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

How can you ask people where they really come from without making them feel shit? The truth is, says Jacinta Nandi – you probably can't.

I know I’ve written on this topic before, but there are two questions which really bring out this big fucking hypocrite in me. There are two questions which you can be asked, on which I am the biggest fucking hypocrite of all time. I can’t help it. I just am.

The first one is: “How autobiographical are your stories?” I’m not talking about my Amok Mama blogs or my Exberliner column – obviously, they’re all pretty autobiographical, and they’re meant to be, too – although details will be tweaked here and there, mainly to improve the story logically, you know. When my imagination is more logical than reality, details will be tweaked. But I’m talking about my Lesebühne stories and my books and stuff. I find the question “How autobiographical are your stories?” really kind of intrusive and annoying and irrelevant and vor allem boring. I stare at the person who’s just asked me the question in a bored, annoyed, contemptuous, defiant manner, and say, sullenly: “150 percent, actually.”

But if I meet a boy I fancy at a Lesebühne, and he’s written a story I really liked, maybe one about losing his virginity in West Berlin in a taxi, say, then I can’t help it. I’m just curious. I’m just interested. I just want to know. I say then, in a quiet, interested, almost panicky voice: “Just how autobiographical are your stories? Especially the bit in the taxi? With that girl? Did that actually happen? When did it actually happen? Were her tits really that great? In real life, I mean?”

A question I get asked a lot more than the “how-autobiographical-are-your-stories?” question is, of course, the “where-do-you-really-come-from?” question. I’ll be asked this question – or various variations thereof – approximately 1000 times a day, most of the time in my role as TEFL teacher.

“Where do you come from?”


Polite, slightly puzzled glance. It’s the politeness of the slightly puzzled glance that gets me, like they think I might not have noticed I’m not white.

“But er, do you have different roots? I mean, er, where do your parents actually come from?”

“My dad comes from India.”

Their faces register visible relief, and sometimes they ask me whether I can speak Indian. I’ve been eingeordnet. I answer this question politely 999 times out of a thousand, and occasionally it doesn’t even bother me at all. A lot of the time, though, I feel slightly annoyed by it. Slightly depressed. It makes me feel like people don’t believe me when I say I come from England – it makes me feel like they don’t accept that I am English – it even makes me feel slightly demoralized as an English teacher, slightly less respected as a person. Look, I’m not saying you’re not allowed to ask it. You’re allowed to ask it. I just wish you wouldn’t, is all. It slightly depresses me almost every time you ask. You’re allowed to ask – I’m allowed to say that the question you ask makes me feel slightly depressed. For fuck’s sake. DAS wird man doch noch sagen dürfen.

One time out of 1000 – if I’m not at work, for example, but in a bar or a disco – then I totally rebel. I fucking rebel. I last out for hours and hours and hours. The words “My father comes from India” never cross my lips. Recently I was chatting to a boy in Kaffee Burger and I literally lasted out for fucking hours without telling him where I “really” came from.

“Where do you come from?” The boy asked.

“England,” I said.

“No,” he said. “Where do you really come from?”

“Oh, London?”

“No, I mean, where you actually, actually come from?”

“Oh,” I said. “North-East London? The London Borough of Redbridge? Ilford? We used to make the black-and-white films you can use in cameras sometimes? But now they’ve moved the factory to Hertfordshire.”

“I mean, what about your parents?”

Right, I thought. Okay, it’s showdown.

“My parents are all British citizens,” I said, slowly. “My mum, my stepdad, my dad, my stepmother. All British citizens.”

I’m not sure if this is true, my Dad is a British natural, not a national, but it’s true enough to be said in a disco.

“What about your grandparents?”

“They were all British,” I answered.

I thought this was probably true – like, when my grandparents were born, India belonged to Britain, didn’t it?

“What about your great-grandparents, then?”

I grinned at him, then. I felt a moment of triumph that I had lasted out so long, I had forced him to bring my great-grandparents into it.

“My mum’s grandparents were Danish, actually,” I said, sweetly. “I don’t know where my dad’s grandparents were born.”

He looked at me and frowned.

“Were all of your parents,” he shouted over the music, “born in England?”

Fuck. My heart sank. I’d lasted out so long. But he’d fucking won in the end.

“No,” I admitted.

“Where were they born?” he asked.

“None of your business,” I replied and marched off.

But I have to admit: I am a fucking hypocrite on this one. If ever I meet a cute German boy who looks Turkish or Arabic, I always ask them where they really come from, where their parents come from, clumsy, tacky questions like that. I remember a beautiful Arab boy I met in a bar once. I could tell he was Turkish or Arabic, but he kept on saying he was German. In the end, he showed me his ID.

“See,” he said. “I’m German. I even have a German surname.”

“But where are you really from?”

“I’m from Germany!”

“You don’t look German at all. I think your dad’s German, and your mum’s Arabic or Turkish.”

“You’re being so German about this,” he said. “How long have you been living here? You’re being really racist. I can’t be German, coz I don’t have blue eyes, right?”

“You have beautiful eyes,” I said. He smiled. I knew what to say to get him to admit the truth about his ethnic heritage.

“I think you’re married to a German woman?” I said. “And she’s a real strict feminist, so when you got married, you took her surname.”

“No!” he bellowed. “I’m Arabic,” he said. “My dad came over so early, the Germans made him translate his surname.”

“They did that?”

“They did that in the early days, yeah.”

“The mad bastards!”

“You’re so German, though,” he said. “Thinking some people look German and some people don’t.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said, biting my lip thoughtfully. “I’m sorry.”

So: I know what it’s like to be curious. I’m curious, too. I know it’s not like racist, racist. You don’t want to find out so you can put people on trains and stuff. You just want to find out so you can put people in Schubladen. I do it, too. It’s just like when you meet a German and you always want to know if they’re Easties or Westies. It’s not, like, the worst racism in the world. It’s just small talk. A lot of the time it’s even flirting.

BUT: it is fucking nice when it doesn’t happen, too. It is FUCKING nice. When people say, and they do sometimes: Oh, England? Where? Oh, London? London’s very expensive, isn’t it? Do your parents still live there? It makes people feel happy, being believed, when they say where they come from. I know what it’s like to feel curious, I know what that burning curiosity is like. And I also know how nice it feels to feel like people actually believe you when you say where you come from. I think, if we’re honest, it’s a small price to pay – a tiny bit of burning curiosity – for a little bit of extra happiness. Isn’t it? Come on. You know it is.