When a stranger asks “Where are you from?”

When a stranger asks “Where are you from?” the question makes me tense and uncomfortable. I am not ashamed of my origin. I love my home country – Latvia – with its untamed wild nature, fragrant pine forests, full of pure unpolluted oxygen, and beautiful little lakes that provide a perfect place to chill on a hot summer day. I love Latvian language and its culture, even though my own heritage is Russian, which I also highly respect.

When a stranger asks “Where are you from?” it’s almost like asking “How much do you earn?” because it might help to define my social status. Latvia is not a poverty stricken country, as many would like to believe. Yes, Latvia is not a big player in today’s economy or politics, it didn’t colonise half of the world back in the days, but that doesn’t make it a third world country. (And, even if it did, there is no shame in that.) It’s true, people’s salaries are smaller and life is simpler. It has its pros and cons, like the rest of the world.  But, I didn’t come to the UK because I was jobless, and I didn’t come to the UK to steal someone’s job either. I came to live in London because I thought it was a fantastic vibrant city, because I was curious to learn about the world, because I strongly believed and still do in multiculturalism and its benefits, because I wanted to brush up my English and because I wanted to make new friends and have new experiences.

When a stranger asks “Where are you from?” does he think I’m a representative of my country? I do not always agree with Latvian politics, nor Russian or British for that matter. In fact, I try to follow politics as less as possible because it’s largely upsetting. I remember once someone heard I were Russian and said, “You know what, it might sound controversial, but I love Putin.” Okay… good for you..? What shall I do with this information? Just because I’m Russian doesn’t mean I support what Putin is doing. I have a critical mind too.

When a stranger asks “Where are you from?” trying to pick up my accent, it is just a matter of seconds before he forms an opinion. It’s not my fault to be born in a particular country and it’s not one’s achievement either. Someone was blessed to win the genetic lottery and someone wasn’t, but is it really a clear win or lose? Did I have a worse childhood because I didn’t have that many toys? Not really. Yes, I am from Latvia. But, it doesn’t make me less of a person. It doesn’t make me less of a human.

When a stranger asks “Where are you from?” I’m afraid he will be prejudiced against me before he gets to know me. Will Daily Mail news headlines spring to his mind – news about civil disobediences, largely exaggerated, committed by someone from Easter Europe? What about British tourists in Latvia making it their sport to pee on the Statue of Liberty. I remember them too. But, a handful of assholes doesn’t represent the whole nation.

When a stranger asks “Where are you from?” and hears my answer, what kind of stereotypes come to his mind? Maybe he will try to make a compliment, like “I’ve heard girls from Eastern Europe are really pretty.” and I will think of female objectification, of sex tourism, of British stag parties… Some are coming to Riga, and expecting to find shallow flirtatious girls and boys, pieces of cake ready to be served on their plate. But, we are not object for consumption! He might say something positive like, “Russian wives are like American housewives in the 60’s. They want to have children, they cook well, etc.” and I will hear, “Your place is in the kitchen. You are not allowed to have ambitions of your own.”

Forgive me, nameless stranger, for I become overly defensive. You might not think these things at all, and you are just making a casual chit-chat to fill up the time. But, I’m afraid that the moment I open my mouth, I’m starting a losing battle, I’m afraid, you will dismiss me, look down at me, judge me, hate me for something I don’t deserve.

When a stranger asked “Where are you from?” it used to be a simple enough question, but it’s not anymore. This sensation will follow me anywhere – on the train, in a hospital, in a queue. I am terrified – what happens next? What did I do to deserve it? What do I do now if somebody confronts me aggressively and suggests that I go back home? Is there a manual on how to behave in these kind of situations?

It’s partially my fault. I wasn’t prepared for that. I was delusional. I didn’t realise how much hatred there was. Up until now I was lucky enough to live in a happy bubble with nice, intelligent and friendly people surrounding me, people free of prejudices and racist views. But, June 23 brought me back to reality. June 23, which is ironically a national holiday in Latvia – a beautiful folk celebration of Summer. My friends back home were making flower wreaths, eating cheese and barbecues, enjoying the white night, and I was hurt and vulnerable watching the news in shock.

Now, when a stranger asks “Where are you from?” what do I say, and do I reply anything at all?

 

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Comments
One Response to “When a stranger asks “Where are you from?””
  1. NinjaPT says:

    Where do you want to go next?
    Where you come front is not the same as “how you became what you are today?”
    When I ask someone where the come from, I just want to learn more about geography, culture of their country and about them self

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