“Where are you from, mum?”

26 Aug

My children started preschool on Thursday.

At lunch on Friday Leila asks me, “Where are you from?”

I feel the skin on my forehead scrunch up as my eyebrows move toward each other. I catch Maher’s subtle uncomfortable movements.

“Well, we live in Chengdu.” I begin my answer as I would if anyone asks me where I’m from. “I’m Zambian and of Indian origin,” I continue. “Did someone ask you that question at school?”

“My teacher.”

“Well, you’re French.” Maher says, speaking in French as he always does with the children. He looks at me and continues on, “One of your great grandfather’s is from India. And you know where nana and nani live?”

“Zambia,” Rahul replies.

“And you know where teta, jiddo, and jiddo Raymond live right?”

“Lebalon,” Leila says.

“So you’re French, Zambian, Indian, and Lebanese,” I say.

Unconvinced with the heaviness and level of disconnection from our reality in that answer, I take solace in the fact that these two-year-olds, whose favorite foods are egg and tomato noodle soup and Sichuanese style fried spinach with rice, whose toys live in our apartment in a tall building in Chengdu, don’t yet know what the question really means, nor what we’re going on about. I stop short.

They were ready to get out of their seats and play anyway.

“Let’s go on the boat quickly, before the crocodiles get us. Come on Princess Leila.”

“Ok Prince Rahul. Let’s go to Zambia on the boat. Take your horse with you.”

Heritage plays a role of course. But how much can you really carry with you? Will R and L feel Zambian, Indian, Lebanese, and French, and respond that’s where they’re from even though they probably won’t live in any of those countries, and might not know much about the traditions, history, politics, and way of life there.

We’ve begun to celebrate Christmas with Maher’s family, and Raksha Bandan (a Hindu festival that celebrates the bond between brothers and sisters) with mine. That’s about it for family traditions.

We enjoy visiting these countries and spending time with family there. L and R have strong memories of the people we meet and places we visit. They go on fantasy trips to Paris, Zambia and “Lebalon” in the playground when they swing high in the sky, or when they ride their horses from country to country room to room in our apartment.

But then, they also trip on playing with their friends in Koh Samui, sometimes they go to the park in Hong Kong, and in the last two days their travels have taken them to Montreal.

Other than their heritage, part of it depends on where we live and what interests them. If we lived in Canada say, in time we could be considered Canadian, where in China we are always going to be lao wai or foreigners. But that’s a topic for another post, and Catherine Platt talked about that poignantly in her post White Ghosts.

How do you deal with, “Where are you from?” And how can we help our children figure this one out either from a sense of belonging, or peaceful detachment from it all?


I live in Chengdu with my husband Maher and our two-year-old twins Leila and Rahul.  I was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher until Our Little Yogis became the teachers.

9 Responses to ““Where are you from, mum?””

  1. RENUKA August 26, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

    Love it! It does get so confusing but I agree with the global child phenomenon that one your friends on fb came up with, for two year olds that might be a little deep.But the question is how important is knowing your roots? Tough one when you figure it out let me know. Right now I am just stumped with my son’s constant rambling about how brown he is?I know where it might have come from but it did make me almost fall off the couch when i first heard it.

    • natasha devalia August 26, 2012 at 9:07 pm #

      Hey Renu,
      What he’s saying about being brown in really interesting, and I can understand your reaction. I don’t know how I’d react to that. I suppose it all goes beyond nationality and roots at this point.

      I always thought of myself as Zambian (with internal debate because I am not always easily accepted as Zambian by black Zambians), until I went to Lebanon where I was repeatedly introduced as Indian, because of my colour and because it’s socially more accepted to be Indian than Zambian there. And then I’d say I was Canadian sometimes because that’s even easier. These were mainly taxi discussions and I’d try to get over with it as quickly as possible. I struggled with the pretension, for a while. Now I’m Zambian, and depending on the situation there can be more depth to the discussion. Also, I feel that it means very little to me anymore.

      In China it’s easiest to be Indian….no more discussion other than, “that’s what I thought, isn’t it very hot there and wow the ladies really dance well.” So again, it all doesn’t mean a whole lot to me either way.

      At least for these kids, they’ll need to find ways to belong, and probably in places like London, like my other friend on fb mentioned, they’d blend in more easily. But then like Shelley of Tuesday 2 says just below, the point is about being who you are regardless.

      If you have more thoughts, please share them with us!

  2. tuesday2 August 26, 2012 at 8:03 pm #

    I would suggest answering the question as simply as possible for their particular age and ability to understand. When they ask more, tell them more.

    Heritage, roots, family, and personal history all help to make us who we are. Yet, it’s what’s inside of us that truly defines who we are. Just my simple opinion… 😀

    • natasha devalia August 26, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

      Hey Shelley,
      Thanks a lot for that simply deep point. I am trying to figure out an understandable way of expressing that. It’s probably as simple as you wrote it.
      And it’s a really important point about being age appropriate –

  3. DesiValentine August 27, 2012 at 1:19 am #

    My kids have asked that question before. You know how ethnically diverse my family is – we literally span the globe. So, I tell them that we’re from Canada, because that’s where we were born. But Papa is from Jamaica, and Grandfather is from Nigeria, and great-grandfather… and so on. My daughter, now six, has more in-depth questions to ask about citizenship and what that means. We’re learning a lot, together 🙂

    • natasha devalia August 27, 2012 at 9:46 am #

      Thanks for that clear response Desi. So good to hear how others deal with this. It’s crazy how complex it all gets, and yet at the same time it adds so much richness to our worlds. In Canada many people fall into such situations I bet, and yet they can be Canadian. Wonderful!

  4. maro adjemian August 30, 2012 at 1:00 am #

    I just started teaching after a year and a half home with my daughter. On the first day of class, I ask my students to introduce themselves a bit- to tell me their name, program, and one other fact about themselves. Several students chose to tell me their background as the third “fact”… “I’m Sri Lankan”, “I’m Haitian”, “I’m Romanian”, etc. I found it interesting that when I responded by asking how long they had lived in Quebec they usually answered, “Oh, I was born here”. They have lived here their entire lives, yet their ethnic identity is still very important to them. This is 17-18 year olds I’m talking about. So it’s interesting to think about how your kids might answer the question “Where are you from?” in a few more years!

  5. jessie September 10, 2012 at 12:13 am #

    Interesting stuff and certainly what Ive been thinking about lately. Flux looks brown because Mike is half Pakestani but he doesnt identify as asian. So when Flux gets older and asks why she looks so different from me do I teach her about her Pakistani heritage?Would we be wrong not to?Neither her father nor I have a connection with the culture. But she truely is a global child, not yet one and has lived in Chengdu, Australia and England and travelled Scandinavia and Hong Kong. When we move to London this year she will live in a predominantly Indian and Pakistani area and go to Chinese Saturday school while living with her Norwegian aunt and a Portugese house mate. Its confusing to explain our intricate connections with land and people but its certainly an exceptional way to experience the world. Great blog!x jessie from CD


  1. Pre-school and a Post at Multicultural Mothering | Our Little Yogis - August 28, 2012

    […] lunch that afternoon Leila looked at me and said, “Where are you from?” I was taken aback and unprepared for that one. I wrote about it at Multicultural Mothering. Please […]

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