“Where are you from?”
When they hear my accent, as I place my order at the coffee shop or call the dog at the park, strangers often ask me this question. I try to deflect by saying, “I live here,” but inevitably a monologue ensues about the fabulous holiday in Scotland (a different country which I visited for the first time only after I’d been living in the United States for thirty years) or the cousin who lives in Cleethorpes (I’ve never been to Cleethorpes, and I don’t know anyone who has.)
I’m not anti-social or unfriendly, so why does this unsolicited inquiry irk me so much? Perhaps it’s the knowledge that if I were a Black man with an African accent, or wearing a hijab, no stranger would approach me with such a question. But I’m a conventionally-dressed white woman with a middle-class English accent, so fair game for interrogation. I’m an immigrant, but a privileged and unthreatening one.
But the question makes me uneasy for another reason. Where am I from? I’ve lived outside the U.K. for fifty years, mostly in the U.S. but also in France and Belgium. I take my U.S. citizenship seriously, following national and local politics and voting every chance I get. My career, my friends and family, my cultural context and even my vocabulary are entirely American. It’s just that pesky accent that betrays me. I’m an American, but the world hears me as a Brit.
Where am I from? The issue presents itself a different way when I go back to the U.K. to visit. I don’t want to spend my precious time with extended family and old friends discussing U.S. politics, or dispelling the stereotypes created by American TV and film. Yet I find myself defending the U.S. and explaining that the United STATES are really fifty different countries with fifty different landscapes, cultures, governments, and, yes, accents.
I am grateful for the education I received growing up in England, the free healthcare, free university, the cultural richness of London, the beauty of the countryside, the history all around. England formed me, but so did France where I learned to cook, and Belgium where my first child was born.
We are all the sum of our experiences, and I’ve been lucky to have had such varied ones. If I’ve learned anything from my travels, it’s the danger of labels. The complexity of life defies labeling something or someone as just one characteristic, but once we’ve stuck a label on, it’s very hard to peel off. I’m an American with a British accent, but I’m a lot of other things as well.
Maybe my first response was the right one: I’m from here. I’m from this beloved northwest corner with its magnificent trees, mountains, islands and sounds; with its “English” climate and Coast Salish place names; with its Buy Local culture and its multitude of breweries. This is my home. Where am I from? Right here.