Who do you think I am?

A litle over two years ago I was writing about my struggle with people’s assumptions about me in my adopted country. In that blog post, I was reflecting on the pitfalls of the not-so-innocent “where are you from?” question that many migrants like me face when they open their mouths to speak. The culprit? Doubtlessly our accents, always “exotic,” that unmistakeable tang of “I wasn’t born here” that suddenly seems to make your life history everyone else’s business.

Even though, at that point, I’d been living in Britain for upwards of twelve years, I was still getting asked where I was from, why I’d moved to the U.K., and whether I was planning to stay on, by complete strangers, with some frequency.

As we all know, the past two years haven’t occassioned much socialisation of any kind, so for a while I was able to stop worrying about strangers’ curiosity. Then, governments around the world pressed “play” on life again, and social interactions resumed. I started going out again, I started travelling abroad. And I noticed a change — two, in fact. In Britain, random people stopped asking where I was from. Abroad, in other European countries, people started assuming I was British.

At first, I wasn’t quite sure what I owed this to. Had everybody read my blog post from two years ago and reconsidered their interactions? There was a likelier reason for it — my accent had changed. I’d lost some of that “unplaceable tang.” I’d apparently started to sound less foreign, more British, even to British ears. A month ago, to verify my assumption, I asked a long-time friend whether he, too, thought that my accent had changed, that I sounded less foreign. He did. As to why this has happened, it’s anyone’s guess. After all, I’ve now been living in Britain for well over a decade. (I suspect, however, that moving in with my British partner is what finally did the trick. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to show that we end up unconsciously imitating the way that others sound.)

So I should be happy, right? I no longer have to field uncomfortable questions from strangers, after all. Still, I realised this didn’t make me any happier. Navigating the world has become less stressful on some level, true. However, the issues that I pointed out in my blog post from two years ago haven’t disappeared — it’s just that I now experience them in a different way, through the lens of someone who has suddenly gained an extra privilege. It’s the very shock of this newfound privilege that makes me all the more aware of the way in which migrants — particularly migrants of certain origins, associated with specific negative stereotypes — are treated as they navigate the countries they move to (and through). Let me explain.

A few times now, as I was off sightseeing in different European countries these past two months, museum staff have asked me if I was (or made an assumption that I was) from Britain. When I confirm that (I mean, that’s where I live, and that’s where I travel from), I’m now met with more expressions of enthusiasm: “Oh, that’s great!”, or even “We love Britain, we want tourists from Britain!”

I compare that to what I used to experience a few years ago, when I was more likely to answer “I’m from Romania,” or “I come from Britain, but I’m originally from Romania”: stony silence, usually, or a follow-up question as to whether I was comfortable reading the leaflet in English.

(The reason why I now give different answers in different contexts to the “where are you from” question is for another day and another blog post, though I have lots to say about that, too, I assure you.)

Linguistic convergence, I realise, is affording me the extra privilege of not being questioned (read: “interrogated”) about my origins and my intentions, and of being well-received as a guest traveller. But this makes it all the more obvious how tricky, and possibly dangerous, it is to sound (and/or look) foreign, particularly if you turn out to be “from the wrong place.”

On this note, at the time that I’m writing this blog post, the top two Google UK search terms related to the keywords “romanians uk” are “romanian crime statistics uk” and “how many romanian in uk.”

I admit I am uneasy in this new privilege of blending in further in my adopted country, when not blending in means you’re frequently regarded with suspicion, at best. I will always remember that time when I got shouted at in the street for speaking Romanian to my parents, who had come to visit. I still occasionally get curious glances on the bus when I speak Romanian on the phone. What I am enjoying is a fragile privilege, a “right of way” that is overly-dependent on my standing out as little as possible, on people assuming that I am “one of theirs.” And it’s precisely this that makes me hyper-aware that I am not.

So if not blending in made me unhappy, and blending in makes me equally so, what do I want? The death of the stereotype, the end of assumptions — but I’m afraid it’s a long way off still.

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