Where Are You From?

by Liz Caskey on June 1, 2011

I feel somebody studying my face; it feels like a test. I feel them examining me, not so subtlely, every angle and pore on my body. I sense him waiting for me to say a couple words to jump out and say what he cannot apparently control…; I feel it coming. It seems inevitable. Here we go, he’s going to say it: “¿Eres chilena?” Am I Chilean? This has been the long agony of a waiter who has taken at least 2-3 minutos of deep introspection and debate, in silence, as to whether or not he can and should ask me this.

Depende,” I say, with the best Chilean accent I can muster. And I am not lying when I say it depends. I am in the process of getting my dual citizenship with Chile.

¿De dónde eres?; Where are you from? It seems to be the million dollar question for Chileans towards foreigners, country folk, or anybody they would consider an outsider. It’s a habit, a local ritual. During my daily errands I must answer this question at least twice per day from buying ingredients at the corner almacen to refilling my metro card. If I head out for lunch, get a manicure, head for a party, or take a taxi, the rate increases ten-fold.

This question appears to be innocent and overly simple. Some consider it friendly. But imagine how you would feel if they asked you, after 11+ years where you live, the same thing every single day. A “simple” question that comes even before saying hello, asking my name, or inquiring how I am doing.  As an example, one of the gals in our office, who is over 6 feet tall, has Chileans ask to take photos with her (in the street) as if she was from another planet. This habit is programmed on the hard drive of all of Chile (or so it seems) and quite frankly, it gets old. It seems like such a totally irrelevant detail for two sentences of necessary dialogue between two perfect strangers. It mostly feels like an interrogation more than a showing “interest” and “curiosity” as many Chileans suggest. Yes, being foreign is a special “condition” here. If I don’t answer the question, the conversation cannot continue. The self-destruct button is pushed. Interacting becomes imposible.

For a long time, this habit really bugged me. More than anything, it pained me to be separated and identified as a weird “species.” On top of everything being different: language, traditions, being far from friends and family, etc. I was put in this category apart from everybody else. I obviously understood I was not going to pass as a native Chilean with my dirty blonde hair, light accent (for some reason everybody here thinks I am French…), my face and VERY white skin that are clearly northern European roots. But come on guys, don’t judge me and categorize me as “aaah, esa gringa” without going deeper. I adopted Chile, and all of South America, as my country and culture with my whole heart. I love it to pieces, it makes my soul sing. I feel more at home here than in the US. The constant greeting of “where are you from?” is not a proper greeting wherever you live to whomever you are. I don’t get how my (one) Passport is more important than what I think and how I am as a person. Like I said, it’s apparently a special “condition”.

After many years in Chile, I think I get what’s behind all this. Chile is an island culture in every sense but especially culturally speaking. It’s isolated, at the end of the world ( or beginning, depending on which way you look). It’s cut off by mountains, ocean, ice, and desert. Obviously, a small, enclosed, homogenous community here has been created where everybody knows each (and is in each other’s business I may add). The big wave of Basque, British, and German immigration happened generations ago and those descendents are assimilated now as Chileans. Of course, given the “small town factor” somebody from the outside is obviously going to be noticed. I understand that the “where are you from” question is to be expected from time to time. But the norm? Not cool.

But, hold on!! How is Chile NOW? What’s going on with the cosmopolitan, prosperous, developed Chile that’s becoming a player on the world stage and opening up to the world economically, gastronomically, culturally? Many visitors, investors, new immigrants (now from China, Palestine, USA) are coming to settle. Isn’t it time to become aware of this island mentality and not-so-nice custom of interrogating anyone perceived to be foreign? Isn’t time to change this and evolve into a tolerant melting pot culture that embraces other cultures instead of questioning them? Isn’t it time to first ask the name of somebody you just met instead of rudely assuming them to be a foreigner? Let’s look to other melting pot cities where it does work like New York, London, or Berlin where immigrant communities are a fact of life. Chile, I adore you, but this is an intrusive, unnecessary habit. I want to suggest that people (everywhere) put themselves in the other person’s shoes before probing. I promise that the answer will naturally come through the course of human conversation. Not a forced interrogation at the onset to satisfy one’s own curiosity.

I am not from another planet. I was born abroad. I am a foreigner in Chile. A foreigner/expat who’s going to have dual citizenship in the future. A foreigner who married a Chilean and chose to make her home, life project, and business in Chile. A foreigner who’s totally in love with Chile, the people, the food, the wines, the place. It’s like no other place on earth for me.

Now, when I am asked the “where are you from” question, I try to laugh. I see it as an opportunity to open somebody else’s eyes. Instead of getting frustrated or defensive since there must be something wrong with my accent, I simply ask, “sorry, you asked my name?”. I usually get a confused look first and then they get it—I am person first and foremost. Please do not reduce me only to a nationality. Please avoid making a snap judgment about where you think I may be from, who I without first recognizing me as a fellow human being. I am not a nationality. I am Liz. I am a gringa. That’s right, a gringa chilena.

Placeres Magazine column published in the May 2011 issue.

{ 11 comments }

A Kiwi in Chile June 1, 2011 at 11:44 am

Having been in Chile for over 14 years I have my own canned responses lined up. Depending on my mood, if someone asks “Where are you from?” I may say My mother OR sometimes just Santiago where they then raise a confused eyebrow (and you can hear the clogs working inside the brain) until they eventually ask their follow up question of “But, you aren’t from Chile, are you?”
Then I mention I am from New Zealand which again may cause another raising of an eyebrow.

I might true your tactic of “sorry, you asked my name?”
Just to see what happens.

BrophyWorld June 1, 2011 at 1:25 pm

The government ought to shed the island mentality by adopting open borders, or at least extending the 90 day stay to 180 days, as in Mexico. They’re not serious about enticing foreigners, so I doubt it will change.

Liz June 1, 2011 at 1:32 pm

I was born and live on the other side of the Andes, but to US parents. I also am of European lineage, like the rest of this country but northern Europe. I don’t have an accent, so I don’t get this question as much as my parents do, but I do get the looks. I don’t “look” Argentine, but I sound it. So, once in a while I get asked if I’m from Mar del Plata, and I simply say “yes”.
I do see this happening to my parents a lot and it can be frustrating. My dad says he’s from Tucuman. :)

Angela June 2, 2011 at 9:57 am

I guess the question doesn’t bother me that much. When I lived in Egypt, people stopped me on the street all the time to take a picture with me. Girls wanted to touch my hair. Fathers asked if their kids could stand next to me while they took a photo. It’s not like I was in some remote place either. I lived in Cairo where in some areas the tourists certainly outnumber the locals.

But I was also curious about them. I love photographing people. I remember walking around with a friend from Spain taking pictures of everything we saw and then a two guys asked if they could take our picture. My friend got offended. He asked me why on earth they’d want to take our picture not realizing that he’d been taking pictures of Egyptians all day long for exactly the same reason. People are interesting.

Anyway… I used to love to pick a different country each time someone asked me where I was from (which happened about 10 times a day). It’s fun to see how the reaction changes depending on the country you say. I do that here in Argentina, too. My favorite is to say that I’m from Egypt and start speaking bad Arabic. Great looks of utter shock. Fun for me.

Liz June 2, 2011 at 10:55 am

Good for you, Angela! :)

Dan June 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Same thing happens all day long here in Buenos Aires. I usually just answer with “I live here” or “Recoleta”, which is my neighborhood and leave it at that. Some won’t let it go, but most do.

Ignacio June 2, 2011 at 8:27 pm

So, if you’re a gringa Chilena, then that makes me a Chileno gringo here in the United States. I’ve been here many years now, and I still get that where are you from? from people. A lot! Slightly more annoying is the other question: What do you do?

Gayle June 2, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Hi, Liz…I married an Argentinian and have lived in his very provincial native city for 8 years…and the routine here is similar, and it goes like this:
Local: “Where are you from?”
Me: “Barrio Parque Avambae” (well known neighborhood here)
Local: (pause, smile breaks out) “But really where are you from?”
Me: “California”
Local: “Wow–are you here for a vacation?”
Me: (surpressing a laugh at the idea that a foreigner would choose this small town for vacations) “No.”
Local: “Oh does your husband work for the steel factory?”
Me: “No, he is a native of this city; he’s an architect.”
Local: “You mean you moved here for LOVE?”
At that point the local is really smiling and usually calls to a coworker: “Look, here is someone who moved here for love! Isn’t that amazing” or some other rather felicitious phrase. (If it is a guy, I add “Yes, they tell us that the men in this city are the best!” And wow, the chests puff out!)

Sure, this routine takes five minutes, and at the end everybody is bursting with smiles, including me, as I am being reminded again why I came here.

Btw, I was an honorary member of the Chile spouses group as there was no similar group here…hello to all of them! It really is amazing how powerful love is!

Olivier Travers June 3, 2011 at 8:27 pm

My answer to that obligatory question is “Iquique poh”. Nobody buys it but it gets laughs.

Jen June 4, 2011 at 1:56 am

I’m only a year and a half in, so haven’t yet grown sick of the question. Although, I seem to get it much more living in a small town in Chile than when I lived in Buenos Aires. I like the suggestion mentioned above of listing a different country depending on my mood – I’ll have to try this out next week.

Truth be told, I much prefer Chileans to ask me where I’m from then for them announce, after several minutes of conversation with me, that I can’t speak Spanish. Yes, it has happened twice (delivered with a straight face, in Spanish.)

Eileen Smith June 8, 2011 at 12:46 am

I try to turn it around and make it seem like I think it’s a normal question for me to ask, too. And you? From Santiago? Thoguh I have to say, I don’t get it that often, or it doesn’t bother me that much anymore, one or the other. But in taxis it’s practically a must. Another reason I don’t like taking taxis!

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