I like this question. This is a great opportunity to engage with the person asking you questions.
You can play around with the answer and the person asking the question, or you can flirt or joke around. Sometimes I do all three. Always with a smile.
Like the sugar that brings down the medicine, a smile makes the answer more palatable.
Maybe I should give a candy at the same time. In fact, that’s exactly what I do when I fly for my show, Tickbox. Tunnocks gave me cookies to hand out.
Sometimes, however, I wonder if the people asking the “really about” question ever realize the impact it has on the person receiving it.
As someone who is proudly Scottish, who came here at the age of three (from Pakistan after a war), grew up in Scotland, went to university here and married a Scot (someone one had to), it’s annoying to get asked that question over and over again.
I feel like they are questioning my Scottish identity, my love for a country that has given me so much and allowed me to thrive. I feel like they are questioning my right to belong in a place I call home.
Am I not allowed to feel Scottish if I am not white?
As a curious person, I completely understand why people ask the question. We have an innate natural curiosity for people. We are naturally curious about our fellow human beings, which is a nice quality to have. I consider us all David Attenboroughs, but interested in the human race. Can you hear him ask that question?
The Scots have taken South Asian cuisine to heart and are now showing us how to make the best Chicken Tikka Masala. This is a dish I only hear about in an Indian restaurant or take away.
These “classic names” are not native to the Asian subcontinent, but were created for Westerners, to make it easier for them to request a spicy dish. Like so many Asians, I have no idea what a vindaloo is. It’s not that I don’t know Pakistani food, we just call it a different name.
I remember the first time I was asked “that” question.
I was at a party in Edinburgh with middle class people and a dentist asked me where I was from.
I said “Edinburgh” because I had lived here for 15 years at that time. “No,” he said, “Where are you really, really from?” So I said I was born in Pakistan but grew up in Scotland. He then continued, lowered his voice, leaned forward and added an extra “really”. I was surprised. What did he mean? Did he think I was an alien, a zombie or an American?
“No” he answered his own question, “you are from the WEST”.
Now, even I, with an O-level C in Geography (yes, I’m that old), know that Pakistan is in the East.
He continued “You’re from Glasgow”.
So it turns out that it’s better to be a Weegie than an Alien Zombie of Pakistani origin.
Since then, I always smile when asked this question. However, I think Scottish audiences are becoming aware that it might irritate some of us who have better skin color than them, so they find more intriguing ways to ask the same question.
When people ask me “Where are you really from?” I now know that the intent behind this question is not always based on the color of my skin. As someone who grew up in Glasgow but has come through the cultural divide (and the M8) and now lives in Edinburgh longer than anywhere else in the world, I know there is more to this question than there is doesn’t seem like it.
I like to play the mystery game and find out why they are asking this question.
Like an Asian Miss Marple, I seek the truth. What is the intention behind the question? I like finding clues and I think I would be a great Miss Marple. It’s a role I would love to play and if Kenneth Branagh can play Poirot then why not?
I’ve had so many great conversations taking this approach and we always leave the conversation with a light heart and a smile. Isn’t that the purpose of life? To give joy, sprinkle some magic as you travel. Now I sound like Mary Poppins – another role I’ve missed.
“Is that a West End accent I hear?” asked the man from Aberdeen.
“No, South Side actually,” and the man smiled.
Sometimes the answer to my answer surprises me. I was talking to a woman at a party (seems like I spend a lot of time at parties, honestly not). She was white and said she was born in Pakistan and lived there until she was five. She wanted to try her Urdu on men and see what I thought. We laughed so hard, her trying to remember the words and me responding in my Scottish Pakistani accent.
People like to feel connected. They want to feel like we have something in common and that’s why this question is being asked.
I take it as a nice gesture, people open their hearts and minds and offer the hand of friendship. And I’m always ready to accept. Well, in Pakistani culture, it’s rude to refuse anything.
Growing up in Scotland while retaining some Pakistani values has been interesting. As stated, when offered food, as a Pakistani you never, ever refuse tea, coffee, samosas…or any food. If you also don’t take something in a tub of margarine, you will offend your host.
I remember doing diabetes outreach work and meeting Pakistanis, who are at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes. They constantly offered cream cakes, pakoras and samosas…and of course, as an NHS diabetes expert, I knew the hidden dangers in every delicious bite, but as a Pakistani, I knew I couldn’t refuse.
What motivates me is the authenticity of my story. My father won a scholarship to do a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Strathclyde and my parents were delighted to move to the wonderful country of Scotland. Both my parents were university graduates and spoke good English but had not learned Glasgow.
Although my father was a scientist, my mother was an arts graduate and they loved the arts. As a child I was taken to the old Pitlochry Theater and dreamed of being on stage and playing Lady Bracknell… I have a lot of handbags.
Growing up with the arts was magical. Bollywood and Pakistani films at home when the video was first released; before it was the cinema on Sunday, because it was the day of rest in Scotland.
If you want to learn more about all of this, and so much more, come see my Tickbox show. It’s a story that will leave you thinking but optimistic about the positive impact immigration has had on all of us. Plus you get a Tunnocks tea cake.
● Lubna Kerr: Tickbox, Summerhall (location 26), 8:55 p.m., August 16-28, www.summerhall.co.uk and www.edfringe.com