Why Asking ‘Where Are You From?’ Isn’t Always the Best Choice

A seemingly innocent question, and what to ask instead

Where are you really from (world map) by the author

Where are you from?

That’s a question I often get asked by people who meet me for the first time.

It comes in various colours, shapes, and sizes, such as asking about my accent or directly questioning where I am really from — when my answer doesn’t match their pre-label adjective.

What do people do with the information if I say I’m from Hungary?

When I say I’m Hungarian (which is true), the conversation goes down three different ways.

#1 Oh, cool! Cool! Cool!

This is a short conversation. These people very likely have never heard of Hungary before. Which is ok. I usually say it’s in Eastern Europe.

#2 Hungary? Ah, are you hungry? Ha-ha!

Yes, that’s super funny. I’ve never heard this joke before. This is also a short conversation.

#3 What’s it like living there?

Or sometimes I’m asked about some random hearsay. It’s a short conversation because of me. Because I have no reference points anymore. I can tell my experience, what it was like a long time ago. But now? I don’t have the answer. People don’t understand why I don’t know when I should know because I’m one of the Hungarians.

Actually, one time, I met someone who had more knowledge about Hungarian classical music than me. A super rare #4.

The label theory & curiosity

People feel the need to label things.

Having a proper ‘label’ for us helps them understand how they should interact with us. I understand the theory behind it.

If that label is ambiguous, then people can’t even be sure of who exactly we are.

If the label is unclear because people don’t know what label they should use for us, then they don’t want to be around us. Because they can’t classify us.

People are curious

When I meet new people, they want to label me because of my accent, which is a mix of all the places I’ve been, and all the people I spent prolonged time with.

People want to know where to put me and what kind of label they should use for me. Foreigner, Hungarian, New Zealander, Canadian, newcomer, immigrant, etc.

But what if one label doesn’t provide a proper explanation of our identity?

My tagline on my website says

Hungarian by birth.
Kiwi by choice.
Irish trained.
Canada based.

A mix of cultures that tells my story better than any single-word answer would. My tagline embraces all of them. All of the cultures that have shaped me throughout life with grace and pride.

No one-word answer would cut it.

Not for me.

Not for the other people who live in an English-speaking country and have a distinguished foreign accent.

Just not enough

A few years ago, I lived in Wellington, New Zealand. I had a group of friends, Hungarian girlfriends. One of the girls was just about to get married. She organized a bachelorette dinner party for all of the Hungarian girls in our friends’ circle. I only saw it on Instagram because, guess what? I wasn’t invited. But everyone else was.

In her eyes, I didn’t classify as a ‘real’ Hungarian. Because by that time, I’d been living outside of Hungary for nearly a decade. I was at a completely different stage of my immigrant journey. I was a senior immigrant, they were the junior ones.

So that was the point when I realized, I’m not Hungarian enough.

Not anymore.

If women of my own nation don’t treat me like a Hungarian, then I clearly lost my label.

Soon after, I concluded, ‘where are you from’ is a question that divides us.

In the last few years, I say I’m from New Zealand. Which is also true.

Then people, who had heard a New Zealand accent before, look at me and say…wait, no, you’re not.

But I am. I’m just not Kiwi enough.

The thoughts crossing an immigrant’s mind

When someone asks me where I’m from, here’s my thought process before answering:

Are they asking where I was raised? What shall I say?

The farm I spent my time on for 6 months in a year?

Or the village where I spent the other half of the year?

Shall I explain the untraditional way of my upbringing?

Nah, they’d probably think it’s weird. We just met.

Are they asking about my heritage? What kind of nationality do my parents have? Would it label me adequately?

I should say I learnt English in Ireland. Yeah, that’d do.

Nah, I should say New Zealand. That’s where I’m from. Recently. New Zealand is ingrained in me, forever.

Or I’m from Toronto, and leave it at that.

Is it overthinking? Perhaps.

But it’s also self-identification.

As much as people want to label us, we want them to use the proper label. The label(s) we identify with.

See, I have lived in four countries for a more extended time, for years. I spent some time in Australia and a month in Asia. My time in the US, California (even though it was short), greatly impacted me and my worldview.

I spent my childhood and early adulthood in Hungary before moving to Ireland. I lived in that beautiful green country for 4.5 years. I lived in New Zealand for nearly a decade and became a citizen after 5 years. Now, I live in Canada. And who knows what’s next?

In a way, all places feel like home.

Whenever I travel back, I feel at home.

Next time when you hear an accent, remember we all have an accent. You have an accent, too, even if you’re a native English speaker.

What to ask when you meet someone with an accent instead

Try one of these:

  • Where did you grow up?
  • Where’s home for you?
  • What’s your background?
  • Where do you live now? How has living abroad impacted how you see your actual home?
  • What made you move to [blank, e.g. country, city]?
  • How did you end up in [blank, e.g. country, city]?

I guarantee you if you switch up the typical ‘where are you from’ conversation starter with a more creative question when chatting to someone with an accent, you’ll get a much more interesting response.

Let’s explore people’s backgrounds on deeper levels.

Because everyone has a unique story.