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7 November 2023

Where Are You From?

SONIA LALLOO

‘North West.’ 

‘No but like where are you from?’

‘Harrow.’ 

‘Nah like where are you really from?’

‘Oh. Right.’

An interaction that you would have overheard had you also been in the smoking area of Piccadilly Institute on a Friday in 2018. 

 

The first time I ever went clubbing, like properly clubbing- although I don’t know whether you can really call Piccadilly Institute ‘proper clubbing’ - was also the first time I had to think about what being an immigrant really meant to me. That sounds really dramatic, and to be honest it really is, because in truth I definitely replied with something lippy like ‘Why’d you need to know?’, brushed it off and went back to my obnoxiously loud conversation, complaining about how no boys ever approach me. 

I was born in South Africa, and moved to South London at the age of two with my parents and my older sister. We moved around the capital a fair bit, owing to my mum’s various placements in various hospitals, before finally finding our base in Harrow, the arsehole of London. The ultimate representation of suburbia: where you’re excluded from the inner-city ‘cool’ culture, and don’t worry the zone one to four-ers will make sure you know that, but then you’re also not a countryside, farm-shop, picturesque Sunday stroll kinda kid. About the most picturesque thing in Harrow is the Hill: a weird Tory bubble that in no way reflects the landscape of my home. Amongst my uni friends, I’m ‘not fucking from London’, which I get defensive about. ‘I am!’ I insist, as they crease and ask me what my postcode is, knowing full well it begins with ‘HA’ not ‘NW’. And so, it’s a funny joke, albeit a bit boring now, but funny all the same. But if I’m not from London then where am I from? Despite having the lovely maroon passport (yes mine is still maroon), I don’t really feel British.

 

A fractured identity that seems to only find solace every 2 years when I suddenly LOVE England or rather Jude Bellingham.

 

I do however still feel slightly on edge whenever I enter a very local pub in a more Brexit county. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I have always felt slightly out of place. Neither here nor there, but desperately wanting to be somewhere. Oh, and I’m also South Asian which tends to confuse people. 

According to the 2011 census, Harrow had the highest Indian population in London with 63,051, me included, calling it their home. If you’re more of a percentage kinda person that works out to 42.2% of Harrow being made up of ‘Asian or Asian British’. So, I guess in that way, I’ve never really had the right to feel out of place in terms of my race. I grew up in an extremely diverse area; in fact, at my high school being white was the minority and as a result if you did find yourself lacking melanin you were branded ‘a coloniser’. And yet I still did. 

But it was truly only when I left my comfortable diverse city, my London, and ventured north to Edinburgh for university that I truly understood what it meant to not be from ‘here.’ I never really processed my colour as a child or teen. I obviously know what I look like, in fact I think I might be hyper-aware of it, but being brown has never really affected me day to day. I never felt I was being treated differently and was never really that aware of my amber hue in a room full of people. But, when I got to Edinburgh and attended lectures and tutorials I very quickly became very aware of myself. Aware of how I stuck out. Why am I saying all of this? Surely I’m not just using this article to dump my personal baggage…

Well no. In December 2022, the former Queen’s aide, Susan Hussey, interrogated Ngozi Fulani on her ethnic origin. ‘Where are you from?’ she asked, to which Fulani replied ‘Hackney’ assuming she was referring to ‘Sistah Space’, the organisation she was representing at Buckingham Palace.

 

This indeed wasn’t the intention of the question because Hussey continued to press, even adding ‘I can see it is going to be difficult getting you to tell me where you are from.’ This, coupled with her touching Fulani’s hair, made for an extremely uncomfortable interaction that in my opinion was racially motivated. That said, I don’t believe the question ‘where are you from?’ is inherently racist. This is not to diminish Fulani’s experience, Hussey acted on racial biases that were completely out of line, but rather, it made me think of all the times it has been said to me: see above. And I must say, it was never malicious, a bit weird don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t feel like I was being attacked or examined under a microscope. Maybe that’s me being naïve but I just believe people are curious and I love to talk about myself. I will say that over the years, the questions have made me think. My automatic response is an internal eye roll or teeth kiss, coupled with an actual, rather polite: ‘London, but I was born in South Africa and I’m Indian.’ I don’t even think about the words, I just say them. It wasn’t until seeing the news on Fulani’s experience that I actually stopped and questioned who I am and who I am not. I am not British, well I am, obviously, but I’m not, not really anyway. I feel tied to experiences and memories: I feel tied to London, so when I am told I am not from there it jars me. I feel tied to my version of ‘home’ which just so happens to be Britain. 

Why is that question so pressing? Why do we want to know? I am guilty of it too! In fact, it’s one of the first questions I ask on a date, mostly to weed out home county posh boys, but also because truly I’m just curious to know someone’s background and discover more about them. For me it’s about finding commonalities - for example if you’re from London there is a higher chance we will get along, I can’t tell you why, there’s just more potential for a match in vibes that stems from similar nostalgias and shared experiences. It’s like something tiny lights up in my brain and tells me we’re on the right track.

I suppose the question I’m trying to ask is why do we have this obsession with placing an individual?  What do we gain? Does it give us some kind of upper hand? Something that we may measure ourselves against? Or is it genuine curiosity? I’m inclined to argue that Hussey meant to intentionally alienate, belittle and racially harass Fulani. Calculated or not, that question, ‘where are you from?’, is certainly loaded. And so I, and I urge you to as well, will just pause and think before asking it again.

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