The CALL Blog

I stopped asking “Where are you from?” Here's why.

Elodie Kwan
| Oct 11, 2016

Local PinsIn my recent year of travelling and living abroad, not a day went by where I didn’t get asked “Where are you from?” What was just as common though was that when I answered “United States,” it would be followed up with “No, where are you really from?” because of my Chinese appearance. Not having ever lived or even visited Hong Kong, where my parents originated, I struggled to make sense of why my physical features seemed to define me even before words came out of my mouth.

In Taiye Selasi’s TED talk, “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local,” she describes similar experiences during her book tours in which not only her birthplace and country of upbringing seem to define her but also that of her mother and father’s. Taiye was born in England and raised in the United States; her mother, born in England, raised in Nigeria, is currently living in Ghana; and her father, born in Gold Coast, raised in Ghana, is living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today.

Visiting Accra, Ghana once a year doesn’t mean she should be introduced “Taiye Selasi from Ghana.” Having been born in England doesn’t mean her introduction should be “Taiye Selasi from England.” And being raised in the United States shouldn’t mean she should be introduced “Taiye Selasi from the United States.” In openers on her book tour, she was often described as multinational. But corporations are multinational. Nike is multinational. Humans are not. She says, “I’m not multinational. I’m not a national at all. How could I come from a nation? How can a human being come from a concept?”

In this sense, countries as made out to be defined, concrete, singular places when in reality countries are always changing. During my lifetime, countries have disappeared (Yugoslavia), countries have appeared (Timor-Leste), countries have failed (Somalia), and some countries even only recognized by half of the world (Kosovo).

How can we say to anyone that they must be from somewhere because of their physical appearance when countries themselves don’t always stand the test of time? How can where I’m from be questioned when Hong Kong itself is constantly change? Can I say I’m British because my parents lived in Hong Kong when it was under British control? These boxes that humans naturally categorize each other constraints us. Taiye Selasi puts its best, “History was real, cultures were real, but countries were invented.”

So her claim is that she is multi-local. Our experiences are local. All identities are made up of all of our experiences. And our experiences happen locally, whether it is in the country you were born in, in the country you were raised in, or in the country you finally called your home. Our experiences are attributed to different places, not countries. What I experience in New York City (where I love to visit on weekends) is very different from what I experience in San Francisco (my hometown). What I experience in Madrid (where I completed an expatriate year) is different from what I experience in Boston (where I went to university). The French friends I made in Spain make up a whole different set of experiences for me compared to say the Chinese festivals my family still loves to celebrate. So like Taiye, I’m not just American or just Chinese. I’m not even multinational. I’m multi-local. Because my experiences, wherever they are in the world, make me who I am today.

Click here to watch Taiye Selasi’s TED talk, “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local.” Check out our e-book and learn more about the CALL program