I wrote this post a few months ago, but with the Olympics just having come to an end I thought it would be a good time to finally share it.
“Where are you from?”
This has become one of my most dreaded questions. Naturally, considering how many people I meet through work and friends and other activities, it comes up often. Whenever someone asks me it, I start to wonder how much of my life story I will have to tell.
It seems like a simple and innocent enough question, and in a multicultural city like Copenhagen it is bound to come up often. Most people don’t have to hesitate when they answer. I’ve started giving different answers based on the context.
But really, where do I come from? You could say Canada, because it’s where I grew up and went to school. There are so many cultures in Canada that once you’re in the country, among Canadians, people often say they are part-something-not-Canadian. So in Canada, I was always the German one. After all, I was born in Germany, spoke German at home, went back to visit family every year or two, and I have a German passport.
When I would travel, even using my German passport, I was Canadian most of the time. It was where I was living, plus it sounded more exotic to be doing a Eurotrip as a foreigner. But when I met other German people, I was suddenly also a German, relating to them and sometimes switching from English to German.
When I moved to Germany, I immediately adopted my German persona. I had left Canada willingly and I also happened to arrive in my second home during one of the few times the citizens feel allowed to show patriotism: the World Cup. I got a German driver’s licence, a German job, and started feeling included in the national inside jokes (Atemlos! durch die Nacht!!).
Then I moved to Copenhagen. I brought my Canadian flag to hang on the wall. I received the first stamp in my German passport by using it to travel outside the EEA when I went to Egypt. I started an English-speaking job. I wore my Bayern Munich jersey with pride during Champions League matches.
At this point it would seem that I am equal parts Canadian and German. When my international colleagues and I talk at lunch and compare the way things are “back home” in our countries, I speak on behalf of both Canada and Germany depending on the topic. When someone I’m going to have a longer conversation with asks me where I’m from I say “Canada” first, to explain my accent, and then add “but also Germany”, to show that I don’t just speak English.
It’s getting tiring adding long explanations to everything. I’m hesitant about using the word “home”. When I talk about the little town in Germany where all of my possessions are, along with one half of my family, I say “where my mom lives”. When I talk about Edmonton, I say “back in Canada”.
But the other day in a noisy bar, someone asked me where I was from. With no time to elaborate above the din of the music, I thought about it briefly, and decided to say Germany. Maybe next time I’ll say Canada. Who knows.
In some ways, the question “where are you from” really refers to your identity. Where do you identify with? I could add many other aspects when I answer the question, like how I spent time living in Sweden or how my childhood obsession with England means I understand a lot about British culture. And once someone asks me the question outside of Copenhagen, I can add my experiences in Denmark to the mix.
I’m sure I’m not the only person that struggles with this. I’m lucky that the countries I come from are well-respected. Most importantly, I pick up a little piece of every place I live, making me a lot more culturally aware and accepting of differences.
Maybe one day I’ll just refer to myself as a world citizen.