Where Are You Really From?

Posted by on Jan 20, 2015 in Taking Stock, Travelogue | 39 Comments

Universo 1985
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.

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39 Comments

  1. Nada
    January 20, 2015

    I loved reading this post.I can relate to the internal debate that goes on in my mind everytime someone asks me where Im from…what should I really say? Saying Pakistani is not enough when I feel I belong to so many other places where I have lived and they have greatly shaped who I am today. I guess its a typical UWC delimma!!

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      January 30, 2015

      Thanks Nada, I completely agree, a simple answer never seems enough. And definitely very UWC!

      Reply
  2. Giovanni
    January 20, 2015

    Cara Zanza,

    Almeno Zanza ti chiamo solo io 🙂
    Beautiful reflections..

    Un bacio
    Nini

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      January 30, 2015

      E Nini ti chiamo solo io! Well, quasi 🙂 Un bacio enorme xx

      Reply
  3. tammy
    January 21, 2015

    Itis not really where you came from! It ‘s who you really are ! An unique individual!

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      January 30, 2015

      Thank you Tammy, YOU are a unique individual!

      Reply
  4. winny
    January 21, 2015

    agree with you no matter where are u from it doesnt matter

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      January 30, 2015

      Thanks Winny, definitely.

      Reply
  5. Alvaro Zuniga-Cordero
    January 21, 2015

    Beautifully written. It is a pleasure to read how the story of your life can be used to interpret major world events like the recent and very sad episode in Paris. It is also a pleasure to read how you have grown in the process. Thank you for making us think about it.

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      January 30, 2015

      Thank you Varo, it is very sweet of you and means a lot to me.

      Reply
  6. Mai Vi
    January 21, 2015

    thank you thank you thank you
    Grazie grazie grazie
    For having beautifully said and expressed the way I’ve been feeling pretty much my entire life. As a half Italian half Viet, I’ve gone through all of it while growing up in Italy.

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      January 30, 2015

      Thanks Mai Vi, so good to hear from someone else who has gone through the same thing! I can only imagine what growing up in Italy instead of HK would have been like. There were times when we were kids, my sister and I would refuse to get out of the car to go to supermercato because of all the stares! Now I just stare back proudly.

      Reply
  7. ELE
    January 21, 2015

    You are Reeeeeaally amazing! That’s it. Miss u Gabi! xxx

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      January 30, 2015

      Un bacio grande grande per te Ele! Miss you too xx

      Reply
  8. Lena
    January 23, 2015

    http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/358360814/playing-with-perceptions

    listening to this made me think of your blog post…
    x

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      January 30, 2015

      Thanks a lot for the link Lena! Looking forward to watching all of them… xx

      Reply
  9. Qian
    February 2, 2015

    Of course people will ask, cause for majority of the whole world, Asian looking people are from Asia, white people are more likely to be from Europe or US. The author and other mixed kids are the lucky few that actually born multilingual, growing up in a multi-cultural environment.
    Of course people will ask. Don’t say that your physical appearances don’t mean anything, otherwise why the hell you speak Chinese and Cantonese?
    The whole article is really more like a narcissistic bragging of a first world problem. Oh my god, I am an Asian looking girl and I speak Italian and French and English.

    Reply
  10. Lilit
    February 2, 2015

    I am Armenian, I am short, not blonde, black hair, dark eyes…
    People would definitely ask me “Where are you reaaaally from” if my first answer was Germany, Finland, Russia…
    But it’s fine and nice to know people’s real stories, because no matter what, we are different.. and it is ok to be different..it is beautiful to be different..because we meant to be so.
    The problem is: how ok are we with those differences, do we value some more than others or why exactly do we ask the question?

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      March 2, 2015

      Hi Lilit, thanks for sharing and exactly, are we ok with those differences and why do we ask the question.

      Reply
  11. Vanessa
    February 11, 2015

    I’m a massive mix as well and normally say I’m from the world – great article 🙂

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      March 2, 2015

      Hi Vanessa, yes! We are all from the world! 🙂

      Reply
  12. Nimmi Hammond
    March 1, 2015

    I have two girls now 20 and 17, who are half Malaysian and Australian and were born in the US. We live in Australia, which considers itself a multicultural country.
    My girls identify themselves as Australian and are frequently asked that infernal question, “But where are you reeeeeaally from?”. My older daughter once said to me, ‘its like, saying I’m Australian isn’t good enough”.

    My own experience has been similar and it takes a lot of patience to be polite, when you get asked this question time and time again. Just wanted to say, I understand where you are coming from with this article .

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      March 2, 2015

      Hi Nimmi, thank you very much for sharing. It is good to know that many people go through this and as our world continues mixing, it will keep happening until we are all comfortable with a real acceptance of multiculturalism, not just enjoying what people love to call “ethnic” food for example. Hope your daughters are happy about it in the end! It means a lot to me, thank you.

      Reply
  13. Ljubljana Slovenia
    March 6, 2015

    Love your way of thinking. We are all citizens of the world I guess. Time we act like that too.

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      March 9, 2015

      Yes definitely!

      Reply
  14. Elisa
    March 17, 2015

    Thank you so much for this post….
    It just captures so perfectly my ongoing dilemma.

    When I was traveling in Romania last summer, I got asked the question: Where are you from? And I would be torn between: Dubai (where I currently live), USA (where I grew up), or Korea (where my parents are from) Finally, I decided it would be clever to say: I’m Korean-American, but I currently live in Dubai. That worked until one day, someone responded back, “Oh, you’re mixed, how exciting!”

    Now I just state that I’m American (except I might change that if we get another ignorant president like George Bush).

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      April 9, 2015

      Thanks for sharing Elisa, always think it is funny when what we think an answer that works backfires on us and reactions still manage to surprise us.

      Reply
  15. Anna
    March 17, 2015

    Beautifully written post! And I love that you eavesdrop too, as it’s my favorite thing to do especially on the road when around groups of Russians who have no idea that anyone can understand them. American is the answer I usually give and it seems to quell any further questions, but then I look the part, though I guess I don’t act it because I get that same “where are you really from” question further down the conversation. And then I have to explain. Again, lovely post and thank you for sharing!

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      April 9, 2015

      Thanks Anna, happy to find a fellow eavesdropper! 🙂

      Reply
  16. Robbie
    March 18, 2015

    I have just discovered your blog and I already love it! As a biracial Brazilian woman, who lived in the Middle East from the age of 5 to 16, then moved to Brazil for 2 years, then moved to the States to go to college, met my husband, and have lived there since (yikes!), it was great to read your post! What am I? Brazilian? Not really. American? I don’t think so. Middle Eastern? No. I am without a homeland, but with a wonderful home. I guess like you said in your post, even if you’re in an awful place, you can meet amazing people. I happen to be in a great place. I’ve met some amazing people. But I still yearn to travel as I did as a child. How lucky are you to have taken your sabbatical?! Congratulations! I now take shorter trips, showing bits of the world to my children. Slowly we’ll make it around the globe!

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      April 9, 2015

      Thanks for your kind words and sharing your story Robbie. Great that you are taking shorter trips and showing your children the world, am sure they already see a lot by growing up with you! It’s the best education, isn’t it? Best wishes for slowly making it around the globe, one step at a time.

      Reply
  17. Kristen
    March 25, 2015

    I loved this post. The years have long past when you could tell where someone was from just by their ‘look’ or even their name. We’re citizens of the world!

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      March 27, 2015

      Thanks Kristen and yes, you are so right!

      Reply
  18. things to do in morocco
    March 27, 2015

    amazing article and photo i love it

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      April 9, 2015

      Thanks!

      Reply
  19. J.S. - Sun Diego Eats
    March 31, 2015

    This post I think summed up all my feelings on being a “third-culture kid” / hapa.

    I say I am half-Brazilian half-Chinese but in reality both my parents are Brazilian because they were both born there. However my dad’s parents are from Shanghai so I guess that makes him ‘visibly’ Chinese. And what does it mean to be Brazilian anyways. Much like American, it is just a nationality unless you are Native. Which turns out I am 4% according to 23andme. I suppose my Mom is descendant from French and Portuguese immigrants to Brazil but there is nothing really French or Portuguese about my mother’s family.

    Oh and the countries that took me for one of their own so far are Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Mexico (only the first time though). Especially in Thailand where tourists are constantly being offered tuk tuk rides or whatever it was especially nice to realize that if I chose loose, long clothing instead of denim shorts and t-shirts I could be left to my own devices.

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      April 9, 2015

      Hi J.S, exactly, what does it mean to be Brazilian anyways? Fascinating roots you have! Isn’t it great to be able to choose and blend in where you want? Happy eating in San Diego!

      Reply
  20. John G
    January 3, 2016

    Fantastic essay 🙂
    Being half English half Chinese, I of course have the same experience of people asking me where I’m from. But actually, I’m almost disappointed when sometimes people think I’m full Chinese.
    I think identity is a choice. I often refer to myself as Chinese, because I Feel more Chinese. (although that might be because I’ve been London based for 10 yrs – as you once made me see Gabi: mixed kids feel more affiliated with the side that is not the majority – so I’m the gwai-lo in HK and Chinese in London).
    I think only a small minority of people in the world who are lucky enough to travel the world and curious enough to be worldly minded are indeed “from everywhere”. And I can’t think of any better way to be!
    A few words of Singlish makes me a bit Singaporean; the haka gives you kiwi credentials; and the bagpipes Scottish ones.
    But sadly more and more people are clinging to or creating senses of nationalism that are designed to define what excludes others.
    Ultimately we are all the same – human; and should share in each others successes and learn from each other’s mistakes as if they were our own. 🙂
    Thanks for putting these ideas out so nicely. I’m going to save this blog post for posterity. I’m proud of you my Beijing pal! 😀

    Reply
    • Nico & Gabi
      December 5, 2016

      Thank you for the wonderful words John, you were the embodiment of a beautiful Human. Proud of you forever and love you forever.

      Reply

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