Where Are You REALLY From?

Everyone has pet peeves. Be it related to other people’s appearances, personal hygiene, or habits. Some people cannot stand certain smells or sounds, while others are utterly disgusted by certain behavior. My biggest pet peeve is very specific: I hate it when people ask me where I am really from. I hate it even more when they start guessing my ethnicity. And to top it all off, I utterly detest it when complete strangers shout at me in a foreign language assuming said language is my mother tongue.      

I can recall at least ten very specific occasions[1] where someone has asked or assumed my ethnicity, as if it is the most important thing in the world. Not my interests, not my hobbies, not my occupation, not even my name, but where I am from. To me, this sounds so ignorant. People tend to stereotype or become prejudiced once they confirm your ethnicity. They stop caring about you, the individual, and start caring about you, the person part of this ethnic group. I am not saying my ethnicity is an undisclosed secret, but I do not think it should be the first thing you ask someone you meet for the first time.    

I am originally Armenian. I have a very obviously Armenian name. My physical appearance, too, is very Armenian: I have been blessed with a proper, not too big nose[2], am pretty short of height, have both dark (curly) hair and dark (brown) eyes, and my skin has a green undertone. Not to say those are the only physical characteristics a typical Armenian (or only an Armenian) possesses, but an Armenian person would immediately know that we share the same ethnicity. I, too, am perfectly capable of sniffing out my fellow Armenians. However, everyone else seems to struggle a lot.

People have asked me whether I am French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Israeli, Persian, Iraqi, Turkish, Moroccan, and once even Indian. Most of these ethnicities are generally in the Mediterranean and lie fairly close to Armenia. All of them are also much bigger and hence much more well-known than Armenia, so I get why my ethnicity is mislabeled this often, if not all the time. At the same time, this is happening because most people tend to cluster together geographical areas they are not too familiar with, which makes people from the clustered area frustrated, and the clustering person very ignorant. There is a wide array of cultures around the globe that we probably know nothing of, so making groups and assumptions disregards and simplifies all these cultures while offending and angering those who are being mislabeled. Or that is how I feel.

Every time someone assumes I am, let’s say, Spanish, I feel a pang of pain, because their assumption means that my actual ethnicity is not relevant or known enough. When I get fed-up and tell people that I am Armenian, they often mishear or misinterpret and think I said Romanian, which is a far more familiar country to them. It just hurts to hear how little people know about Armenia, especially considering how rich our culture is.

Let’s briefly talk about my country of origin that I have visited only once twelve years ago: we were the first people who adopted Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD. That means that almost all Armenians are very religious and that we have a lot of ancient churches and monasteries. Armenia has beautiful mountains. Mount Ararat, known from the Bible, is actually Armenian. Charles Aznavour was Armenian. Ivan Aivazovsky was Armenian. Arshile Gorky was Armenian. William Saroyan was Armenian. Kirk Kerkorkian (the billionaire) was Armenian. Cher is Armenian. System of a Down, the metal band, is Armenian. The Kardashian clan is kind of Armenian. Jamala, the winner of Eurovision 2016, apparently is half Armenian. Sona Simonian is Armenian. Name-dropping and weird flexing are very Armenian characteristics.

Other things one should know about Armenia and Armenians are the fact that we love playing chess, have our own very complicated alphabet, are generally avid alcoholics and thus the biggest party animals to exist (a very subjective opinion if you will). We also consider apricots our national fruit and the duduk our national instrument, have a big diaspora, and once, about 100 years ago, kind of survived this thing called the Armenian Genocide. If you are interested in this last historical event, I highly advise you to Google around, because I can talk about it for hours on end, but that is not the purpose of this current discussion.

Obviously, I cannot go into a whole rant about Armenia when a random street vendor in Berlin asks me where I am from in an attempt to catch my attention and make me buy something, so all I can do is huff at them and ignore their mediocre shouting in either Italian or Spanish. Humanity is curious, and this curiosity makes certain people feel as if they are entitled to ask questions that, in a way, belittle others. Maybe I am this sensitive to these questions because I am Armenian and there are not that many Armenians around, or people who know about Armenia. It just disappoints me as a person to encounter others who care about ethnicity in a superficial way and use it as a label rather than an actual conversation starter or point of genuine interest.

The disrespect towards people from smaller ethnicities is what angers me, and that oftentimes goes hand in hand with asking questions about someone’s ethnicity. I just feel so small and rushed when I have to explain more about my ethnicity, because most people are not really interested in listening to someone else for more than three minutes, especially when they know nothing about the topic this person is talking about. I know I will feel bad when someone does not know Armenia, and I want to avoid that feeling, which is why I just avoid the whole topic of ethnicity, or lie.

Do you know how easy it is to lie about your ethnicity? I can claim that I am half Georgian, 1/4th Korean, 1/8th Irish and 1/8th Brazilian and nobody would know whether I am lying or not, because there is probably someone out there who is half Georgian, 1/4th Korean, 1/8th Irish and 1/8th Brazilian. Actually, I have told people that I am French before, just because explaining me being Armenian would take too much effort, and nobody would question me if I told them I am French. I hate being put in a situation where I have to consciously try to avoid frustration and lie just to get a stranger off my back.

I am a Dutch-born Armenian. I have a Dutch passport, hence a Dutch nationality. This, however, does not matter to a lot of ‘traditionally’[3] Dutch people. They see me as an outsider, someone who does not belong with them, someone who is different even though I have been raised here, speak the language, appreciate the culture, and identify as part of the community. I do not look Dutch, and that makes people think they have the right to ask me where I am really from and why I do not have an accent when I speak Dutch. Those are examples of microinsults, a way of alienating someone in their own country by, in this case, posing questions that very clearly exclude them. A lot of non-natives in any country encounter these and other microinsults and microassaults, some even on a daily basis, and the person uttering those phrases does not register how offensive they are actually being.

We live in a global society where we encounter people from all over the world. This has created more curiosity, but with that less consideration for the other. Amsterdam, one of the smaller capital cities, counts almost 200 different ethnicities. Some of those have mixed backgrounds, which makes the whole question of ethnicity even more complicated. At the same time, others might feel sensitive about revealing their ethnicity, because of the prejudices against said ethnicity, or because of negative past experiences related to their origin. I believe that someone’s personality is superior, that is what makes someone either interesting or different or nice to interact with, and not where they are really from.

I am by no means saying that ethnicity does not matter at all. I just think it might be better not to ask people “Where are you really from?” as directly as some people do, because that question immediately creates a distance and introduces bigotry. Someone’s ethnicity does not fully define their personality, and that question in particular makes it seem as if you are going to define a person solely by their ethnicity. If you really want to know where someone is from, pay attention to the topics they talk about, engage with them, be natural. Ethnicity is something that will be brought up organically anyways, so why rush and be impatient and possibly offend someone by asking it from the get-go? At the end of the day, would it really harm you not to know someone’s ethnicity? I highly doubt so.

[1] Most recently, on Valentine’s Day, I had someone call me señorita and ask for some change.

[2] Which, ironically, is not that Armenian of me: Armenians tend to have obnoxiously big noses.

[3] As in: people who have been living here for countless generations, commonly known as ‘Hollanders’.

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