“Where are you from?”
An attempt on the problem of the linking of identity, and thus also past experience and current behavior, of the individual human to that human’s supposed origin
Abstract: The question, “Where are you from?”, when put around the inception of an acquaintance, arises from a primitive need to test and establish relative Otherness. It is potentially dangerous, certainly pointless, and always in questionable taste – except when asked by a police commissar. There is a multitude of conversational devices that can better serve intercourse more pleasant and interesting. Confronted with the impudence of the insistent ones, one might use the opportunity to hone suppleness of intellect.
Nietzsche’s postulate, that early humans scrutinized each unfamiliar person in terms of the existential threat they presented, may not be restricted to past ages alone, when one considers how often the question “Where are you from?” is heard when strangers interact, occasionally being one of the first demands made. As with all human exchanges, the manner in which the query is posed, as also the context, makes a significant difference. In the general case, however, the question is potentially dangerous, certainly pointless, and always in questionable taste.
A most lethal question: Consider that the person being interrogated may not have appropriate papers that confer the right to exist in the current jurisdiction. To cause such a person to reveal details of origin could result in that person’s deportation and torture. This might be set in motion immediately, because there happens to be present a secret policeman, an eager informant, or an off-duty public servant, or at a subsequent date, as the unfortunate one tires of deception or silence, and gives in at inopportune moment. Now, it is scarcely accurate to suggest that the expulsion and abuse of “illegal” foreigners is a matter of universal concern – indeed, will not our glorious Fatherland profit by the removal of such scum? Be that as it may, the potential danger is not just to the paperless person, but also to the poser of the question, for a cornered animal might lash out violently in desperation. In this case, prudence and solidarity converge.
All that is less than 6308 kilometers removed from Moscow
(Map drawn using Radius Around Point function on freemaptools.com based on Google Maps, with the balloon centered at Moscow, and radius calculated using a haversine formula on ig.utexas.edu/outreach/googleearth/latlong)
When geography is irrelevant: Lavrentiya is a village in Chukotsky District in eastern Russia. For Muscovites, the inhabitants of Lavrentiya are compatriots, but there are literally hundreds of millions of foreigners – Ukrainians, Germans, Frenchmen, Swiss, Belgians, Poles, Spaniards, Algerians, Egyptians, Arabs, Persians, Afghans, Indians and Chinese – who live and die closer to Moscow than do the fine men and women of Lavrentiya. We may see this by drawing a circle on the world’s map, with Moscow as the center, and a radius of 6308 kilometers, which is the approximate distance between Lavrentiya and the Russian capital. The circle shall cover large swathes of Asia, Africa, America and Europe. Similarly, for millions of Indians, dwellings in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka or China appear closer than many centers of human population within their own country. It is far from unusual for a group of people to have a group of foreigners closer to them, in terms of distance, than some of their own compatriots. This phenomenon might mean that one resembles foreigners rather than compatriots in terms of language, manner at meat, and external appearance. To add to this is the complication that nation states are arbitrary and given to change. The influential philosopher Adolf Hitler was aware of this: „Staatsgrenzen werden durch Menschen geschaffen und durch Menschen geändert.“ (The borders of nation states are created and changed through human agency; Mein Kampf) Therefore, just knowing which country the Other is from might not be adequate. Even if we delve further and ascertain the name of the city, we will not necessarily have a fair idea of the stranger in front of us, because of the differences typically related to religion, education, socio-economic class, and language. Geography is just not enough.
The use of the answer: Racism is, of course, a perfectly legitimate way of examining the world. It is, however, not compatible with the idea that every single individual is entitled to personal freedoms, human dignity and nominal equality, and, occasionally, leads to Jim Crow style lynching or mass murder, but more often to unfair treatment. Given that the notion of “race” has changed over the past century or so, let us define the term.
Racism is the assigning of a certain characteristic to a group of humans that does not by definition belong to that group, and the potential discrimination against or preferential treatment of group members because of that certain characteristic.
To illustrate, the statements, “Danes are sticklers for punctuality”, “Vietnamese are lazy”, and “Bulgarians make their money by selling illegal drugs” are racist. They also happen to be inane, but that is not germane to the current discourse. We have reminded ourselves that countries often cover large stretches of land, and that even denizens of a given city might differ greatly from each other. Furthermore, each human experience is unique. We must now examine what possible use the answer to a “Where are you from” query can have for the interrogator. The answer is simple: “none”; or rather, “none, unless the interrogator has a series of attributes associated with each country, city, canton or county” – leading us to the conclusion that the question well might have racist motives.
Solidarity with the Other: As far as the question under discussion is concerned, one might want to stand with the less fortunate – either because one believes in the universal right to human dignity, or because one wishes to amuse oneself through a social experiment. Suppose you live in a society where it is considered prestigious to have two cows. It is then a lot easier to deal with the question “How many cows do you have?”, if one has one or two cows, than if one has zero cows. If the bovine analogy is ill-suited, consider the case that you live in a city where the benches in the public park are marked with “Nur für Deutsche” (Only for Germans). In such a case, the question “Where are you from?” is a lot easier to deal with if you are from Germany, than if you happen not to be from Germany, regardless of whether or not you happen to be in the vicinity of a park bench at the time the question is being asked. Out of solidarity with the weaker side, what if we were to respond along the lines of, “I am from North Korea, but one-eighth Swedish, one-eighth Muslim, one-eighth Jewish, one-eighth Maldivian, one-eighth Russian, one-eighth African, one-eighth Hindu, and one-eighth from a country that doesn’t exist anymore.”? For all that, one would be a human being – and, compared to any other human being with a different answer, exactly as capable of love, pettiness, pilferage, charming conversation, and self-sacrifice. There are other responses too: “Do you mean the country of birth, city of birth, or where I grew up for the majority of the first fifteen years of my life, or my nationality? And, of course, I should probably ask you first whether you have any intense feeling of antagonism against a certain country. Let’s start with Afghanistan, and tick them off in alphabetical order, shall we?” More direct: “I am from a country where one typically shows secret-police identification before asking that question.” A trifle provocative: “It depends on whether or not you think Heinrich Heine was German. You see, we might bump into each other at a re-education camp, and the answer can be a matter of life and death.” Alternatively, one may take the opportunity to train one’s wit, to utter no lie, to continually converse, to steadfastly refuse answer on that point, and to subtly reveal to the interrogator his or her boorishness, all with a faint smile. Our response can also include more neutral conversational gambits. It might be dry for a while longer, I think. I overheard someone mentioning sugar prices are on the rise again and that apparently affects, curiously enough, the price of furniture. I wonder whether this part of the wall might be labeled a light fuchsia? Given the richness of the human experience and the world we live in, there must always be a plethora of neutral conversational gambits for any but the most unimaginative and dull of interlocutors.
Summary: The question, “Where are you from?”, when put around the inception of an acquaintance, arises from a primitive need to test and establish relative Otherness. It is potentially dangerous, certainly pointless, and always in questionable taste – except when asked by a police commissar. There is a multitude of conversational devices that can better serve intercourse more pleasant and interesting. Confronted with the impudence of the insistent ones, one might use the opportunity to hone suppleness of intellect.