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 probably 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 an English 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.
It occurred to me, after this latest conversation, that I always feel a bit guilty answering ‘where do you come from’, because the truth is I don’t really know the answer. Gibraltar, yes, but it doesn’t really answer the question, and so I feel like a liar even though it’s the best answer I’ve got. Possibly I have commitment issues.