So Where Are You REALLY From?


I did not want to be rude in Starbucks a while ago, but I guess it came out in an abrupt fashion, even when I had tried to soften the blow by throwing in a cackle of giggles at the end of my sentence.

Of course, it was not because of this new thing at Starbucks, where your name is asked upon ordering your cup of choice.

Though, I must say that I am not a fan of this Starbucks name request thing. I could perhaps understand it more if we’re talking about a huge branch where lots of people are waiting for their coffee but my local branch is as big as a phone box and aside from the moody baristas, it’s usually empty. And – it’s just odd to walk around with a name tag in your hands.

So I don’t see the point of sharing my credentials with them. As such, I tend to give a fake name. Thanks to Starbucks I have been a Lucy, a Marilyn, and a Marie-Antoinette, the last one causing a little headache as they demanded me to spell it. I told them to call me Coco instead.

Drifting off as always – what happened in there which caused my mood to burst, was that I got irritated with the barista’s attempt to scratch through my surface.

As , when he handed me my cup of Espresso Macchiato over, his eyes darted over my face. Inspecting and ready to process.

‘Where are you from?’, he asked.

‘Belgium,’ I answered.

‘No, I mean, where are you REALLY from?’

‘Ghent,’ I answered, knowing very well where this was leading to.

‘Seriously, I mean what is your origin? You don’t look Belgian,’ His voice sounded a little irritated.

I answered Mars, did that giggle thing, grabbed my coffee and walked out of the coffee shop.

He seemed dumbstruck but I couldn’t care less.

You see, I never understood this scrutinising of genetics. I don’t see why someone needs to know the exact origin of a person, as does it really matter? It just feels that sometimes, people get annoyed with you when you tell them one thing when they expect the other. As if they want to assert your value this way. Trust me, people usually do not ask the ‘true origins’ out of simple curiosity. Though most of the times it’s just plain ignorance.

Of course, I am not ashamed of my origins, on the contrary. It’s just that i don’t see the point in explaining my medium-sized Maghreb looks. Particularly as I am not that very familiar with the Arab culture myself. Their way of living is at times as foreign to me as it is for the one enquiring about it.

My father is Algerian, my mother a mixture of Belgian, French, German, Spanish – and Jewish. I probably have the moonlike face, dark brown eyes and hair of a Berber whilst I have the European features of my mum.

My childhood felt cosmopolitan, living in the city centre, with two young, liberal parents who loved travelling, art and books. There was no religion as both are atheists and we spoke French when it was the three of us and when I was alone with my mum, I spoke Dutch.

I never learned to speak Arab, my dad didn’t think it was necessary. The only thing that reminded me of Algeria was the great Arab food my dad would make from time to time but there was never pork, as that was banned. My mum would nevertheless have it, my dad didn’t care if she did and I would eat salami and ham with her whenever he wasn’t around – my dad just didn’t want to know about it.

I feel a little bit Arab, a lot more Belgian but I see myself as a Londoner by now.

But it is very rare to get asked what your ‘real’ roots are in London. Most people are from somewhere else and if you tell them what your nationality is, they will just accept and not probe deeper. I would even say it is considered rude to do so.

I do nonetheless accept that there will always be people asking you the ‘really really from’ question because they simply want to know -without afterthoughts.

They might themselves be from there or know someone and are just trying to match your features to the ones they recognise.

You develop a radar to separate these people from the ignorant, enquiring ones. Perhaps, my experiences back home in Belgium, have made me more touchy about this, who knows – but more on this later.

That said, as soon as I arrived in London, I straight away got confirmation that this is not the best question to ask someone.

On my third day here, I found a temping job in a soul destroying place, a printing company in Elephant & Castle.

The  place and work itself was dreadful but the people were fun. We had to walk around a huge table with piles of pages on top of it. Our job was to collect page after page, to finally bundle it into a book. There were six of us, a few South Africans, an Australian, a French girl and me.

We were all chatting away, lots of ‘Why are you here?’, whilst doing the merry-go-round and picking up the pages off the table, when one of the South African guys asked the French girl THE question.

‘France,’ she answered.

He seemed puzzled by her answer.

‘You must be from somewhere else, you’re black!’

I looked at her and saw her face crumpling up in discontentment.

‘Born and raised in France – because I am French, yeah?’

Still not satisfied with her answer, he asked her whether she was ashamed about her true origins.

The girl positioned herself in front of him and said: ‘look, I am French, my parents are from Guadeloupe but I was born in Paris and have always lived there. Guadeloupe, as your ignorant little brain may not realise it, is part of France so really, that makes me double French.’

He laughed and said: ‘I don’t think so no, you just got lucky I guess.’

And she exploded, grabbed a pile of papers from the table and threw it at him. Then she grabbed some more and tried to hit his face this time but missed again.

Her reaction was completely over the top but at the same time, it confirmed that I had been right all along to feel weird about people delving deeper to find my hidden roots.

As years ago, when Belgium was a lot more ignorant than it is now, I would go into, say, a shop, to see the cashier ask me in slow-motion, lips stretched to the limit to enable the exaggerated pronunciation to follow:

‘Do – you – speak – Dutch?’

‘Of course I do,’ I would say in my best TV-Dutch. Usually adding I spoke fluent French, English and German as well. I lied about the Geman but it wasn’t like I was going to become friends with them anyway.

‘So where are you from then?’

I would tell them I was Belgian, which was true but their response would most likely be: ‘c’mon, you don’t look like you’re Belgian, what’s your REAL nationality?’

Naturally, I always felt offended, their tone did not suggest simple curiosity. It was a mixture of disdain and perhaps yes, a little curiosity but one of the inquisitive type. There was always a hint of third degree about it.

Being born in Belgium and having lived a similar life to them, I didn’t like being pigeonholed as something that I didn’t really feel myself.

And I am sure there are millions of people like me, not ashamed of our origins but feeling more like the nationality we’ve got stamped on our passport than the one that is supposed to flow through our veins.

In the case of the French girl in Elephant & Castle, her blood was French, mine is partially Belgian, the South African guy however, if you think about it, had zero South African blood. It’s something the French girl missed to ask him. A white man born and bred in South Africa, surely his ancestors must be from somewhere else? It’s one of these situations where you think: how I wish I could have reciprocated. If only I could turn back the clock with 15 years so I could ask him where he was ‘really really’ from.

Oh Germany? I love black forrest gateau! How do you find life in South Africa? Spitze?’

From one featherbrain to another, oh the laughs we would have had.

Fifteen years on, I can happily say that I’ve barely been asked THE question in London, so the Starbucks situation came a bit as a shock.

Oh I’ve had people asking me: are you Morroccon, Turkish, Greek, Italian, French, Spanish, Iranian maybe? But I don’t mind that, it’s just curiosity. Like people wondering about my accent.

The ‘really really from’ question, there is no need for it. If someone provided you a nationality, just go with it and don’t start interrogating them further.

Can you imagine asking every Australian or American for instance? And what about Asians in the UK who’ve lived here for generations too?

But Londoners, I think, are cool about that and not in the slightest bothered. Belgium, thankfully, has changed so much since I’ve left and I haven’t had anyone asking me the question again.

The Starbucks barista, I don’t know where he is from. He had an accent, that I know. I’ve been back since and he’s called me the woman from Mars, though he hasn’t tried to shake the family tree again.

Maybe he is going to think twice before asking someone why their skin is darker than the stipulated colour on the Nationality Colour Chart.

And if it hasn’t clicked yet, one can only assume that he’ll get more disgruntled people giving him the eye and the huff.

Oh and last time I went into that Starbucks, I gave my name as Zhang Wei. They didn’t flinch.