Nationality and confusion
I had an innocuous conversation with a colleague a little while ago, and the way it often does in an office where there are multiple languages and ethnic origins, he asked me where I come from. Fair question; I don’t sound North American, even after thirteen years in Canada. It’s pretty obvious I’m not local.
When it comes to nationality, most North Americans are sure I’m Australian. A few have even asked me where exactly in Australia Gibraltar is (there is actually a Gibraltar Rock in Australia, as it turns out, so I should try harder not to laugh…). Some have gone with South African. A lot of the Irish have been known to ask me which town I’m from, which is nice because I like the Irish accent – although generally if I sound Irish, I tend to be half-drunk.Get me completely drunk, about two shots from passing out on the table, and I revert to the English I spoke in my childhood, or as a friend once called it ‘1940’s BBC presenter‘.
The problem with that little question, so common in a multi-national, multi-lingual town like Vancouver, is that I don’t really know. I was born in Gibraltar, which is an awesome place and you should visit – but five days after I was born, I was taken aboard a yacht, and six months after I was born, I was in the Virgin Islands. I was thirteen before I had a fixed mailing address of any kind. So can I really say I ‘come from’ Gibraltar? I haven’t lived there. No one there knows me from Adam, which is saying a lot for a country 6 kilometres square with a population of around thirty thousand. I spent a couple of terms in school there in my ‘tweens, but that’s basically it.
Can I say ‘come from’ England? My parents were both English – but I never spent more than a few weeks at a time there until I was thirteen. At thirteen I ended up in boarding school, which went down rather like a reverse hairball, so you could say England made a bad first impression and never recovered. If backed into a corner I’ll cough up the truth and say I’m a British citizen, but my reaction to being called English is about as good as that of the Welsh, the Scots, or some of the Irish.
Given a chance, I tend to try and BS the question with an airy ‘Oh, you know, from the colonies.’. It’s technically true, Gib is a British colony. If pressed, I’ll identify the colony, but if someone’s curious enough to press, they’ll ask if my parents still live in Gibraltar, or if Gibraltar has a university, or if it was fascinating to grow up there, and then I’m hard up against going into explanations, because, no, no, and no idea because I didn’t.
It occurred to me, after this conversation, and not for the first time, that I always feel a bit guilty answering ‘where do you come from’, because the truth is I don’t really know the answer. Born in Gibraltar, sure, but I never lived there, never worked there, have no ties there. It doesn’t really answer the question, and I feel like a liar even though it’s about the best answer I’ve got. While living in Vancouver has never quite got me past the guilt, at least here a lot of the population is from somewhere else. It’s one of the reasons I like the place so much. I’m nothing out of the ordinary.