In most situations here it’s standard, along with ‘how long have you been in Dubai?’, to ask the question ‘where are you from?’ when you first meet someone. I’m starting a personal campaign to get this particular question banned from all social events, and it’s not just because I don’t like answering it. (Although, when you are an Essex girl, it’s fairly easy to see why you might want to avoid the subject). Aside from the fact I think it’s the second most boring question on earth to ask someone at a Dubai dinner party, I don’t think it captures the information a person is looking for when they ask it. What will it tell you about me, to know where I spent my childhood? It allows you to put me in a box, sure – to think you know me, my ‘type’. Except it’s more likely to provide you with a stereotypical idea of me than anything real about who I am or how I grew up. I prefer the more cryptic ‘Where were you before?’; it encourages people to open up a bit, tell you something of their personal history, allow you to understand their ‘now’ a little better. ‘Where are you from?’ doesn’t really have much bearing on who I am right now. And with four decades of life behind me, where am I really from, anyway?
On the surface, it’s easy enough to answer. England. Yes, alright – Essex, to be precise. Go on, get it out of your system….you can take the girl out of Essex….hahaha….it’s part of me, I’ll give you that. But deeper beneath the surface, it’s not quite so straightforward. I didn’t grow up, get married and have kids all within the same five mile radius as my parents. Some people do, but not me. It was never for me. At the age of eight I remember driving through London with my mum and dad, falling in love with the huge Victorian mansions of South Kensington and announcing I would live there one day. Of course, South Ken was a pipe dream; I ended up in Catford. Hardly the stuff fairytales are made of, but at least it was away. That’s all I ever wanted to be, was away. Not because my life was so awful (although my family were, and still are, a little above average in terms of strange behaviour), but because I always wanted something different. Specifically, to begin with, I wanted to be in London. Drama school in New Cross seemed like a good place to start, instead of going to get a BA in Communications from Leicester university like I was supposed to – and somewhere between shutting the front door to my parent’s home and opening the one at Dallinger Road SE12, my nomadic days began. For a decade, I went through more houses than most people do in a lifetime. If I drew you a line between all the places I’ve lived in London, from Eltham to Richmond, you’d get the south circular in glorious technicolor. I didn’t stint on career changes either. Or career breaks, taken in order to get on a plane and see the world. It’s become clear to me over the years that I have the attention span of a toddler and the staying power of a chicken caught in a tornado. I am easily swayed by the prospect of adventure until the moment I get what I want and then I’m bored all over again. Shall we move to Surrey? Australia? California? Dubai? Sure. Oh, I’ve changed my mind. And back again. And once more for luck…
But all these places I have been, every house I have stayed in, they have all been home, they have all been where I’m from – a reflection of my life in that moment: the grimy flat on the Loughborough estate in Brixton where I’d stagger back to after a night of clubbing; our first purchase, a little wooden house on the river Wey, where we pottered around the garden and watched swans lay their eggs by our door; the Dubai villa we wake up in every day, filled with the gentle roar of family life. Each and every one held my hopes and dreams and shaped me, and whether for six months or four years, each place, each street, each walk home from the bus stop kept my secrets, saw my tears, heard my laughter and allowed me to feel like I belonged. So where am I from? A small village in Essex, where I grew up. London, where I studied and worked, lived, laughed and loved, for over a decade of wonderful life. The US, where we have a home, family; where a piece of my heart rests, waiting for me to return. Dubai, where I have spent my married life, given birth to my son, where I’ve finally grown up and learned so much, and had a ball doing it. Destination unknown, wherever the next adventure takes me, where I know I will make a place for myself once more.
What will my son say when people ask him the same thing? Will they even ask? Or, in a globalised world full of third culture kids, international marriages and long distance friendships, will the question finally cease to be relevant? I do hope so. I’m getting so tired of Essex girl jokes.