There are times when the ‘where are you from’ question is essentially about whether you are seen as a threat to the imagined identity of the questioner.
I am currently the city of Karlsruhe, in south-west of Germany, getting ready to return to Istanbul, and having spent yesterday debating migration, identity and the question of belonging at an extremely well organised daylong conference on the topic.
Given Germany’s migration policy in recent weeks and months, unsurprisingly discussions focused on local matters. The overarching dynamic in relation to who we are, who we think we might be, and what we do not want ourselves to be seen to be were clearly recognisable across the range of presentations and panels. Nevertheless, much of the conversation in and around the conference focused on identity and the perennial ‘where are you from’ question asked of people with ‘migration backgrounds’. Invariably, it is both an opportunity to start a flowing conversation or precisely an attempt to close it.
Late last night, after a coming together of various minds and perspectives on the topics, I blurted out across the dinner table that this whole identities question masks a far more sinister situation. Obviously, I had to explain myself. In doing so, I was pleased to discover that the vast majority of people sitting beside me agreed with me wholeheartedly. More than that, they helped to substantiate my perspectives with further examples and case studies, not least their own stories of migration and identity formation. Around me were four Syrians. A Singapore-born south Indian young scholar, presently living and working in Barcelona, after completing her PhD at Cambridge, and having spent some time in Brazil as a researcher in the recent past. In addition, there were two Iranian doctors and three Germans working in the area of public science. All were sitting around a large table in a local restaurant run by a German-speaking Irishman, brimming with impeccable manners and a dazzling menu in his fine dining establishment.
The conclusions of our discussions were straightforward enough. We are all from somewhere and we are all going somewhere else, but these journeys are not always as smooth or linear as one might imagine or conceive them to be. Often they are full of struggles and pitfalls, chances taken and opportunities missed. Moreover, their details are not always fully recognised nor appreciated. Indeed, when the question ‘where are you from’ surfaces, in certain instances, it can act as a delightful conversation opener. Respondents can then often deliver a well-honed narrative they believe and wish to air with confidence. However, in other cases, the question limits the discussion by its framing as competition over imagined and misconceived identities. In these instances, what we are witnessing is a crisis of identity of not the person nor group under question, but of the questioner.
When majority groups ask questions of the other, they do so in societies that privilege certain constructed identities. This affects the idea of the nation, perceived and projected. The current EU ‘refugee crisis’ that we are currently observing in relation to Syrians fleeing war at home articulates everything about what is wrong with the union. It does not always reflect on the struggles and strife facing groups forsaking it all to make a commitment to a new start in an another home, little realising that they face tremendous barriers and restrictions along the way. When they do eventually get to their destinations, they are either welcomed half-heartedly or not at all.
In a place like Germany, the question of national identity highlights various contradictions that also emerge in other Western European societies. In 2015, Germany state hosted 1,000,000 refugees from Syria but also other parts of the war-torn world. However, at the same time, the rise of PEGIDA and other far right groups have created simmering tensions in certain towns and cities where local communities are anxious about the loss of their individual and collective identities, all based on their fear of the other. This is in spite of various EU law in relation to migration matters and the fact that economic migration, an important element of the migration debate, is wholly necessary for Western European nation-states encountering virtually zero population growth. Without immigration, these countries will have little or nothing in their pension pots within two decades.
In reality, from people to nations, identities are always in a state of flux. However, identities are more fractured than ever because of globalisation and its converse localisation. Ever disappearing notions of collectivism, with individualism and consumerism reigning supreme, have further exacerbated the situation. Slow-to-modernise institutions of society, short-term policy-making and the forced projection of an imagined memory of the nation all lead to manufactured but often-unstainable ethno-nationalism by a dominant hegemon that looks to the past, not the future. In local area contexts, less self-assured individuals and groups are compelled to subdue others, interrogating the identities of the other, seeking to make them appear invisible, even unwanted. Migrants who have made the decision to absorb the culture of a society once they make the choice to move, or in contending immense pressure to seek refuge, are compelled to protect what they have when confronting politico-ideological opposition rather than because of an insistence not to integrate.
The solutions are to take ownership of identity and propel it not as a function of wider interests but because it feels right. People are a mixture of everything and nothing, of their past but also future, and of hopes and dreams but also fears and loathing. If undergoing discomfort the next time someone asks ‘where are you from’, remember that the person who asks it is probably feeling some ambivalence about his or her own identity, and the question may not be about you but entirely about them.