Taken circa 1985 with my Italian Nonna at the aptly named “Universo” bagno in Carrara, Italy.
Where are you really from? … And then they all went, “aaaah…..”.
Never before have I been so confronted with a daily question of choosing a label, choosing a place, a culture, a name.
Have you ever been asked every other day over the course of a year the question of “where are you from?”
Travelling and living from one rucksack for a year, makes you re-evaluate the “where are you from ” question. Is it where I live? Because in this case, for the time being, it is nowhere and anywhere, home is where I put my bag down. Is it where you were born? Yup, Hong Kong, but I have not lived there for the past 14 years. I speak Italian, Cantonese, Mandarin, French, some Spanish, two-years worth of German classes, but am most comfortable in English. Does that make me any more English? I can tell you more about American movies and French music, than I can about Canto-pop or Italian reality TV, but the appropriate answer seems I am half-Italian, half-Chinese.
My passport is Italian, but I have a “return to village” China card and a HK permanent ID card. When I was younger I seriously contemplated becoming a diplomat, or fantasised about being a spy (of course), but then I realised I did not really have a country to become one for. Not Italian enough, not Chinese enough. (well, I had some issues about working for the Chinese government anyway). What was left? The European Union? The United Nations? Both still require entry through Member State level, you have to take your pick to fulfil a quota, make a choice. Where do you belong?
I am “La Cinese” or “Gabri” to my Italian friends, “Ella” to my Italian family and “Ying Ying” to my Chinese family. Plain “Gabi” to everyone else. I learnt early on that Gabriella, with all its rolling “r”s and long “L”s was not convenient in a Chinese-speaking world.
I am used to being questioned. An airport security officer in London, one of the most multicultural cites in the world, looked me over, looked down at my passport and raised her eyebrows before saying, “and how did Youuu come to acquire Italian nationality?”. I wanted to scream and say, “Because I am fucking Italian!!!!”. Gabriella Zanzanaini with all its “r”s and “L”s and “z”s, has a Chinese face. And it makes people uncomfortable.
But I gritted my teeth and played out my usual spiel, “my father is Italian and my mother is Chinese.” There it is, my face betrays my identity, but I have an explanation. And everyone is happy. It is reassuring, even comforting, that one can still rely on these facial features to make certain assumptions, their worldview unshaken.
Often when the question is posed to the traveller, it is not necessarily about you, but more of a personal survey about which country’s population would find it interesting to visit my own. Other times it is a way to find a connection, to know what to say.
You say “France”, I say “Zidane!”.
You say “Italy”, I say “Sorry about Berlusconi, but great football!”.
You say “Hong Kong or Chinese” and I don’t quite know what to instinctively flick back at you, but I go “Aaah…”.
Now all the pieces of the puzzle in my head are assembled and make sense again, yes. Those almond eyes, round cheeks and button nose, yes, Chinese. That makes more sense, your face has found a place in my roll call of nationalities and I am happy again. The Italian part you mentioned fizzles out of the sentence and yes, do you live in Hong Kong?
Or the time when I decided to just make it simple and let Nico say we were from Belgium, but the kind Persian carpet salesman looks genuinely confused, perplexed, like he’s eaten something bad. Until he turns to me and says, “but where are you reeeaally from?” I cut to the chase and put him out of his misery, “Hong Kong” and yes, ah, his digestion is back to normal.
Or the time I decided to take advantage and have some fun and thought of the most random place I could say on the spot, “Iceland.” Which was amusing, until this, turns out, quasi journalist started going on about all the details of the Icelandic financial crisis and I had to bail out.
Or the time we were invited to dinner with an Italian family and their lovely friend was surprised I spoke Italian, me?!, “La Cinese”, but assumed that Nico, the french man, the belgian guy, did. He definitely doesn’t, but he looks European, plausibly Italian. My face is Asian and that is of course not the face of a person who can grasp the difference between american for pepperoni and Italian for pepperoni.
I am happy to surprise. I am happy to be able to go under the radar and define who I am, I am happy to eavesdrop when no one expects I understand. But it has made me realise how tight the boxes we have created for our identities and cultures are. We need to surprise, to rip apart that gift wrapping and go “Boo!”
We were lucky enough to catch some satellite TV last week, which I never seem to watch at home, but on the road, BBC World is an extravagant luxury. It was the day of the Charlie Hebdo manifestations in Paris and Lyse Doucet, the chief international correspondent for the BBC was on the ground interviewing people who walked past. There were Catholics and Muslims and Christians and white people and black people and asian faces. All presented themselves as French. And yet, Lyse Doucet thought it standard, or important to ask, “but where are you reeeaally from?”
An Asian woman who had clearly grown up in France and who spoke english with a heavy french accent, a black teenager whose Parisian slang was so thick, I felt embarrassed on their behalf. Here they were marching for peace, marching to celebrate our differences and similarities as humans and being asked to justify themselves. Justify themselves as French. My family is from Ghana, but I am also French. My family is from Lebanon, but I am also French. My family is from Vietnam, but I am also French. I am Muslim, but I am French.
Maybe the goal was to celebrate the cultural differences that make up what France is today and that is all good and well. But why is it so important to ask someone who does not look french, to justify beyond their declaration? Why is a third generation Polish, Russian, Portuguese or Italian French not asked, “but where are you reeeaally from?”. What does it mean to LOOK French?
Some of us do not think about our identity daily, because we do not need to. If you are taken for granted by your community as “one of ours”, you will not be asked on a daily basis to decide. To decide your label, to decide your association. But if you are not granted a place, you are constantly questioned, to prove yourself beyond a doubt, that you are indeed part of that community.
Travelling takes you outside of your community, outside of a place where you can blend in.
Surprisingly, the two countries which took me for their own, were Uzbekistan and Myanmar. An outsider in China, an outsider in Italy, but these two countries, the former on the cusp of Europe and Asia, the latter on the cusp of China and India, were surprised that I was foreign, convinced I was one of them, until I was obviously incapable of replying. I do not speak the languages and my passport could not be further from either, but I LOOK Uzbek, I LOOK Burmese.
What makes us have to justify the cultural associations we choose? We have to prove ourselves. What makes someone the real deal?
And then you realise we are all so similar, we all want the same things and that culture is just a way of interpreting those desires, of structuring our interactions, of repeating traditions and you wonder, why. Why is it so important to know “where you are reeeeaally from?”
So that I know how to interact with you, how to apply the stereotypes I have learnt. So that I know what to fear. So that I know I can trust you.
And travelling from one side of Eurasia to the other, slowly, but surely, has shown me that Trust has no face. Trust has no colour. Trust has no religion.
Where am I from? I don’t know where I am reeeeaally from. I can tell you that my father was born and raised in Carrara, Tuscany and my mother in Hong Kong. I can tell you I grew up with gnocchi and lasagna and choi sum and pak choi at the same table. I had Panettone for Christmas and Moon cakes for Mid-Autumn Festival. I went to a Chinese girl school Monday to Friday and Italian school on Saturday. I prayed until I was about seven years old to God then decided it was not for me. What does that make me, reeeaaallly?
I am equal parts everything and when my Chinese mother said something the other day in English directly translated from Italian – “there is the embarrassment of choice.” from a distinct and very Italian expression – “c’è l’imbarazzo della scelta“. I could not stop thinking about it, because it was beautiful. An adoption of a tongue that was not her own, so seamlessly absorbed that she did not even realise she was translating something literally from Italian that did not really make sense in English. But it made sense to her and it made sense to me.
And that is what is happening to our world, we are absorbing delightful things from different cultures without even realising it. The more we travel the more we pick up and the more we see our similarities, not our differences. And instead of building up bold, tough lines of clear definition, let’s loosen them a little. What we are, is human. With all our faults and mistakes and lack of knowledge about the Icelandic financial crisis. We are not just Charlie, or French, or Nigerian, or Ukrainian, we are all a mixture of cultures that happened long before we came along, long before nation states were formed, long before the freedom of speech was a thing to fight for.
So next time you ask someone where they are from, don’t ask them “but where are you reeeeeaally from,” when you are not satisfied with the answer. Pause and look inside yourself and ask why you feel the need to elaborate. And hopefully one step at a time, we will all realise that we are all, from everywhere.