Sunday, 2 March 2014

So, where are you from?

Since my arrival in Budapest, most of the conversations I had with strangers started with "Hey you, nice to meet you. Where are you from?". In the beginning it kind of bothered me. Truth is, it still does. Constantly stating that "I am from Germany" felt strange to me. My indisposition with this has several aspects to it: First, I don't have any strong national identity, I don't feel that being German is an important fact about my person. Maybe I don't even want to be seen as German, because - to be honest - the stereotypes about Germany are kind of mortifying. And I want to be seen as me, Anna, not "Anna, the German girl". Second, I have a strong aversion against distinctly shown feelings of national identity, as this always involves the basis for racism - understanding racism as the (also assessing) distinction between people for outward reasons like the country they happened to be born or raised in.
And yet, I have been asking that question as well... Even worse, in the beginning I tended to regard people as parts of 'nationality groups', thinking about them as one preformed group of, for example, the Dutch People.

And I am wondering: is this question "where are you from?" a question of nationality (on paper), national identity, or of some kind of origin? What do you mean by asking that question? Why is it important? I was asking around how other Erasmus students thought about that. Here's the results.

The results

Everybody I asked confirmed that when you meet international students for the first time, the conversation will probably include the question "Where are you from?". They also acknowledged that it is mostly one of the first things to talk about whenever meeting somebody new.

One of my new Italian friends told me a bit more about it. She said that for her, it was perfectly normal to say "I'm Italian", because she has kind of a national identity about it. For her, the question about where someone was from, worked as an ice-breaker and a very obvious topic to talk about. Also it might be a possibility to learn about common interests, like a similar music taste. Another aspect is, that she was just curious to know where people are from, because she knew beforehand that there would be people from all over the world. Attending an Erasmus event would surely not result in meeting only Hungarian people.
On the other hand, knowing where a person is from might also help her "sorting out", for example because she was not interested in meeting more people from Spain. "I already know so many Spanish people! But I like Germans, so hearing you are from Germany, I might be interested". My friend admitted though, that it is helpful to be able to apply stereotypes for being more comfortable. "You feel like you know something about the person, when you know where they are from". Anyhow, it wouldn't tell her much more about a person.

What does that mean? Does she think that all Spanish people are the same? (She said definitely not.) Can you at all judge her for being more interested in meeting Germans than Spanish people or is it perfectly fine to have some preferences?

... in the end ...?

In the end, we are all in the same Erasmus-boat, and talking about where people are from is a decent reminder of that fact for all parties involved. Anyhow, my dissonance remains. I think that talking so much about where you are from, might reconstruct and reproduce national identity, stereotypes and prejudices, being very dangerous for the reasons I have mentioned above. I am not sure whether this kind of talk will bring us together or rather separate us.

Now, this is only a short beginning for this topic. There is much more to it, I'm sure! Please feel free to add your comment with more observations and thoughts about it. There is a lot of open questions left - feel encouraged to give me your answers! I will highly appreciate it.


  1. Oh, sis, welcome on board!

    I see people taking an attentive look at me and ask this clichè as their very first question: "Where are you from?"

    So far, I have been giving the answer in a polite and decent way; though I foresee the limits of my patience. In fact, this weekend I went out of my way and questioned their questions: "Why not my name but my nationality?" Another attentive look, focused pupils and another clichè: "What do you mean?" Pff, boring.

    I wonder what it will add to my existance in that very moment. Will my answer make me look more handsome? I truly doubt that. If an icebreaker, come on my dear, where we come from cannot break the ice unless you have charming eyes. If a "sorter" then come on my dear, are there still people like you in the world classifying people with respect to their nation? Are you an immigration officer or something? Are you racist? Don't you remember the graffiti saying "all prejuidices are wrong!"

    I might be carrying my national identity or not. I believe feeling pride of your nation is as wrong as being ashamed of it. It is non-normative as I'm not the one who controlled where I was born. I think it is normal for Erasmus students to ask this question to one another somewhere in a dialogue, but as the first question?!?! The very first? Without knowing my name, what I study, without knowing if I speak English or if I'm a native in Hungary... This is awkward.

    When it comes to your meta-question, in a multiculturalist project (Erasmus) from a supranational organization (EU), I'm not sure if national identity would tighten our ties or loosen it. I'm pretty sure that I'm not capable of answering this mind-boggling question with my personal view, but I am sure approaching one another in an individualistic way would sort many problems out. At least ease your question. :)

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, it is good to know that there are people out there feeling in a similar way!

  2. Very interesting thoughts, my dear. I think I feel the same. Answering to the question "where are you from?" often feels a bit like the moment before you get to know whether you passed the test or not. "Ah, German". There's a smile on the other's face. Examination passed. Still there is something wrong. Why is it so important?
    Somehow it is, also for me. Going abroad with Erasmus does mean that you go abroad to meet people from all over Europe. If I find out that you live in the country I always wanted to visit, I will probably ask you 1000 enthusiastic questions about this place. And if you happened to live in a place I stayed in for a long time we will definitely share something. We may have walked the same streets, ate the same food and talked the same languange. Of course, by sharing this experience others who didn't, will be excluded, but this can happen in every aspect of human social interaction. I think it's important to still remain open-minded and let the others take part in your experiences.
    So, after all, I think there are several sides of it. I do agree that it's hard to get rid of the prejudices and ideas about how Italians, Germans and Swedish people are like because media shaped this image. And I also agree that these "national identities" or at least the idea we have about each of them can be very dangerous. But if you have in mind that these are just prejudices and if you are willing to change everything you heard about a national identity, the question "where are you from" loses its threat, at least for me.

    By the way, why don't you answer with "Frankfurt"? :)

    1. Thank you for your comment - I liked the part with the "test". I felt similar. Why do people react by saying "Oh, Germany, how nice!". I mean, what is nice about it, if you don't have any personal relation to this country? Are people addressing my citizenship as "nice" to ease the awkwardness of the situation? I guess so...
      To be open minded and aware of prejudices is the way to go for me as well, but that doesn't ease the threat you mentioned, as I can't be sure if others work on that, too.
      Actually, I tried saying "Frankfurt", with the result: "Oh, you are from Germany, nice!" ...

  3. When you meet someone new, ask them what their favorite color is inseatd of where they are from. You probably won't learn alot about them based on their favorite color being green, on the other hand knowing where someone is from will tell you alot.
    And just sociological fact: if you belong to a nation, which you do, you have a national identity. It is insrcipted in you trough socialization - national symbols, history, culture of the nation. Another thing is national pride, which you do or don't have.
    Another fact: racism is hatred toward people of different skin color. Hatred toward people of different nations is called xenophobia.

    Asking this question is just ethnicity in practice, making a difference between us and them. And there will always be us and them, as long as multiculturalism keeps on existing. And don't look at it as searching for differences. Look at it as finding commong round. If you'd ask me, i'd tell you i ask this question because you can have so many sub-question like: Oh really, i have a friend from Italy! or Oh i always wanted to go to Rome, have you been there?
    And another advice. By talking to new people, of course you have certain stereotypes in your head. But have you ever thought that by talking to them you will actually get rid of (negative) stereotypes and realise how they really are? So talking about origions of other people and yourself might help demolish judgemental stereotypes.

    And to answer one of your questions: this kind of talk will bring us together or rather separate us? Neither. Because this 'talk' is not carried out on such a big scale that it will not affect international relations. Again, this is how ethnic groups/cultures exist, by making a difference between each other. If you want us to be alike, there will only be one culture, which will be boring :)

    Hope i contributed something. Have a good stay in Budapest!

    1. Thank you very much for your opinion here!
      I don't believe in (sociological) "facts". For me, there is theories, constructions and beliefs (that might be proven wrong in just a few years).
      I don't think I "belong" to a nation, partly because I mistrust the idea of a nation in general - and that is why I don't feel like I have a national identity. I do have a German citizenship, but that only holds meaning for me on an administrative level (referring to the 'state'). It is important of course to mention the socialization here, which nobody chooses to undergo in a certain state. But I think that for my socialization it was much significant in which economic situation, neighborhood, social contexts I was raised and by which parents. Of course I am part of a certain culture as well, but to be honest I am not very sure which "theory" about culture as a term I prefer. A very controversial topic, too.
      Personally I don't agree with your definition of racism (or, depicting it as a "fact"): Very easy definition from Wikipedia:
      "Racism is actions, practices or beliefs, or social or political systems that consider different races to be ranked as inherently superior or inferior to each other, based on presumed shared inheritable traits, abilities, or qualities. It may also hold that members of different races should be treated differently". That has nothing to do with skin color, but with the construction of races. Let me be clear here: I firmly believe that "races" are a construction, and that this construction is the problem. It is based on the differentiation between people based on presumed differences that can be applied to an presumed group.
      Xenophobia is based on the same discrimination (=differentiation here), but stresses the importance of the construct of "the other culture".

      And “ethnicity in practice”? What is this ethnicity you are talking about? ;-)
      There will always be differences between people, of course, and I don't want everybody to be the same. God, no! But I do want to question any of these constructions of races (it even disgusts me to think about races of people!) or ethnic groups or cultures. Talking with these terms always implies generalizing characteristics on constructed groups of people. That is where we are overhung with the danger of racism, xenophobia, and hatred in general.

      Thank you for pointing out the importance of asking this question for demolishing stereotypes (that are judgemental by definition). It requires to be aware of one's stereotyping though.

      As a last comment, I am not sure how big the scale is that we are talking about here – I will soon try to find some figures about the Erasmus program. Anyway we are all participating in this discourse and therefore shaping it.

      Wow, this turned out to be quite a long comment – sorry about that. Take it as a compliment that you inspired me to go into detail on this topic! :-)