Amok Mama: How to ask people where they "really" come from



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I get your point...

...but yet I struggle to really understand it. Because I am always so interested in peoples roots, even the single parts of Germany where they are coming from and were their grandparents are coming from.
I wouldn't ask further though I always just hope that people tell me all by themselves. Which sometimes doesn't happen. I know an Irish woman who looks Asian and has a Japanese sounding name and I never dare to aks how that happened, because I lived in Ireland and they don't have any history of immigration, no foreigners in second generation that I've met (besides British people) and I am so curious but I don't dare to ask her. She always says: I'm Irish. And I'd love to know more.

Susanna more than 8 years ago

no matter where you're really from,

dear amok, there is an annoying umlaut in your Würzeln!

jabgoe more than 8 years ago

no umlaut?

but it's pronounced like that, isn't it?

Jacinta Nandi more than 8 years ago

no, not really

it's pronounced rather like : vourtseln

jabgoe more than 8 years ago

pardon my english

it should have been: voortseln

jabgoe more than 8 years ago

I've been pronouncing it


Jacinta Nandi more than 8 years ago

The details should be personal

A total stranger can ask where you're from but should accept the first answer, only those close to you are allowed to dig deeper and find out, "where you're actually actually from".....I find it intrusive for a total stranger in a pub to be asking about my great grandparents

Mkenya Ujerumani more than 8 years ago


if you MUST know, ask a better question: what's your ethnicity? that way, you're not degrading the national identity that the person likely grew up with and has more of an association with.

seriously, 'where are you REALLY from?' is a ridiculous, ignorant, racist question.

Not german more than 8 years ago


I also really fucking like it when Americans ask what your ethnicity is. I feel really like comfortable, then, when you say to an American: I come from England & they go: what's your ethnicity? I really like that moment, it acknowledges everything: you come from England, but you're not white. HOWEVER: we have to admit that Germans find that word racist. They find it 1000% more racist than "Where are you really from?" I think we have to acknowledge that. Even though I personally prefer it, we have to admit, we are asking Germans to use a term they find racist, I also don't know how the word could be appropriately translated, maybe w. the Würzeln thing. "Hast du ausländische Würzeln?" Is that an answer? I dunno.

Jacinta Nandi more than 8 years ago

Sorry, but it IS racist.

If people simply wanted to know where you were from, they would accept the first answer given, and not push for an answer that fits into the tiny little boxes in their heads. Also, it would behoove us not to encourage this kind of behavior by going along with it. I only ever vary my ethnicity depending on who I'm talking to. For example, when talking to Nigerians, I say I'm from Delta State. When talking to Americans, I say that I'm from D.C. The only time I ever have to explain anything is when I talk to Turks, saying that I speak Turkish because I lived in Turkey as a child. Otherwise, except for in Berlin, I've never had to explain myself.

I should say though, that I have very little patience for silly questions, so I'm unlikely to answer a second time.

Thurzday Next more than 8 years ago

fully agree

I met a woman today who introduced herself as coming from Turkey, but born here. This issue is so far-reaching, people should not have to be "explaining" things like this. I hate to think what conversations she has had with people previously to get to this point.

Katbag more than 8 years ago


sometimes - quite often - I just say I am half-Indian when introducing myself to ppl just to avoid the sigh/cringe moment

Jacinta Nandi more than 8 years ago

Blut und Boden

I'm blaming Germany's archaic approach to naturalisation of citizens for this: only as of the 1st of Jan 2000 can a person claim German citizenship merit of residency and not exclusively by descent ("Recht des Blutes") (the previous law dates back to the "Reichs- und Staatsangehörigkeitsgesetz" of 1913 and underwent some revision in 1991 "Ausländergesetz"). Needless to say that the idea of multi-ethnicity in one nation-state doesn't come naturally to the Germans... imagine asking anyone in London "where they really come from". Also: you're not really "alien" if you're a "Commonwealth Citizen", while the German experience with "Empire" was a sausage-factory in Namibia. Still - sad that this "categorisation" is taking a hurtful twist more than on occasion.

Mike more than 8 years ago

Diskriminierte Deutsche

Coming from Baden-Württemberg (with not having a "schwäbischer Akzent" or any money, but even if, wtf?) + living in Wedding for a couple of years now, I always answer with "Well, I lived in Leipzig for six years before I moved here" - hoping that people don't ask further questions. It's a shame, how Southern Germans -like I do- try to hide their original background to avoid this endlessly fucking "Schwabylon"-racism-and hateress-kind-of-Schublade. Lucky you, guys! At least, having a multicultural background is obviously cool in Berlin. Loved your article!

My ScienceWork more than 8 years ago

hmmmm... interesting

I suppose the question is a bit annoying. I look ever so slightly not-English, cos I'm half Turkish, and I speak with an odd mix of Scottish, Australian and American intonations (I have NO idea why) so people are always baffled and can't quite guess where I'm from (Manchester). But I don't think it's racism. People just want to know a bit about someone's background is all. They want to know why you look a little different. It's quite harmless. I always like to know if another person is from a mixed background because it means they might have the shared experience as me of growing up with bits of two different cultures. It doesn't mean I'm going to place a set of stereotypical assumptions on that person immediately. I remember I asked you this same question when we met for this very reason... I knew you were a Londoner from the second I heard your voice but I thought there might be that same mixed background I had too. I guess there is this argument that we should all take each other just at face value... But then that's very hard to do, isn't it?
The repetition is annoying though. There's only so many times you can say the exact same answer to the exact same question before you feel like boring out your own eyeballs.

Sara more than 8 years ago

Black in Berlin

I completely understand. I usually get this as well:
(The nameless)"Vere ahh you vrohm?"
(Me) "The States."
(The nameless) "Ne, I mean aus vere??"
(Me) " Oh yes, I moved here from Atlanta born in Jersey."
(Nameless) "So, yur eltern ahh Afrikanisch?!"
*actual dialog*

I swear there would be less confusion if I told (the nameless) that I was Japanese.

Franco Davis more than 8 years ago


Yes.... I can see it would be annoying answering the same question all time, but shoot me down for being naive, but if I asked these questions, it would be interest, like I'd love to have some exotic heritage-am entirely English, so it seems genuinely interesting to have a parent or grandparent from another country, wherever. Not just about skin colour.

Not the same but, being 'entirely English' I imagine you'd think I could never have to explain myself, like you do. But 10 times out of 10, if I say I'm from Yorkshire, I get the same response, 'but you don't have a Yorkshire accent!' And then have to explain am entirely northern and we don't all sound like Corrie. I just mean we all get this in some form and its not necessarily racism?

Sally Oliver more than 8 years ago

Yeah I agree with you only.....

I do actually agree w. you, hence my hypocrisy on the subject, also why it sometimes doesn't bother me at all, and sometimes it does...... But I think the Northern thing is a good comparison. Only the thing is, when someone says: "But you don't have a Yorkshire accent" it's not quite as hurtful as them saying "But you don't look German/English" is it? There isn't the same level of total rejection, is there? Don't you think? Like not looking German/English, ppl are questioning your entire identity?

Jacinta Nandi more than 8 years ago


you'd "love to have some exotic heritage?" THAT'S racist.

elle more than 8 years ago


Your parents aren't British citizens...they're SUBJECTS to the Queen. Know your place, limey.

Oliver Cromwell more than 8 years ago

yeah I know

I just thought bringing the whole subjects thing into it would be too confusing. Also this is a German conversation translated into English. What's the German for subject? Untertanen or something? Nobody ever says that do they?

Jacinta Nandi more than 8 years ago

Great article

Well said :) I always fall in to the stupid 'where are you from' question trap because if I hear the trace of an accent, I'm hoping to identify a potential non-German, with whom I can complain about the weather and coffee and Annoying German Ways. Except quite often, the person I'm asking doesn't recognise that I'm also a foreigner, so they think I'm just being patronising....

Kate Cahoon more than 8 years ago

kaffee burger is cool

cool article. anyway, being Italian, should I assume its racist when they call me "Mafia" or "Spaghetti"?

frederico more than 8 years ago

Black guy in Berlin

Hahahaha! That's brilliant! I can totally relate to this. I'm French and my accent when speaking German immediately gives me away. But people in Berlin just can't *help* asking me "where" I'm from just to get to the "truth" about me. I've become so familiar with this subtle, yet unmistakeable expression of relief on their faces when I tell them about my Caribbean heritage, that I mostly play with it and enjoy the situation. In Paris, such things just never happen to me...

But I must say that the most inquisitive about it are the Turks and Arabs. They literally *have* to know why I'm not white yet insist I'm French. More than once, I was even asked "na, und Papa afrikanisch oder?" They haven't learned how to be PC about it and they just ask bluntly. I think it's just a natural trait of most people, wherever they're from. In Paris, people don't ask because there are too many brown people around and it makes no sense wondering about the origins of each of them, and nobody cares...

But the wonderful, multiracial Caribbean where I'm originally from is hardly less racist than Lichtenberg, really.

Blackguyinberlin more than 8 years ago

some guys wander by mistake

know what you mean, so tired of being mistaken for an englander just for speaking the language. most of the time it's easier to pretend to be turkish or maori. and i'm 'white'

herr james more than 8 years ago

Kaffee Burger is not a disco.

So how are we to trust this column on anything?

Disco Stu more than 8 years ago


Kaffee Burger's a disco!

What is it if it's not a disco?

Jacinta more than 8 years ago

It is a bar where people dance.

Studio 54 was a disco.

Disco Stu more than 8 years ago


it's not clear from the blog that I think Kaffee Burger is a disco (although I totally do) I just go "in a bar or a disco.....was in Kaffee Burger once." Is it really not a disco? Is Alte Kantine a disco though?

Jacinta Nandi more than 8 years ago


I do fail to understand the point of this ... the author says at the end: I am a hypocrite on this one. So... is the message to look at ourselves or to condemn the discriminative practice of pointing out someone's roots?

Claire more than 8 years ago



kate more than 8 years ago


First I just want to know the difference between racist, and racist racists? Just because they are not making you change your name, or beating you in the streets does not make it any better. It is all racism. I get this question all the time being an African American. When someone asks those questions.. they are asking: 'Where, 500 years were your ancestors?' I ask them the same question, and they finally start to get it. It seems to not be exclusive to Germany, but all over mainland Europe, who pretends that every African looking person they meet.. is straight out of Africa.

I try not be critical, but it seems you need to be more aware of that question and maybe try to make it a teachable moment for them. Countries like the UK, and the USA have long histories of immigrant populations...even though the Germans had colonies, you rarely see those past subjects here it seems.

I just try to remember that people are coming from a place where their nationality is also an ethnic group, but I never skip that moment to lecture someone when they fix their lips to ask that nonsense after I feel like I have answered their question. Where are you from? Earth, I reply.


blackgirlinbelin more than 8 years ago

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