Where do you come from? This is a question that can spark a very interesting conversation. As a student at an International school, I know that it is a frequently asked question, a question that we believe will help us understand more about each other. The potential problem for many, is that they do not actually know how to answer this question. When someone tosses out the words “Where do you come from?”, are you supposed to reply with the country in which you were born, the country where you have lived for the longest amount of time, or just where you feel home is?
Sometimes, the question carries a stigma; it is more controversial than it seems. In reality, not everyone is asked the question; sometimes, this query is only posed to people who others find different, mostly just in looks. Sometimes, when the question is answered with an “I’m from here, I’m Swedish”, the asker will look at the replier with a funny look, because they are not satisfied with that answer. They might continue; “No, I mean where are you really from”, implying that “you are not like me, you are different from the rest of us”.
I spoke to Semanur Taskin, the voice of the Green Party Youth Organization in the Stockholm region of Sweden. Many times, the question is associated with negative thoughts. She says that it is because it implies that “you don’t quite belong here”. Taskin continues, “Why does this question have such a central role? It shows that we want to categorize people, to put them into boxes before we actually know them.” Taskin also relates an incident when a doctor kept asking her about her background when he heard her name. She says that after asking about her heritage, and then about her parents’ heritage, he was finally satisfied when he got the answer to his question; Taskin’s mother had lived in Sweden for 45 years, and the doctor replied, almost with relief, “Oh, so you are a third generation immigrant”. She further explains that “Nobody tells a child that it is different, but the child understands from the questions, from the prejudice. People draw quick conclusions. I have been asked the question if my mom is a stay at home mom, completely irrelevantly, even though she happens to have worked for 30 years.”
The interesting thing about the question “Where do you come from”, is that it is perceived very differently depending on where you are. Often, it is not something controversial to ask at an International School. But when it is asked to a person specifically, because he or she does not look like the majority, we see the problem of our society, our obsession with people’s differences. It is when we look beyond what we think we see, what we assume – when we see more than a person’s skin, hair or eye color – that we can truly see them for who they are and can embrace cultures, without implying stereotypes along with them.