Where are you really from ? An Expat Perspective On Racism


I found the question in this article very interesting:   Is It Racist to Ask People Where They’re From?
As an expat, I am asked all the time where are you really from ?  and I usually have different answers for different audiences. However to many expats, they don’t feel comfortable with this question especially if they have been living in a foreign country for quite a long time and interpret the question as obviously you are not from there, you are different.
After 25 years of expatriation, I still have some mixed feelings about this question but sometimes it is good to feel different and not from “here”.  Being a French in France is actually harder for me than living abroad, I don’t know anything about popular TV shows or the secret lives of French politicians and I have often a very different view on sensitive questions as I am living on the “other side”.
When I lived in Japan in the 90s I obviously did not look Japanese and I have been asked frequently where I was from, but at that time, being French and saying I was from Paris, were magic words and I was very well treated both at work and with perfect strangers in the streets. I was kind of “exotic” there. However Caucasians were better treated than non-Japanese Asians, especially Chinese, Koreans or Filipinos.
In the US, when I lived in New York City and 8 months pregnant, strangers were giving me a “god bless you” very often, then we had the 9/11 dramatic events and my son was born 12 days later. However I got unpleasant remarks when I said I was French because at that time the French president and the government refused to send troops to Baghdad as if I had anything to do with this decision.
Altogether I had a very positive experience in NYC. I also lived in Atlanta and we were very well-integrated partly because of my son being at the Atlanta International School but generally speaking, Atlanta is a very international city. However I was shocked to see that nothing really changed since Martin Luther King Jr, I saw a lot of segregation between African-Americans and White Americans. Each community including Latin American people had their own neighborhood with very strict boundaries. I then realized that America was far from being a melting pot !
Then we spent one year in New Jersey and it was painful to have in the neighborhood listing “the French” instead of our family name.
Now we live in Russia, I don’t have any specific problems with racism, the “where are you from? ” is still there since my Russian is pretty basic but unlike the stereotypes, I find Russians very courteous with men giving their seats to women in the Metro for example. But here again even for wealthy expatriates,  it is better to be a Caucasian than having a dark skin color.

How do you feel about being asked : where are you really from ?

Related Article:  Encountering racism abroad — or why I sometimes wish I was white

About Anne Egros

Zest and Zen is a blog about Expat Life Challenges, Global Leadership, Intercultural Communication, Health and Wellness, Nutrition, Change Psychology, Life Transitions
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4 Responses to Where are you really from ? An Expat Perspective On Racism

  1. Anna Kudryashova says:

    Interesting observations, Anne! I can relate to a certain discomfort of being constantly asked where I am from. It does depend on the context though. I remember that when I was working in the restaurant industry in the US, I was frequently asked about my origin by customers. Most of the time these questions felt disingenuous (as if people don’t really care where you are from but rather feel compelled to ask because they hear a foreign accent), let alone the not so uncommon passive-aggressive comments about Russia, my native country. I also think that certain questions are not really appropriate in the context of small talk, e.g., “why did you move?” After all, people leave their home countries for different, sometimes tragic reasons and might not be comfortable sharing it with curious strangers. That said, I encountered more tactful and deeper questions while in college and now working in an office setting.

    • Hello Anna, I can really feel what you mean about passive aggressive comments about Russia. Since the Sotchi Olympic games I have seen so many unfair comments on social networks and western media about Russians in general. For me it is absurd to judge ordinary citizen based on what the politicians who rule a country do.

  2. Anne – good points. As a long term expat too I am always interested to find out where people are from It’s a good ice breaker . But some time ago I did encounter hostility when I asked quite innocently the origins of an unusual surname. I think certain groups are very aware of prejudice stated and indirect against their communities.

    I also encountered aggression in Italy in 1982 when the British invaded the Falklands. Italy and Argentina were allies. I think that happens with changes in political circumstances.

    • Thanks Dorothy for sharing.

      When you live abroad it is almost impossible to avoid being stereotyped. Sometimes people discriminate you because of your nationality or skin color and unfortunately it starts from early childhood. Research in child behavior and psychology have shown that kids spontaneously play with friends that look the same as they are.

      Now that I live in Russia people back “home” or living in another country assume that I agree with everything that is said in the West about Russian politics in general and in Ukraine in particular. I usually keep my opinion about politics for myself but I am still labelled as being “brainwashed” by the Russian propaganda and maybe that I made a terrible choice to live in Moscow.

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