By Djenab Conde
The question “Where are you from?” is ubiquitous in modern society, and it is becoming harder and harder for me to answer in a nice, clean way.
My mother is from Beijing, China. My father was born in Kankan, the second-largest city in Guinea. They met at university in Shanghai, China, and married after graduating.
The writer Taye Selasi proposes we do away with the question and ask instead “Where are you local?” to mean “Where do you feel at home?”
People could tell I was black, but black with what? When people asked me, they wanted to categorize me, to figure out my composition, as if the ingredients making me who I am are as simple as sugar, spice and everything nice.
Back then, each time I answered I felt I was on the defensive. Yes, I’m black, but I’m also all of these other experiences that make me who I am. And I felt I had to unload all of this to be a “better black person.”
Messed up, right?
I was clearly “other,” and not an easily distinguishable “other” either.
I wasn’t yet confident enough in myself to know that I don’t owe anyone anything. I don’t have to prove my worth. I can just be.
Acceptance is the first step to recovery, and mainstream media certainly don’t help black and brown people feel great about themselves.
In Morocco, where I currently live, although people are notoriously nosy, I can easily blend in because the spaces are less overwhelmingly white.
(Disclaimer: less white does not mean less racist. Basically every country is racist. In white spaces — almost anywhere, but specifically America and Europe — I was clearly “other,” and not an easily distinguishable “other” either, due to my racial ambiguity.)
In Morocco, when I am walking around or working on my laptop in a cafe, just being me, I’m no more bothered than any other woman who dares venture outside the home. When I open my mouth and people hear not Arabic but a French that sounds a bit different, their curiosity is sparked.
People almost always end with “Welcome to Morocco!” And I think they mean it, too. It’s not like at Yale or in Scotland when people asked me the question because I looked different from others or they wanted to know how I got there.
In those instances, being a black woman didn’t seem enough, and I had to pull on my other experiences, my travels and my Chinese heritage. See? I am interesting. I do belong here.
I now revel in seeing how little I can give away. I am still very proud of my Chinese, Guinean, black and American heritage, but no one has a right to know me, and not everyone will get to know me, nor will I get to know everyone.
The taxi driver who takes me to aerial yoga has no right to know that I was born in Beijing, where my mom’s family still lives. The taxi driver who tries to rip me off has no right to know that I spent half of first grade in Cagnes-sur-Mer. The waiter has no right to know that my favorite mangoes were those from my neighbor’s backyard in Conakry. Almost everyone will never know, and that’s okay.
Beijing is home, although I will never have a Chinese passport again. Ohio is home, although I used to be ashamed of you. Guinea is home, although I haven’t been back in more than 15 years. La Côte d’Azur is home, although I have never lived there for more than a few months at a time. Yale is home, although I know that not everyone of color feels as positively about it. Casablanca will be home, although I can never be truly myself here, happily roaming the streets in platforms, a crop top and a miniskirt.
Where I am from is the sum of my experiences.
Where I am going is not yet decided. But there will be more homes to add to my collection and more dismay for those who expect a nice, clean answer about where I am from.
Where I am now is knowing that I have never been prouder to be who I am: a black woman … with a little something else mixed in.
Djenab Conde is a recent graduate of Yale College. She is currently on a fellowship in Casablanca, Morocco, working with a non-profit that seeks to increase media literacy among young women. She will be attending University of California Berkeley law school next year. Born in Beijing, she has lived in Conakry, Guinea; Cagnes-sur-Mer, France; St-Andrews, Scotland; New Haven, Connecticut; and Columbus, Ohio.