Fernando Sdrigotti: Where are you from?

GMT 11:49 Friday ,10 January 2014

 Migrant Voice - Fernando Sdrigotti: Where are you from?

Fernando Sdrigotti

Where are you from? I can’t think of any other question that I’ve heard with more frequency than this one – at least during these 12 years that I’ve lived in London. I’ve always found it strange. Perhaps because hearing that question made me aware of me “not being from here”. Being an Argentine I had – wrongly or mischievously – been told that I was a bit from here, less Latin American, more European, blah blah. Of course, I wasn’t – I know that now. It took one migration officer for me to realise that. What hadn’t initially sunk in did so during my first job interview, or my first experience with “dating” (spiteful word), or even the first time I called back home and had to think of my mother’s number preceded by an international code. Not being from here affects your everyday life. This happens to any deterritorialised person. Yet the way we experience not being from here has shifted radically, here in the UK, in 2014. During the years I worked behind bars I used to hear that question a lot – Where are you from? Alcohol might help people to loosen their tongues, it might enhance their inquisitiveness. Where are you from? At first I used to answer happily, feeling somehow exotic, different, part of London’s cosmopolitanism: a chico latino working the bars at night, trying to write during the day. After a while it started to get on my nerves, I was bored by it. Perhaps trying to show the meaninglessness of the question I would answer outlandish things like “I’m from Japan”, or “Libya”. I would invent strange combinations, like “I’m born in Argentina but my parents are Icelandic-Palestinians”, things like that, delivered with a poker face. Then I even started inventing my own countries. For example, Verde Islands, a former British outpost 700 miles from Chile’s coast. What language do you speak? Verdean, it’s a mix of English, Spanish and Easter Island dialect. Some people would buy it. I had fun. I don’t know if these replies went to prove anything. Maybe they were betraying a certain resentment at being reminded of my “differential” status with so much frequency – I was still coming to terms with not being European, you see. I didn’t understand – yet – how much not being from here actually means, how this is something that you’ll carry with you all the time you spend here, that if you ever forget this you will be reminded by a prying good Samaritan with stronger roots here than you. Yet annoying as this question might have been back then I never felt scared answering it. Irritated, yes. Scared, not. These days I don’t get asked that much. For one thing, I’ve stopped working behind bars. Also, as a lecturer this is not the kind of things students are likely to ask, or it’s pretty obvious from the things I teach. Or maybe they are just too concerned about leaving university with £50k to pay to be inquisitive about anything but their courses. Maybe it’s to do with a change of career but maybe it’s also because I all but stopped talking in public. It sounds a bit extreme, but yes, lately I’ve started to grow more and more uncomfortable when it comes to opening my mouth in public, with letting my accented English tell my interlocutor that I am not from here. Because not being from here has changed meaning. I’ve stopped speaking to people in pubs. I’ve stopped talking on the phone when I’m on the bus. I never talk to cabbies any more. I don’t want people to ask me where I am from. I stick to the people I know, I started to move in closer and closer circles. Why? Simple: I could find myself dealing with one of the many that would rather not have me here, for whatever reason they choose to rather have me somewhere else. Not being from here, as we all know, is nowadays one of the emptiest signifiers, waiting to be filled with whatever nonsense requires a vessel, at any given moment in time. Every place needs scapegoats and smoke curtains and sadly immigrants – along with the poor et al – have come to fulfill that role. A few months back I was drinking near Euston with some friends. A motley crew made up of a South African woman, an Irish man, a Chilean guy, co-editors at Minor Literature[s], friends, all not from here, some dark-skinned, all accented. Next to us was seated a group of young guys – one of them was wearing an England t-shirt. By all means they were English, if after 12 years I can tell an English accent. They kept staring at us in silence – their looks weren’t very friendly. Now this could have very well been coincidental, pub attitude, testosterone overload, lack of a television screen, and nothing more – but we all started to feel very uncomfortable. At some point we literally stopped talking. Soon we got up, left, and went drinking somewhere else. We joked about it. I told my friends that it was our fault for looking/sounding strange, in these delicate times. Somebody mentioned that maybe we looked like a group of terrorists. We laughed. But I know for a fact we were deeply saddened by this. We were feeling uncomfortable being surrounded by locals (whatever that is) and they were feeling uncomfortable being surrounded by us. Or so we thought. And the fact that maybe this was all just an illusion means that on that night the Daily Mail and other fear-mongering platforms had won. We were put in exactly the same place they wanted us to be: we felt as if not being from here was a problem. Uncomfortable. Silenced. The meaning of an utterance depends on the context; where are you from? has changed meaning in recent years.  If before I was perplexed by this question, or if I found it strange for people to be so interested about something that I thought of as a bit trivial, today I’m tempted to read an agenda between the lines. I dread the question. And, as I said before, I don’t get to answer it so often any more. I know for a fact that some of us can’t avoid this question by staying quiet. I know that for some of us the question might entail more dangerous things than an uncomfortable moment. I also know that for all of us silence is not the answer. If we stay quiet, they win. If we accept that discomfort is the only way of being here while not being from here they win. Nationalism of the kind agitated by ignorants and cynics is nothing but a balloon full of hot air. By presenting immigration as a problem, they can find peace. It fails to account for the myriad complex processes at play in the present. A complex system appears to have been explained. Problems identified. Solutions attempted. Until a new fault in the system kicks in. And another scapegoat becomes handier. This is the crux of the matter for politicians needing to find a scapegoat for the faults in a system manufactured to redistribute wealth. A system inherently faulty. Today the scapegoat is the migrant. Tomorrow this or that other strata of society. I’m not sure about you but I’m personally not going anywhere. I’ve spent the last 12 years of my life calling this place home. I don’t feel the need to ask for permission to do it. I don’t feel the need to enumerate my contribution to this society. I don’t want tolerance (another spiteful word). I just hope that balloon of hot air will crash against the ground very soon, so that those concerned about the state of this place can see what’s been causing the damage. So that those of us who’ve made a home here can continue with our lives. Answering the where are you from? question with irritation. But not with fear. Fernando Sdrigotti has published widely both in Spanish and English, contributing to 3:AM Magazine, Psychogeographic Review, Dandelion Arts Journal, Migrant Voice, Open Democracy, Utrop, and Revista eSe among others. His first book, Tríptico, was published in 2008; he has two forthcoming books, Ordinary Stories in Minor English (his first collection of short stories) and a novel in Spanish, Shetlag [sic]. He is also the editor in chief of Minor Literature[s] online magazine. He was born in Rosario, Argentina and now lives and works in London. http://www.migrantvoice.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=393%3Afernando-sdrigotti-coming-for-your-jobs-your-benefits http://www.migrantvoice.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=384%3Afernando-sdrigotti-on-immigration-visibility-and-electioneering&catid=104%3Afernando-sdrigotti&Itemid=5

 

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