; stick me in with a busload of Scousers and I’ll likely be calling you “la” before the trip is over.
We translators have this wonderful spongy tendency to soak up the language soup we find ourselves in. In Barcelona the Catalan “Bon dia” was quickly in my blood, much more than “Buenos dias”. (Even though I can’t say much beyond that!)
In 2014, Taiye Selasi ,the talented Nigerian/Ghanian/American/Italian/German writer, gave a TED talk about this very issue. She spoke eloquently of her feelings of home, the tastes and smells and sounds that denote her feeling of “Heimat” – for which most languages don’t even have a word! She talked about Afropolitans, making me want to be a Europolitan, and asked, “How can we come from a political concept, a state?”
Of course, when I say Königsberg, it is a concept, it conjures pictures, perhaps smells, perhaps memories, in your mind. The same for South-West Africa or Kovářská. Perhaps even Berlin. The passage of time and the sweep of politics has pushed and pulled borders around like a giant bedsheet being shaken out and rearranged.
Ask my mum. She was born in a place and a country that no longer exists. Even the name of the place has changed. From Schmiedeberg and Šmídeberk to Kovářská. And ask anyone born in the GDR. So what to do with that? When my mother wanted to claim her (West) German passport after reunification, they demanded to know if she did indeed have “German blood”, (as her (East) German passport stated Kovářská as her place of birth, which, in the new making of the postwar bed, had been placed behind the Czech border, despite having had a large German-speaking population). My mother held out her arm, pale side up, and said “I don’t know, why don’t you tell me?”
Taiye Selasi concludes that to a large extent many of us are “multi-local” feeling at home in several places, or indeed none. So surely the question should not be, “Where are you from?” but rather: “Where are you local?”
When I step out of my flat in Barcelona to buy samosas from the Pakistani grocer across the way, who speaks with the same cadence as the Pakistanis in Ealing, and buy my bread from the local Panaderia every day, I almost feel “local”; I feel “known”.
When I am in London and drop by the Chinese takeaway, as I do once a year to order the same familiar food, I feel “home” but I haven’t lived there for 28 years.
When I see the local supermarket in Berlin being demolished for a flashy modern new build in Prenzlauer Berg, where I raised my children and drank my first glass of Sekt, the “local” part of my heart hurts.
So now, when I look at someone and ask them where they are from, I usually know I will be settling in for a loooong tale of migration and flux, a fascinating story of roads less travelled: of places, cultures and languages that form and change us and makes us who we are. It’s something that can’t be answered in just one word, or be vouched for by one passport.
Here’s a link to Taiye Selasi’s talk. Well worth watching!