Essays, issue 7: apr 2016, Narratives
Comments 86

‘So where are you from?’ by Naomi Sepiso

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‘So where are you from?’ They always asked that question; a subtle reminder that she was not one of them.

‘What do you mean?’ she asked. They only asked that question when they were afraid of placing her into a box. As though they were giving her the option of which box she wanted to climb into.

‘Well… you’re obviously not from here… I mean… you live here, but where are you from… like, originally?’

There it was. Originally. The word suggesting that she cannot validate her sense of belonging to this place. The implication being that her ‘exotic’ genetic makeup excludes her from her right to belong to this land.

She gave the long pre-rehearsed answer they often dug for. They love a good story. She told them where her mother came from, where her father came from. She told them how her parents met in a land far from their own where she was born. She told them of how they moved around from town to town and across the ocean to a place that sometimes felt like ‘home’. They smiled. Happy endings always leave a crowd feeling good.

What she doesn’t tell them is how she feels her pre-rehearsed response drag up her throat, as though she didn’t pick the right words from those that whirl at the bottom of her stomach in response. She doesn’t tell them that being born out of her mother’s country makes her a foreigner to a land she could have called home. Or that her official documents are marked with the Coat of Arms of a land she never felt safe in. That she cannot have conversations with the grandparents she has not seen in years because her tongue will always stumble over the nuances of languages that never fit quite right.

Sometimes she felt tired of being watered down to belonging to a foreign location on a map. To being a friend that made someone else a little more ‘cultured’ by simple association. As though everything else she had to offer became lacking in value every time someone asked her the question.

She was not someone from a place. She made a home of kind words and warm feelings. Her soul became a safe nest deep inside the confines of her body.

‘What is the value of a land I come from. We are all of this land. We came the same way and we leave the same way.’ By the time the words fought their way out of her mouth everyone else had moved on.

One day they would come to understand, she thought. She was not the land of her mother and father. She was her own country, with her own history of civil wars, revolutions, healing and growth. One day they would learn to keep their boxes away from her. One day they would see that she will never, ever, fit.


 

Naomi Sepiso is a 17 y/o Kenyan/Zambian immigrant living in Australia. She mainly reflects on the journeys taken by many POC youth and their predecessors. You can find Naomi on her tumblr and her instagram.

Illustration by Raz. Raz is a part of Sula Collective’s staff and is a genderfluid chinese-slavic cookery hoe who loves… fashion… dim sum…. and is perpetually covered in cat hair. You can find Raz on twitter and instagram.

86 Comments

  1. You know? Sometimes a “where are you from?” Means just plain and simple curiosity.
    I don’t live in my home country either. Haven’t lived there in many years. And for me “where are you from?” has always been for curiosity. A way of getting to know me better! Even foreign people in this country ask me that question! And hey! I do too!!!! Lol

    There is something interesting in this country! I’m not sure if this happens in Australia!
    But here, most of the time, when they ask you where you are from originally, they may mean where you are descendant from. Many Americans born in the USA for example consider themselves Italian because that’s where their family is from originally.
    It took me years to understand that.

    They would ask me where I’m from originally, and then ask if I was born there or here. Lol
    Most still think I grew up here, and some can swear I was born here to Brazilian parents!

    Not everyone is trying to put you in a box! Not everyone thinks you don’t belong! Besides… you truly only belongs anywhere when YOU believe you do! No one can rob you of that.
    Especially not with a simple question!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great read! Interesting, well written without having to disclose countries or personal details. I always lived in US. But my family moved around a lot and as an adult, so did I. I know my story is a microcosm of your’s. But I got those questions all the time. Stay steadfast within yourself. The onl person who can water down yourself is you. You are an example of courage….show it always.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Naomi (what a beautiful name), your piece really strikes home (no pun intended). I live in the U.S., and as an Asian woman with a “native” American accent I still get asked “Where are you from?” all the time. I’ve lived here for most of my life, but I was born in China and lived there from ages 0-2 and 7-16. But like you, I wish people didn’t see me as just Chinese or American. After all, I’m just me. Thank you for sharing!

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  4. The feelings reflect that differences are a barrier. But it shouldn’t be. We are what we are. We just have our own ways. This reading shows how painful the same words of different people triggers the soul within. And it’s painful and exhausting at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great read. Just like the other who’ve commented before me, “Where are you from” was just a question someone would ask me or I would ask out of curiosity and to start a conversation, but now I realize that it could be insulting to others. At the same time, during my two years in Japan, many Japanese mistook me for a Japanese and it sometimes rubbed me the wrong way because I would prefer if people recognized me for what I am instead of something else. But I was only there for work and I can come back to my country anytime so I’m not sure if this comment is relevant to your post.

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  6. I liked this. I’ve heard others have issue with this same question–at times I get incredulous about it. I’m American, born in America, with a “strange” last name few ever pronounce correctly. So when people ask me where I’m from, I just have to say “here.” I find it funny in some ways, but i get defensive on others’ behalf when somebody’s asking another person that question. Do they want the life story, or are they making a lame attempt at conversation? Usually its the 2nd part. I find it asked most often of those who were born in the same country, but may look Asian or from the Caribbean, or Hispanic, etc. I do my best never to ask that question, “where are you from?” It’s not that I’m not curious when I hear an interesting accent, but I feel like that’s something someone will reveal if they feel like it, and I’m willing to listen when they do.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That is touching! Sometimes it is so absurd to be still talking about identity in the 21st century. We must have overpasses this issue longtime ago and yet it is here, stronger than ever!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Such a lovely and honest read. It hit home. What she (I) does not tell anyone is how much money she has spent on visa, how despite her many, many contributions, her attempts to mingle in to the society she is still referred as an “immigrant” an outsider who will never fully be able to call any country she chooses to make home, a home.🙂 https://stylewithsubstance.net/

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  9. Pingback: ‘So where are you from?’ by Naomi Sepiso — Sula Collective – Joburg Gurl

  10. Beautifully written. This was also part of my experience living in Australia (and London and NYC). You look different, so you must be different. Not for you the safety of belonging. You’ll always be other in some people’s eyes. The follow up question/statement – “But you speak such good English!”

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  11. Pingback: ‘So where are you from?’ by Naomi Sepiso — Sula Collective | Aidan Perreault Writing

  12. ….. I thought only I was dumbstruck or even frustrated with this question. I never really know what the person asking really wants to know. And more often than not I really do not want to answer because it is not answered with naming one country.
    Reading the comments as well as the inspiring post makes me feel not so awkward anymore! Thanks

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  13. This is really beautiful.
    Sums up how almost every immigrant feels when we are asked “where are you from?” Like We don’t belong here or We are an outsider.

    Like

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