What country are you from?

Saturday afternoon. After a class downtown, I am rushing to meet my family at the cinema to catch the new Pixar film “Up”. With several bus changes involved, timing is crucial. I burst out of the Skytrain doors, clatter down the steps and sprint to the bus stop for the final leg of the journey. Victory! I’ve beaten the bus by two minutes. Beaming, I reach into my back pocket for my bus pass and realise it isn’t there.


I take a seat and search frantically. From the front pocket of my bag, my cell phone begins to vibrate. It’s my family, calling to get an update on my location. I pick up, and in the corner of my eye I can see the bus edging forward and the queue of people trickling onboard. Finally, my searching fingers find the slippery plastic of my bus pass in my backpack, and I hurriedly hang up the call and gather my bags. As I turn towards the direction of the bus, a woman comes very close to me and blocks my path. “Excuse me, what country are you from?” she asks.

The question takes me aback. The driver is moving away from the curb, and so I stammer something about Vancouver, and rush to the door. It swings open, I get in, and we move away.

Sinking into the blue plastic of the nearest seat, I am muddled. Days later, I still feel confused about the incident. I’m confused why do people ask questions in such invasive ways, why endless questions about identity and origin irritate me, and what is the best way to respond when accosted by others. I don’t think the question was ill-intentioned, but experience tells me that if I had stayed around for a few minutes longer and we had spoken, the answer “Canada” would not have been sufficient, though this is indeed where I have lived most of my life.

And so dear terry readers, I’m interested to hear what you think. There is a moment in the 1998 film ‘You’ve Got Mail” where Meg Ryan sits at her computer and types out an email to the great cosmic void; the act of writing is the main thing, the answer not as relevant.

In my case though, I really am interested to hear what you think.

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Shagufta is a UBC Political Science graduate with a passion for interdisciplinary thinking, writing, travel, reading, tea, and interesting conversations. She hopes to combine all of these things in her life work someday. For now though, she studies social policy and planning at the University of Toronto and shares her adventures in and out of the classroom at http://seriouslyplanning.wordpress.com.

6 Responses to “What country are you from?”

  1. Ashish

    It has more to do with the identity of the person asking the question than you.

    We all hold a range of images in our mind of what we believe people of our country look like. That may be a range (or not) of skin colors, dress, religious garb, hair styles, piercings, and so forth. When I go to India (for those reading – my heritage is Indian), I get asked, even before I say a word, about where I am from. In my case it is because my shirts and shoes apparently scream foreigner. In North America, I can’t remember the last time a random person came up to me and asked me that.

    When I see someone who wears a headscarf, I don’t feel curious because I personally know so many people who are Canadian or American and wear them. Frankly, in DC, I am more likely to feel the urge to ask someone wearing a cowboy hat where they are from than someone wearing a yamaca, turban, headscarf, or cross. For others, seeing a headscarf is not in their visual vocabulary for people who are Canadian or American.

    While that’s a possible explanation – it doesn’t mean that I or anyone else wouldn’t be equally irritated and/or alienated if we were in your shoes. I am pretty sure I would be. Having one person ask that question is one thing. But if people continually ask that question then you are constantly being reminded that other Canadians don’t view you as one of them. There’s also the more dangerous possibility that they ask that because they don’t accept that people who are Canadian could also be people who wear headscarves (rather then just being unfamiliar with them).

    I don’t know if I know what a good answer to that question would be. I suppose I might answer something like – “I was born in America and have lived here pretty much my entire life but my parents are from India.”


    P.S. You’ve Got Mail is a great movie πŸ™‚ A bouquet of sharpened pencils!

  2. Andre Malan

    For me I feel inclined to ask that question if I meet someone that might come from a place that I know. If I hear an accent that sounds remotely South African, Ghanaian or Zimbabwean I feel compelled to ask where the person is from. If they are from one of these places then I might spend hours talking with that person about those places, reminiscing about the times we spent there and talking about the current politics and news.

    It makes me happy to think and talk about what was/is home with other people. The only way to find those people though, is to ask β€œWhat country are you from?”

  3. Shagufta Pasta

    Ashish-thanks for your comments! You’ve articulated why that question often strikes me as problematic much better than I’ve been able to. One or two questions in other parts of the world is fine (I was in Saudi Arabia for a study tour last year, and got asked questions all the time about my background while I was travelling, because my accent/clothing etc clearly revealed a north american history), and that didn’t bother me. But questions that continually challenge notions of ‘canadianness’ are a different story.

  4. Shagufta Pasta

    Andre-that’s a fair point. I do that too quite often too! I think it’s the tone/body language/manner of questioning that determines whether a question is friendly or not. Often the questions people ask can be an opening to interesting conversations, but those are generally questions that occur in a normal, respectful manner. It’s when you’re accosted and demanded to reveal your identity, that the question becomes problematic. And I’m intrigued how we learn that is normal social behaviour..

  5. Mahesh

    I get the question all the time, I simply answer India because it’s not worth the hassle of explaining that I am British. Having said that I have found out it’s a bloody good conversation starter in pubs and bars πŸ™‚ Also when you travel abroad and want to speak with the locals it’s pretty handy!!

    As to why people ask this question, inquisitiveness I suppose … most often than not it’s not that invasive or intrusive. Annoying? Oh yes.

  6. mads

    Dear Shagufta,

    Let me give you another perspective. People are equally intrusive when they see someone with pierced eyebrows.
    “Does it hurt when you wash your face?” “Do you take it of when you sleep.” Even worse at times, “Can i touch it?”
    Anything that is different is bound to evoke queries. It’s fine. Maybe it’s in YOUR mind that your origins lie in some other country, and hence you assume that’s the reason people ask you. Maybe they ask you because there’s something different about you, and that’s all.
    I live in Mumbai, India, where the commonest question is ‘What part of the country are you from?’ We simply tell them. Sometimes the answer is “I’ve been in Mumbai all my life but my ancestors are from so-and-so state.
    The answer to that is “Okay.” and then the conversation moves on. No offence taken by anyone.
    When we choose to look different, we might as well have the attitude that goes with it. We should flaunt what’s different about us like people flaunt pierced eyebrows. And perhaps, take the questions in our stride. And not let them bother us as much amuse us. What say?

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