WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
by Nicola Webb
The face that reflected back was an oval shape. The skin a tan light brown, with slight olive tones. Deep-set hazel brown eyes – although, if you looked closely, there was a hint of green. Below was a small, rounded nose, a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge, and finishing everything off, a full set of lips, which were currently painted a deep red. Vanessa looked at her reflection, admiring the natural waves in her long, dark hair. The whole combination was like a geographical, genetic painting – the strokes of her oriental heritage sweeping amongst the dashes of Caucasian English.
‘Where are you from?’
There were giggles, a group of seven year olds smiling, their eyes lit up by their grins. The coach had just arrived back at school, and it was bustling, children getting ready to leave, the teacher busy handing out coats and bags.
There was a pause.
‘I’m from here, same as you.’ Vanessa’s voice was loud, certain. But also confused. Why would they ask this question? They all went to the same school and they all lived in the same little town since they were born. Surely this was obvious to her classmates.
One boy sniggered, titling his head to one side, blonde floppy hair covering his forehead. The others look at him, clearly following his lead.
‘No you’re not. You’re Chinese.’ An explosion of laughter, the children looking at each other delightedly, and then staring at her with a new found curiosity, like she was an alien.
Vanessa cheeks went pink. She wasn’t Chinese. But she was vaguely aware that she was different. What she didn’t realise was that it was something worth giggling over, something the other children noticed. She had never given it much thought. Until now.
‘No I’m not.’
‘Yes you are. You’re a chink.’
Vanessa’s eyes bulged. She didn’t know what that word meant, but somehow, in the roots of her chest, she knew it was something bad. The children continued to giggle, white faces staring back at her. She turned away, staring out the window to the playground where her Mum was waiting – she could see the grey stretch of concrete easily. The other parents spoke in groups, but her Mum was on her own, like an outsider, looking small in her winter coat. She realised something there and then: her Mum was different and so was she. But only today did she realise it might not be a good thing. Her suspicious guard was born that day, and although invisible, it was tough.
‘Where are you from?’
Vanessa ignored the question, staring at the clothes rail in front of her. The shop was full; students lured in by the cheap clothes.
She moved away slightly. She had noticed the man looking at her for the last few minutes as she wandered around the shop – at first, she thought it was because she had a large basket full of items and he suspected her of stealing. She noticed his uniform; he was the security guard. But once he spoke she realised. Her stomach went a little queasy.
He was persistent. She looked at him under dark brows, which were burrowed in a knit of uncertainty.
‘I’m from around here,’ she said, knowing it was not the answer he wanted. She waited, her hand still on the rack of clothes. She gripped onto a fluffy jumper, almost as a pathetic attempt at protection.
‘No, no,’ he said, shaking his head. He looked about forty years old and it made Vanessa cringe. She was only nineteen. He looked at her intently. ‘Where are you really from?’
Vanessa sighed. She was used to this question but it never failed to annoy her. She wasn’t a creature in a circus. She always felt weary of the eyes of strangers – especially men. Were they trying to figure out where she was from or were they looking at her with no particular motive? It made Vanessa suspicious, self-conscious and extremely … self-aware.
But she also knew there was only one way to get rid of the attention. So she told him.
His eyes shone with understanding. ‘How interesting. Fascinating.’ He continued to stare, as if she were a painting in a museum, or a sculpture purposely designed to encourage curiosity and uncomfortable stares from passers-by.
Vanessa frowned, giving a small smile, her need to be polite taking over. ‘Thanks.’ She then turned swiftly, dropped the basket full of clothes onto the floor and walked out of the shop.
‘Where are you from?’
The music was booming from inside the club, the sound vibrating onto the pavement outside. Vanessa’s colleagues were gathered in a group, drinking, chatting, smoking. A cluster of unknown men had edged their way closer, attracted to some of the women.
Three of them had somehow gotten closer to Vanessa. She looked to her left, where she had been speaking to two of her friends, but only now had she noticed they’d gone inside to buy more drinks.
‘Hey I asked you a question.’ One of the men was leering at her, his words slightly slurred. In an instant, her guard went up; suspicion filled her dark eyes and the warm, tipsy feeling she had suddenly went ice cold.
He was wearing a white polo shirt, a large silver watch on his wrist. She could feel his eyes move from her face down to her legs. His two buddies grinned.
Vanessa didn’t answer.
‘You’re like, err, Japanese right?’ The man grinned, the other two smirking in unison. Vanessa felt anger rise through her cheeks, and without meaning to, she rolled her eyes. Were these people so ignorant that they simply generalised an entire continent to one nationality? How was it not abundantly obvious that she was as close to being Japanese as they were?
‘No I’m not.’
‘Oh c’mon! What do you need? A visa? A green-card? Need to marry an Englishman, ey?’
They spluttered into laughter, clearing thinking this was somehow a hilarious, witty joke. Vanessa blinked, taken back. She had never experienced such outright racism before, not like this. Not this direct. She glanced once more to her side, but her friends still hadn't returned. She suddenly felt very alone, yet on the flipside, almost bitterly triumphant that her ‘racist radar’ was working.
She got up, ignoring them. Angry at herself for blinking back tears. She pushed herself firmly back with her friends, who were blissfully unaware of the exchange. One of them noticed her tearful expression.
‘Are you ok?’ Her friend mouthed.
But before Vanessa could speak, she felt a tap on her shoulder.
‘Hey, look, I’m sorry about that.’ The man in the white polo top was back. He stood unsteadily, swaying slightly to one side as he looked at Vanessa. ‘It was only a bit of banter.’
Vanessa glared at him.
‘It was a just a joke, no harm done.’ He paused, looking at her closely. ‘But seriously, where are you from?’