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What are you wanting to find out when you ask someone "where are you from?"
Published December 11, 2018 by Julia Lane

by Sneha Ralli

Hi, how are you?”

“I'm doing well. How about you?”

“I'm good too. Are you from here? Where are you from?”

Most of us have encountered the icebreaker question, “Where are you from?” at least once in our lifetime. Many people are often confronted with this question both in their home country and in a foreign country. In a foreign country, it has been postulated that this question might be used in understanding one’s ethnicity (Fawaz, 2013). When I encounter this question in Vancouver, Canada, where I have been residing for over a year now, I respond that I’m from Mumbai, India. I think that the way I look and speak also gives away my South Asian ethnicity. However, the question ‘Where are you from?’ asked in one’s home country is usually not about ethnicity anymore, but origin. In my own country, this question includes additional aspects such as the languages people speak and the culture and traditions they follow. These aspects stem from the fact that 780 languages are spoken in India (Kuruvilla, 2017), of which 14 are official, and each state has diverse cultural traditions that they follow. I can speak about the cultural and language differences of Delhi where I was born and Mumbai where I was raised.

Linguistic and cultural diversity 

I have lived in Mumbai almost all my life. I went to school there; many of my friends are from Mumbai, and I was lucky enough to have found my husband in the same town. The regional language of Mumbai is Marathi, which I became acquainted with in my early school years. I’m a fluent speaker that helps me to communicate with people who have challenges in speaking Hindi, the national language of India. On the contrary, I was born in Delhi, where my fathers’ side of the family lives. I have visited this city occasionally during summer break to visit my grandparents and other relatives. The local language spoken there is Punjabi. Although my parents are very fluent Punjabi speakers, my sister and I are not. From the perspective of linguistics, certain words are cognate. For instance, in Marathi ho and Punjabi hanji both mean ‘yes'. I have adopted both interpretations depending upon whom I’m speaking to. If it’s my parents or grandparents, its hanji, and if it’s someone from Mumbai I say ho.

Culturally, Mumbai and Delhi are different in terms of traditions, attire, history, and festivals. I have adopted both these cultures, but most often I find myself inclined toward the Mumbai culture. For instance, in Maharashtrian culture, observed in Mumbai, it is a widespread practice for both male and females to touch feet of older adults in their family. This is done to show respect towards the elderly and to get their blessings. However, in Punjabi culture, unmarried females are not allowed to touch the feet of the elderly as they believe that young women are a reincarnation of Goddess Durga. I make sure that I do touch feet of older adults when I’m in Mumbai, but my grandparents won’t allow me to touch their feet, so I refrain myself from doing so when I visit Delhi. The traditional attires for both these cultures vary, as Maharashtrian women prefer to wear saree, and in Delhi women often wear a salwar suit. This difference in the attire stems from the intermingling of religions in India; Mughals invaded the northern part of India in the 16th century (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2018). My favourite festival has always been Ganesh Chaturthi (a festival celebrated as Lord Ganesh’s birthday), observed in Mumbai; the roads are lit with colourful lights, there are various communal events, and on top of all that, the streets are filled with coconut and jaggery sweets called modak. The only festival I have celebrated in Delhi is Diwali, which is celebrated all over India with the same enthusiasm. I have seen my mother and grandmother fast during Navratri, a festival of nine nights to pray Goddess Durga, but still don’t know the reason behind its celebration. So, in my sense when someone asks, “Where I’m from?” in my home country I used to say Mumbai as I understand their culture, know their native language, and have resided there for almost two decades; but not anymore.

Critical incidents

During my teens, I moved to a different high school. On the first day, I sat beside an empty desk, and as the classroom started to fill, I decided to go around and introduce myself. I turned around and said "Hi" to the girl who sat diagonally in front of me.

Girl: “Hi, I'm Pradnya[1]. Nice to meet you.”

Me: “Nice to meet you too. How is it going for you?”

Girl: “It's going well. Where are you from?”

Me: “I'm from Mumbai.”

Girl: “Oh! You don't look like you are from here!”

Me: “Hmm... My birthplace is Delhi.”

Girl: “Oh! That is why?”

Pradnya and I never became friends. It was a very strange experience for me to explain where I was born. I had never differentiated my response by explaining my birthplace and place where I was raised. In my naïve way, as a teen, I believed that I belonged to the place where I lived. Never had to think otherwise!  Since then in my home country, my answer to where I’m from has been, “I’m from Mumbai but my birthplace us Delhi.” I think saying so distances me from the cultural and linguistic aspects of Mumbai; nevertheless, it saves me from further questions such as “But no, where are your people from?” Although it’s an easy escape from any further questions, it still feels that I’m uncertain about where I’m from or how people might perceive me for being from these mixed cultures.

I also wonder about the reasons that would have given away that I was not born in Mumbai. I have been successful in narrowing down my reasons to two possibilities. First, it could be the way I spoke. Although I’m a fluent Marathi speaker, I might still mispronounce certain words or make grammatical mistakes in Marathi as it's not my mother tongue (Denizer, 2017) and slow myself down while speaking difficult words. Second, I think it might have been my appearance. It is very common for unmarried Maharashtrian women to wear a bindi (coloured dot) on their forehead; however, it’s banished in the northern part of India. Another example of appearance difference is a nose ring, which is a traditional practice for unmarried and married Maharashtrian women whereas, a nose ring is uncommon for unmarried women in Delhi.

A few years later, I did discuss my high school incident with my parents and how I decided to include both my birthplace and the place I was raised. During this discussion, my father shared his experience. During his early 30s, he did a lot of work-related travelling, and at that time he told me that asking “Where are you from?” was not that common, but instead, people would ask for your full name or put emphasis on your last name by asking, “What is your surname?” My father explained that in India most last names have roots of origin in different states in India. For instance, last names like Sharma or Gill would giveaway that they are from the north-west part of India, namely Delhi, Punjab and Jammu; on the other hand, the last name like Patil or Kale would indicate that they are originally from the western part of India, namely Maharashtra. My father further explained that since our last name is Ralli, a bit unusual for what we would observe in the northwestern part of India, he would always have to explain what his lineage was before the partition[2]. He said it was a bit awkward at first, but eventually, he modified his answer to this: “I’m from Delhi, but my ancestors are from the far west of Punjab.” I was amazed to see how similar our responses were.

It took me a while to absorb and comprehend such separation based on language and culture, and nervously told my father about one incident that happened to me during my early school days. This incident was similar to what he had faced related to surnames. During the first day of class, one of my teachers told us to share our full names, and she insisted that we say our last name if anyone missed it. I was so young that I didn’t even notice that the question was really to understand everyone’s origin, culture, and language.

image of an Indian woman with a braid image of an Indian woman with a head scarf, bindi, and nose ring

* The image on the left is representative of a Delhi and the image on the right is representative of Mumbai.

Reflecting on critical incidents

Body is central to identify – both chosen identity and those imposed by institutions. Competing regimes of meaning seek to define bodies according to gender, sexuality, skin colour, phenotype, norms of beauty, ugliness, age and physical ability. (Weedon, 2004, p. 15)

Over the years, I have tried to understand why people are so eager to know about other people’s culture or language. I can relate these incidences with what Murphy (2012) points out in his book Community Engagement, Organization, and Development for Public Health Practice: “Culture is a strong part of people's lives. It influences their views, their values, their humor, their hopes, their loyalties, and their worries and fears” (p. 78). Since culture plays a vital role in shaping who we are as individuals, when forming a relationship with someone new, we often immediately want to know their cultural identity. Once we have acquired the necessary information about their cultural identity, we tend to stereotype them by assuming they are the same as others in their culture; however, every individual is unique, even if they come from the same religion (Murphy, 2012; Collier & Thomas, 1988). So, knowing about one’s cultural identity doesn’t provide all the information about that individual.

Another aspect that might have led to the question about my place of birth could be my appearance. Sure, there were subtle differences in my mine as I didn’t have a nose ring or a bindi on my forehead, but are these variances sufficient to nullify my ‘identity claim’ of being a Mumbaikar?  I believe there was more to my appearance than these cultural visuals, which I might not have recognized. I did not recognize that my body' skin colour and phenotype might have been responsible for distancing me from my claimed culture identity. Delhi is geographically further away from the equator than Mumbai; as I was born in Delhi, my skin colour was lighter. My physical characteristics had north Indian traits of being tall and having a bulkier build than most of the born Maharashtrians. These exterior features, I believe, alienated me from my claim of belonging to Mumbai city and being labelled as ‘other’. 

Epilogue

I believe appearance is widely recruited as a resource to assign a perceived identity to a person. This practice can easily lead to prejudging a person on their culture, which makes it even more difficult for them to prove their claim of belonging to a culture different from the anticipated one. In my case, my physical features label me as a North Indian, so I have been tagged as ‘North Indian living in Mumbai.’ Asking the icebreaker question, “Where you are from?” is not morally incorrect, provided that the person asking is genuinely interested in getting to know you better. Subsequent questioning such as, “No, where are your people from?” or exclaiming that “You don’t look like you are from here!” leaves the person being questioned with a sense that these questions are not to celebrate their claim of belonging to a culture, but to accentuate the difference between them. 

References

Catterall, P (2013). Becoming Indian: The unfinished revolution of culture and identity / Ashoka and the making of modern India. National identities, 15(2), 213-216. https://doi-org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/ 10.10 80/14608944.2012.729399

Collier M.J. & Thomas M. (1988). Cultural Identity: An interpretive perspective. International and intercultural communication Annual. 2(99-120).

Denizer Elif Nur (2017). Does Mother Tongue Interfere in Second Language Learning? Journal of Foreign Language Education and Technology: 2(1). Encyclopedia Britannica (2018). “Mughal dynasty”. Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Mughal-dynasty

Fawaz K. (2013). “Where are your PEOPLE from?”. Schema Magazine for the interculturally minded.http://schemamag.ca/2013/05/30/what-kind-of-asian-are-you/#.W8oQQmhKg2y 

Kuruvilla E. (2017). “When human beings go past language”. Livemint. https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/PeElxxPks82JcSTxs3WvkI/When-human-beings-go-past-language.html (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Murph F. (2013). Community Engagement, Organization, and Development for Public Health Practice. Page. 78-80.

Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (1988). Multilingualism and the education of minority children.

http://ref.uabc.mx/ojs/index.php/ref/article/download/442/668l

Weedon, C (2004). Identity and culture: narratives of difference and belonging. Page 14-16.

 

Image credits: 

https://zalarieunique.ru 

https://365psd.com/istock/punjabi-couple-in-traditional-costume-of-punjab-india-1006537

modified by the author


[1] Pseudonym

[2] Partition here refers to the separation of India and Pakistan in 1947. My forefathers migrated to India during this division. Hence our surname is not what is typically observed in north India.

 

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