Where are you from?
I’m nominating this as the most frequently asked question in Dubai. There are some strong contenders, like: How many children do you have? and How old are you?—which are often asked in succession, after a brief Hello, of me only—not my husband—and which I’ll explore more in a post I’ve been drafting called What’s It Like to Be a Woman in the Middle East?
Originally, this post was called, They Hate Americans There, Don’t They? But that’s not really a question. However, since I heard that a lot before we moved, the short answer: No.
So, given it’s gender neutrality, the fact that’s it’s a legit inquiry, and I’ve heard other people get asked this question, let’s give first-place to: Where Are You From?
When we first moved here, I didn’t know what to say. How broad or specific? What phrase would be the least offensive? Should I lie (—because they hate Americans here, right)?
We checked into our hotel the first night: where are you from? The next morning, the Metro ticket seller: where are you from? The taxi driver—most taxi drivers—where are you from? The staff at DKC, servers at most restaurants, people I stop to ask directions…
The serious Russian property agent I met our 5th day here during our apartment search. I started with, the United States. She asked, where? Southern California. Oh? Los Angeles. OH! Everyone, she believed, from Los Angeles was rich, skinny, blonde, lived in mansions with pools and ocean views, and partied all the time. I tried to explain the quiet suburbia of Burbank—our tree-lined street, the view of the mountains, the 45-minute drive to the ocean. Nope, the movies and tv shows, she said: everyone lives in palaces by the ocean.
Alfredo’s coworker answers with, Hollywood—cuts to the chase, to this idea, ideal.
The property agent we met the next day was in her early 20s from Sri Lanka. I answered confidently with California. Is the country of California tropical? It’s warm. Like this warm? she gestured to the Dubai air. Well, it’s a bit cooler, but Southern California is a desert, too. Are there camels in the country of California? No camels. What animals do you have? Coyotes. She gasped. And hawks, like falcons. NO—I hate birds—I’m afraid of them!
America. Maybe—as much as California would like to think of itself as a country (complete with rivalries North & South, and hawks not falcons)—maybe I should say America.
Where are you…Are you from France? He had a very impressive camera around his neck and a motorcycle helmet in his hand. We were leaning against the rail of the bridge, the best view for photos, looking down at the start line for the camel races. No, but thank you. (I look French! That’s a compliment, oui?) Not French? Not French. Are you…where are you…from? America. HA–America! I saw you and I thought…what’s the word?…not beautiful… my English is not so good …I thought you were from France, but America—you are even more… strong!
[Strong: aggressive, courageous, fierce, firm, forceful, intelligent, intense, severe, tenacious, tough, vehement, brave, eager, gutsy, independent, iron-willed, pushy, resourceful, self-assertive, wicked, zealous]
What I’m realizing when people ask me this is: What kind of white person are you? Are you French, British, German, Russian, Australian … I’ve been told I could pass for Northern Jordanian, Egyptian—it all depends on where they’re from / what they know / what they want me to be. And, sort of—in short—America / American isn’t an option people think of first. Hate, in relation to America, hasn’t factored into any conversation I’ve had.
[Side note: We met a gallery owner the other day. He’s Serbian. Spent time in NYC, California…asked us where we were from. I said Los Angeles. Alfredo proudly said San Francisco. The guy said, oh, I can tell, you’re nicer! (gah) The SF rivalry of LA extends to here.]
One of our guide books says that Dubai is around 98% expats—from all over the world. Because of this, Where are you from? is a popular question. Because of this, there are prejudices. I’ve heard people talk negatively about cultures other than their own. (Go ahead, cue People are people.)
We live in Dubai. Dubai, if you’ve looked at a map of the world, is in the Middle East. The Middle East, as you probably know, has a certain reputation relating to tolerance and acceptance. Dubai is in the pupil of the eye of the storm of the Middle East, meaning, it’s different. “On 2 December 1971, Dubai, together with Abu Dhabi and five other emirates, formed the United Arab Emirates … During the 1970s, Dubai continued to grow from revenues generated from oil and trade … Dubai [continues] to focus on free trade and tourism …” After the economic collapse in 2009, and thanks to the leadership of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, today, Dubai is booming again. Dubai has overtaken Heathrow as the busiest airport for international passengers, Dubai: with its malls and malls and malls and shopping and fashion and festivals (combined into the Dubai Shopping Festival, the internationally acclaimed festival and one of the best shopping experiences in the world); Dubai: with its record of breaking world records—and plans to break more; Dubai: with its galleries and support of the arts; Dubai: the superlative, the premier, the top… you don’t become all that by being xenophobic.
I grew up in a whitewhitewhite small town where words like African-American, Mexican, Asian, vegetarian, gay, Buddhist… weren’t in most people’s vocabulary. I grew up in the kind of white that inspires videos like, If Asians Said the Stuff White People Say and its sequel If Black People Said the Stuff White People Say — which reminded me of moving from whitesmalltown to Brooklyn (pre, very much pre, hipster—read: white—gentrification) and having my dorm neighbor say, You have blonde hair growing straight out of your head! In full disclosure, and possibly in some sense to keep balance, weeks later I asked a classmate how she washed her dreads.
But you have to ask about culture. The trick is how. Here are 12 Things Never to Say to an Asian Woman—#1: Where are you from? #11 is funny. For more, here’s a guideline on How to Ask Someone About Their Ethnicity Without Being an Asshole. No one’s been an asshole about it here—even if conversations jump directly to this most frequently asked question (which I prefer over How many children do you have?). Curiosity, as the comments in this article point out, is what drives this question.
What’s your name? How old are you? Where are you from?