Where are you from? It’s a common and well-meaning enough ice breaker among strangers but in the globalised village that we now inhabit this innocuous inquiry is far from simple to respond to. I am often asked to confront the uncertainty and perplexity this question raises for someone who was born in one place, raised in an entirely different one and chose a peripatetic existence over planting firm roots in a single location. In any case it’s not a straight-forward and value-free question in itself, it’s doesn’t just ask for factual information, but rather it seeks something deeper and more complex. It’s closely linked to the question: Who are you? The place we come from is so intimately tied up with the culture, values and customs that we internalise and carry with us that it is not completely senseless to think of our identity in terms of where we originate.
So how do you respond to the question? Well it depends very much on who’s asking. When I first moved from the sandy, Seraiki town of Bahawalpur to the city of Lahore, over 25 years ago, it was factually accurate and conceptually painless to state that I was a ‘Bahawalpuri’ girl. When in the middle of the 1990s I bought a one way ticket from Lahore to London, it was practically more feasible to tell people I was from Lahore because it saved the person inquiring the trouble of getting to grips with a place they’d never heard of and would need elocution lessons in to pronounce. The only reason Bahawalpur is even on the radar for socialites in Pakistan's big cities is because the plane of a long serving military dictator blew up after taking off from its sand dune framed airport. I happened to be on holiday in Lahore at the time. My disappointment at I missing the only remarkable event in the sleepy town's history was mitigated by the knowledge that with the tyrant Zia ul Haque gone the country might now allow pop concerts to resume.
Seven years later when soaring house prices drove me out of London to the middle of England, things started to get more complicated, and not least of all because of the complex and long-running social and class divisions that cut across the north and south of this small Island nation. When I first moved ‘oop north’ little did I realise that I wasn’t just relocating to enjoy cheaper housing and green countryside, I was signing up for a self-exile that very few ever come back from. The general perception and common joke (less amusing to those outside London), is that once you cross the northern section of that relentless traffic jam around the capital, called the M25, you might as well have migrated to another country or planet.
This became evident to me after a few months of acclimatising to the Midlands, when I realised that the reason I was constantly being asked where I was from was not because I looked different but because I sounded ‘posh’ to the locals, who detected a hint of the south in my accent. Despite fears of encountering more racism in the less multicultural and whiter heartland of England, here I was being treated with caution not because I was a Pakistani but because I was a ‘southerner’. For this I accept full responsibility but you can hardly blame me for wanting to avoid further complications by pointing out the earlier details of my origins. My name was hard enough to spell and pronounce without having to launch into a geography lesson to help people understand where I lived before I moved to London. And it wasn’t exactly an untruth. When I told poeple I was from London, it was after all the place I was born.
More than a decade down the line I can’t say I’m now a ‘northerner’ but I have a better idea of the symbolic violence that southern attitudes inflict upon their supposedly less cosmopolitan fellow nationals. Years ago I had deeply offended a friend from Sheffield when I unthinkingly and casually responded to a question he posed with: ‘I don’t knoooowww’, trying to sound like someone off Coronation Street - the longest running British soap opera based on a working class area in Manchester. At the time I hadn’t even consciously meant to invoke a northern accent, it was just one of those things you do to make a mundane remark sound more interesting. And I was pretty addicted to Corrie. My friend didn’t quite take it in that spirit and interpreted this as an insult for which I had to apologise without quite understanding why it was such an egregious act.
I understood his grievance a lot better after a few years of living in the Midlands, where undoubtedly state investment in services, jobs and education visibly lags behind what is perceived to be the affluent south. What is even more aggravating is the condescending humour of southerners which subtly conveys their superiority. The realisation that I was no longer one of them came when my son started to talk with a northern accent and on visits down south this became the subject of amusement for friends and family. You soon stop seeing the funny side of it when people stop and smile or exclaim every time your child says ‘bus’ or ‘Mum’ with a heavier inflection on the vowel. Suddenly even a normal conversation or an innocent remark becomes politically loaded by drawing a boundary between them and us.
You can probably see now why the question ‘where are you from’ poses a few challenges for someone like myself. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all bad, there are great advantages to having multiple origins; for one your chances of failure diminish significantly when you simultaneously support Chelsea and Manchester City football clubs, as well as England and Pakistan cricket teams.