Diaspora and the question “Where are you from?”

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By Singisi

I migrated to America a few years ago; a country summed up by Ronald Reagan as the ‘city shining on a hill.’

I have since settled in; though my identity tied to my heritage in Kenya. I behold the culture, traditions and a mind boggling ambition only a Kenyan best understands.  America has been good to me. America has given me a chance to explore numerous possibilities that I would otherwise not have dreamt of. But that’s the far my identity inside my new domicile goes.

In as much as my feeling is biased towards the assumption that I have mastered the intricacies of life in America, one thing that refuses to go away is the never-ending question by locals when we interact: “Where are you from?.”

For example, the other day I was on a flight from Miami, Florida to Southern California, a place I now call home – far from home. The gentleman seated next to me asked: “where are you from?” I replied California.  But my answer did not quench the thirst of his curiosity. He pried more: “I meant, where you are really from” This was precipitated by a tete-a-tete where my accent ostensibly activated his curiosity

This is just one out of the many examples that the question of my origin comes up. The curiosity over how I came to America and what brought me here.  These questions have literally followed me like a shadow. To most people I usually reply – from an East African country called Kenya. And when I respond with the answer: “California,” the follow-up question “originally?” ensues. After all, if someone in America asks where you are from, common sense dictates its curiosity about your current residence! Is it Seattle, Los Angeles, New York or whichever zip code one resides!

When fellow African immigrants ask this question, there is already a connection in the first place because we both are tied together by the notion of migrants! As such, fellow immigrants may want to establish a connection based on ties that bind. To immigrants from other continents, the intention could be to place my background within a certain pedestal in order get a glimpse of my world view. North Americans are more likely to be fascinated or anxious to know about the outside world, which they have never been to, especially if they have been conditioned by the American exceptionalism ideology that there is no life in Africa. There is the reality that the latter group is anxious to know whether I will return home soon, or keen to judge me harshly in the assumption that I am an illegal immigrant!! To this end, my presence in America, they conclude, only goes a long way to abate competition for jobs that idolize ability and self-drive in this part of the world.

Initially, this question “where are you from” excited me. I was elated that someone was curious enough to learn about my national origin and cultural background. Not anymore. Having lived and widely traversed this beautiful country of Abraham Lincoln for a couple of years has made me sense that this curiosity is a way of placing me on a pedestal in order to measure who I really am. As a result, it becomes a ‘Power’ question. ‘Am I from North America, Western Europe or Japan;  am I from a rich and powerful nation/continent or am I from a developing world?’ so the curiosity builds. It only places me at a disadvantage if you follow Walter Rodney’s assessment that the term “Developing” means a continent escaping from a state of backwardness.

Mankind history has experienced a fair share of feint national borders. The immigration of labor capital from economically poorer countries to thriving nations has become the norm, and the trend will continue at least in the foreseeable future. These changes have created opportunities for immigrants, and instilled fear to locals. It is this fear that has made the land of immigrants – the land of the free and the home of the brave – divided into “us” and “them”, a situation echoed in many traditionally “foreigner-accepting” countries around the globe.

In a nutshell, this is my point: ask me where I reside, then where I was born and raised. In combination, these are the questions that may help know me better as a person not just tied to my nation of origin,. The truest definition of who am I can only be done by appreciating that I am a citizen of the world; whose cultural, historical and overall experiences are a collage, not a mosaic artistically speaking.

All told, I would rather a genuinely curious person asking me: “which neighborhood/city/cities will more than one store keeper recognize your face the moment you enter their premises?” And then, if a must, follow-up with, “where were you born and raised?”