Paloma Rao, LLB Law
Ever since I remember, the seemingly straightforward question has thrown me. I remember being six years old in my school in Spain (which I had only recently joined), and being interviewed by older children for a survey. When I replied ‘Liverpool’ in my thick Scouse accent, they look perplexed and asked a question I have now heard far too many times: “But… where are you really from?”
With SOAS being the beautifully multicultural place that it is, I am sure that this is something many readers are familiar with. Of course, I replied ‘India’ straight away because that is my ethnicity and a huge part of my identity. Having grown up abroad in Malaga since the age of five before returning to the UK fifteen years later to study, my answer to a casual “where are you from?” has only become more confusing, usually resulting in me waffling on to cover all possible pieces of information this poor person may have wanted (or may not have wanted) to know.
This is, of course, to avoid the annoying racially presumptive question that follows (or a rephrased version of “why are you the colour that you are?”). It is quite often also to avoid the dismay of other Indians when they find that I, unfortunately, have not yet had a chance to visit their homeland and my country of origin, infamous India.
I almost feel guilty under the look of shock and despair from other Indians upon hearing that, whilst I’m bilingual, I have not learned Hindi or Gujarati.
Whilst I cannot wait to explore my heritage and roots properly one day, I can’t help but wonder what my truthful short answer would be… My own grandmother, who has been in the UK since the age of sixteen, called me a ‘coconut’ the other day, laughing at my western ways!
Writer Taiye Selasi gave an inspirational speech on this topic titled ‘Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local.’
She makes an incredible point: borders change and countries grow, merge or even disappear. “I am not ‘multinational.’ I am not a ‘national’ at all… How can I come from a concept?” she encourages us to consider.
Our identities are instead a culmination of our experiences. Whilst my nationality is British and my ethnicity is Indian, my family, home and heart remain in my small town in southern Spain… and all of these factors make up where I am really from!
What I love about multilayered SOAS is that we celebrate each other’s human experiences, and my complicated answer is more often than not matched or raised. May our celebrations of cultural and racial diversity continue!