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“But where are you really from?” An exploration of identity and belonging

Coach Mandeep Mudhar by Mandeep Mudhar
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By Mandeep Mudhar and Jenny Stapleton

Inspired by events spurring the Black Lives Matter movement further forward in 2020, this thought-piece explore concepts of identity, belonging, and connection, starting from our own personal experiences and perspectives.

“But where are you really from?”. This is a question I, Jenny, get asked a lot when I first meet people. Most people start off with ‘Where are you from’, which leaves me feeling anxious because I don’t really know what they are asking – where I live, where I was born, where I grew up or where my parents are from – as for me they all have different answers. At least when they ask, ‘Where are you really from’, I know they want to know about my heritage. However, that isn’t a simple answer that fits neatly into one sentence, for me either. I usually start with saying my father is English, and then have to clarify that yes he is white, shock! Then I go on to explain that my mother is from Guyana. Most people don’t know where that is or anything about it, so then that takes several more sentences to explain where it is, the language spoken and the culture. This is usually met with confused looks and the statement, “But you look Asian / Indian”. So, then I have to go into the whole history of Guyana, the different races there and how they got there. That’s a whole different article, but basically when people hear Caribbean they think black, when in fact that’s not always the case. There are six different races in Guyana for example, and my mother is Indo-Caribbean.

Then the question of where I was born may come up, which adds another layer to my identity as its not England or Guyana but, surprisingly to many, Australia. Then people are interested as to how and why I was born in Australia, which requires more explanation. The way I answer this question has evolved over time, especially as I learnt more myself about my own heritage. Sometimes I think, do I need to go into all this detail and explain it all to everyone I meet? I could answer with a simple, “Brighton” but I don’t feel like I’m fully from there or that I fit in 100%. As although I have an English name, English accent, English father and have spent most my life in this country my skin colour and mixed background leads to the treatment and feeling of ‘otherness’, such as the question ‘Where are you really from?’.

However if I go to, or speak with, other Australians or Guyanese, while I have aspects of the cultures I don’t quite fit in there either as I’m not fully part of the culture and to them, I am English. So where do I fit in? Where do I belong? I know I’m not the only one from a mixed background or who have parents from elsewhere to where they live, but I’ve yet to meet anyone outside of my family who has the exact mix as me. This can be quite isolating and lonely and leads to feeling like you need to ‘explain yourself’ to people that you meet, and that no one fully understands you.

Now, if I, Mandeep, tell the truth, I’ve never felt fully connected to any particular part of my background – and that was a struggle growing up. In some ways, I admired those with a “clearer” or “simpler” answer to the question in the title for this article. Being a first-generation England-born child of immigrant parents, parents of Indian descendant but from East Africa, not all people understood how saying that I’m a British Indian (as per options on Equal Opportunity forms) ignores a big chunk of my culture. To my white school friends I wasn’t really English, to my (non – East African) family friends I wasn’t fully Indian, to my cousins overseas I was Bri’ish, and to those kids in the temple or at community events I wasn’t Punjabi enough. At times I was called names that implied that I betrayed my race or culture. Working internationally for a good chunk of time, I got used to people assuming my origin before I opened my mouth. When people have asked me the question, “where are you really from?”, I often felt that it came from one of two places, 1) a genuine curiosity of what is sometimes seen as exotic or unusual, or 2) a need to quickly file me under a particular broad category for easy future reference.

It took me a long time to explore my identity, understand what belonging felt like, and feel connected to anything enough to call it mine. For me, belonging is feeling like I can and want to be a part of something bigger than me, and that I have something to offer. I feel connected to people based on their values, and how they choose to act on them, and to places based on what they offer the soul. I cannot answer definitively what my identity it – it is what I am feeling at a specific particular time; the beauty is that I have many points to draw from, some of which I have mentioned here, as well as so much more that this article cannot include. But, what is most important to me, is that I do not feel the need to define my identity – what is important is that I feel connected with people in order to share, and empathise, and also out of solidarity. This is some of what the BLM has influenced me to contemplate.

So, where am I really from? Loving parents.

Now, where does this leave us? Bringing together the “otherness”, the confusion, the detachment, and elements of imposter syndrome that both Jenny and I have felt through our different (but not unique) experiences (and let’s admit, we still do feel these), maybe there is another way of looking at this. How can we turn this into a positive perspective, rather than a negative and inevitably harmful one? In this day and age, it is becoming increasingly apparent and accepted that we do not need to fit neatly into a box of one identity. Is there something about those that don’t feel like they belong, or those that have a pretty diverse background that brings us all together? And is this not the future? Maybe we, and others like us, can embrace the melting pot of different cultures that makes us individual and unique.

Do our reflections and experiences resonate with you? What have you been exploring and digesting about your identity and feeling of belonging recently? What have you been moved to say or do differently as a result?

Feel free to get in touch. Contact Mandeep through Coach Me Free or Linked In. Follow Jenny Stapleton on Instagram @Jennymstapleton.

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