Where Do You Really Come From?

I met a woman from Ghana, Ama, when volunteering. Ghanian names are based on the day of birth and there’s quite a fascinating ritual around it. I worked in Africa back in the days, so we dug around that, swapped stories, a fabulous chat. I encouraged her to visit Dublin someday. If she does, I want to be her family’s guide.

The question “where are you from?” usually gets the answer, Swindon, from me. If “really” is added in, you’ll get Dublin and lots of detail. A harmless conversation opener, you’d think. But not anymore.

When people ask me that question these days, they apologise as if they’ve caused offence. It’s the unintended consequence of Ngozi Fulani and Lady Hussey some months ago. Ngozi maintained that “Where are you really from?” was abusive to a foreigner. The BBC picked it up and there was a furore. In my view the two women should’ve had a grown-up discussion there and then. And if Ngozi didn’t want the question, she should’ve moved on.

I want that sentence reclaimed. I accept words can be offensive in the wrong context, “gay” for example which used to mean happy. “Black” is another, though it confounds me when black friends use it about themselves. You’ll know other words. But I don’t accept that a whole sentence of five words should be censored.

It reminds me of a poem when I was five about asking difficult questions. It’s called “The Elf-Man” – though it’s probably banned these days!

I met a little Elf-man once
Down where the lilies blow.
I asked him why he was so small,
And, why he didn’t grow.

He slightly frowned, and with his eye
He looked me through and through.
‘I’m just as big for me,’ said he,
‘As you are big for you!’

First published in Swindon Link Magazine

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