Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Please don’t tell me you are Canadian.

I have talked about national identity on this blog before, so it is not entirely a fresh topic, yet the one that matters to me. 

Just like one can choose a Facebook relationships status from all the options, my answer for "Where are you from?" question would be It’s complicated. Because, to simply say that I was from Azerbaijan would paint a somewhat deceptive picture. People would not know anything about Azeris; and if they did, it would make matters even worse, as they would try and place me in a category I don’t actually fit into, at all. Then, on top of that, if I announce that I don’t speak Azeri and my first language is Russian, they quickly assume me to be Russian, which of course, is totally incorrect, too.

After many failed attempts and explanations I have settled on a short “Azerbaijan and then the UK” answer. That usually works. Even though cannot possibly explain anything about me. Like the fact that what I personally would call home, the place I remember as a child, basically no longer exists. Try that for a cultural identity.

But that’s fine, no one actually cares.

What I am saying this for is to explain that I, out of all people, should be more accepting and tolerant and, you know, understanding of why for some of us it is a complicated issue.  But there is one type of people I find exceptionally annoying when it comes to where-are-you-from question- the type who appear to fight hard against their roots. I know it is complicated, guys. I really do. As someone who does not really fit in properly or belong anywhere in my own nation, I know exactly how you feel, trust me!

However, if you look and sound, I don’t know, Bosnian-Herzegovinian and I ask you where you come from, and you tell me you are Canadian…. Well, it is just annoying. I might say oh, ok…and move on to talk to someone else. I know you are probably technically Canadian. Or British. Or German. But, you know what I am really asking, don’t you. I am asking where your parents come from. Where you, or them, or your grandparents were born. Where you originate from. I am not really interested in your citizenship.

I ask this because I find it interesting, I am curious about your background and all that cultural shit. I want to hear a story, about where your roots are from, and how you ended up wherever you live now. Not to be told ‘Oh, I am British’.

Pl-ee-ase! So am I. I have a passport I can show you to prove it. I, just like you, come from a third world place.  I just am not embarrassed about that. In fact, I am proud of it. Because my life is a tapestry of history, places, cultures and experiences. And that should be interesting, not embarrassing. 

One of my best friend here, in Doha has a complicated answer to where she is from question. Her parents come from Azerbaijan, so long ago that it really is a different place now. They then moved to Moscow when she was a baby, so she never lived in Azerbaijan. After only fifteen years or so, she emigrated to America where she lived most of her adult life, until she got married and relocated to Qatar. So, considering that at least half of her life she spent in America, she could technically answer that she was, therefore, American. But she does not. Neither can she simply say she is Azeri, can she, since she had no experience of getting to know the country. Of course, she grew up as a small child in Russia, and she speaks Russian but that does not make her Russian. Have you managed to keep up?

Now, I appreciate that some of you were born somewhere like England, even though your parents come from Bangladesh. Of course that is somewhat different. It gives you a full right to tell me you are from that country. But I am not talking about your rights. I am talking about obvious things. So, my lovely Egyptian neighbour, please don’t just tell me you are Canadian.

Interestingly though, the I-am-British (Canadian, American) phenomenon is not as common when it comes to people who live in a non-Western country. For example, I met quite a few people here, in Qatar, who, in answer where they are from would say to me ‘I am from Jordan but I am actually Palestinian’. Or ‘I am Iranian but I was born in Qatar’. See? Easy. And nice, somehow. Just say it, please! Because, if you don’t, it makes you sound like you are trying very hard to be someone else. Like you are ashamed of who you are. That you are, in fact, a little bit racist. That you hate your own people, their race and colour, their culture or whatever else it might be, and are embarrassed to be associated with them. And again, I, out of all people, understand that you are different now from probably 99% of the population of your place of birth. You evolved into this second (or is it third?) culture person, who would never fit in if went back, who is different from another Bangladeshi who always lived in Bangladesh. I honestly understand this. Trust me. But please, tell me about your background. 

There are cases that make me cringe. Like this one Pakistani lady who announced on Facebook that people who meet her  “don’t ever believe!!! ha-ha-ha!” that she is Pakistani. Why not? Well, you look and sound pretty Pakistani to me, I wanted to point out, and yes, I know you lived in England for a very long time. Good for you. It is a lovely country. But you still are Pakistani, and that’s totally fine! You being a Pakistani does not make me respect or like you any less. Your need to renounce it on social media, however, does.  


  1. Sometimes it's more complicated than you think. Let's say, my dad is not Russian from Russia (born and raised). My mom is not Azeri from Azerbaijan (born and raised). I was born in Russia, my wife in Baku from similar mixed parents; my kids are born in US.
    I spend my childhood in Russia, my teenage years in Baku, now I am in U.S. I guess, you can say than culturally I am closer to Azeri, but I don't speak the language, do not follow any holidays (religious or national).

    So am I Azeri? Am I really from Baku? Whenever people ask me I say, yeah, I am Azeri from Baku and then the follow up questions usually are “what school you went to?”, “do you know _insert_name_here from Montina” or something very similar. I didn't go to school there, I don't know anyone from Montina.
    Do I have a right to say I am from Azerbaijan?

  2. I love this post for so many reasons. I'm Canadian, French Canadian to be exact (yes, there are differences!). I was brought up in Venezuela but would have never considered calling myself Venezuelan. When I moved back to small-town Canada as a teen, I was very much seen as an outsider (as the previous poster said, I hadn't gone to the same schools, didn't know anyone in town, etc.). But STILL I considered myself Canadian. Even though I had to consciously learn my own culture, I was so proud to have one to call my own. My husband holds both a British and a Canadian passport by virtue of his father being English-born, but my husband was born in Canada and considers himself Canadian through and through because that's all he's ever known and how he was brought up. My daughter's spent 8 of her 9 years in Qatar - yet she would never think to call herself anything other than Canadian. Our cultural heritage is what makes us tick. I would hate to relinquish that. No matter how complicated it gets ...

  3. You always know who you are. I was born in Baku but lived in Middle East for 10 years. Then moved to Czech republic and now I live in England. But Im Azeri in my heart and my soul, always been and will always be. Can complaint about certain things about my country but will never allow anyone say anything bad about it. Its quite sad when people get embarrased over who they really are.

  4. I know people like, who say: "I'm from here" (wherever here is in that context), but with a heavy accent that tells they are from anywhere but from the "here" they refer to.
    I imagine that, when you say America, you mean the United States, right? Because America is the name of a whole continent where we can find a very big country (not the biggest, in fact) called United States of America.