In just a few weeks, I am due to give birth to my first child. He will be a dual citizen, given that my husband is German and I am Canadian. As it starts to sink in for me that my son will obtain German nationality upon birth, various questions come to mind.
When he gets older, will he be asked ‘where are you from?’ as I have in the 11 years I’ve called Germany home? And will be he told he speaks very good German? Or, will people automatically assume he is German, despite how he looks and the colour of his skin?
I’ve come to believe there’s a good chance he, too, will be confronted with the dreaded ‘where are you from’ question. Worse still, that he’ll have to defend his Germanness. And this makes me very, very sad.
In my op-ed for The Local in 2018, I explained why being asked this question can be exasperating. Why not, as a possible alternative, ask someone to tell you about themself? That way, the person can answer in a way that’s most comfortable and authentic for them.
Born in Canada to Filipino parents, I describe myself as a Canadian who feels European. But when people press further (as they often do) and ask ‘where are you actually from?’ it can be downright offensive.
In Germany, asking someone where they’re from is based on the assumption that they aren’t German. No matter how well I speak German, and even if I get German citizenship one day, I’ll always be considered a foreigner here. But I won’t accept this for my son.
Several Afro-Germans share their stories of being made to feel like foreigners in their own country in this recent documentary about racism in Germany. Their experiences are similar to those of other Afro-Germans whom I quoted in my article from 2018. It’s astonishing that nothing has changed in this regard in all this time.
READ ALSO: What German’s really think about the country’s racism problem
A German-Kurdish friend recently told me that he’s also asked where he’s from. While Kahra isn’t as bothered by the question as I am, he points out that when he was studying in the USA, people simply accepted it when he said he was German.
This brings to mind my upbringing in Toronto. In the 22 years I lived there, I don’t recall ever having to defend my identity. Most of the kids at my elementary school were also people of colour whose parents were immigrants. Yet we all considered ourselves Canadians.
Looking to the future, I’d like for my son to have a similar experience. In an ideal world, he’d attend a school surrounded by many other kids of colour, and no one would ask him ‘where are you from?’ Disappointingly, however, Germany’s just not there yet.
For one of my Berlin-based Filipino friends, settling in Germany’s most multicultural city was a no-brainer. “I don’t want my children to feel like a minority even if they are,” Jenny said, explaining that the kids at her daughter’s kindergarten represent all corners of the globe.
Still, I doubt the chances of my son being accepted as German will be any higher in the Hauptstadt. Rapper and Berliner, Nura, is yet another German who’s been vocal about how frustrating it is to respond to ‘where are you actually from?’
It’s not that I despise living in Germany. In fact, quite the opposite. Having spent the majority of my adult life here, I’m grateful for the high quality of life it offers. From becoming sportier to adopting its direct communication style, Deutschland has changed me for the better.
Overall, I do feel welcome in this country. I wouldn’t have stayed this long if I didn’t. The other day, I was caught off guard when I was mistaken for being German for the very first time. It made me think that maybe there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s 2023. Isn’t it finally time for Germany to accept that people of all colours with diverse backgrounds can be Germans too? Maybe when there are more and more kids in Germany with mixed backgrounds, asking one another ‘where are you from?’ will naturally fall out of favour.
But since that could be decades from now, I simply cannot wait. If Germany gets to that point, I will have already moved somewhere else in the world, and my child – I hope – will have grown up in a place where he felt acceptance and belonging.
Have you had a similar experience to Shelley in Germany? Share your own stories and views in the comments section below.
I came to Germany 26 years ago from Scotland, becoming a citizen in 2015. People pick up from my German that I am foreign, but ask if I am Irish or Dutch. When I say Scottish, they are charmed, which makes me proud to be Scottish and German. I can laugh at the cliches, e.g. do I play the bagpipes or wear a kilt? So it is almost always a positive experience being asked.