Image from http://goo.gl/qbVDfD
Image from http://goo.gl/qbVDfD

The majority of my blog posts focus on the experiences of being a PhD student, but less so on the actual topic.  This week’s post is on the development of my thesis topic, beginning with a question that I get asked every now and then. I was inspired to finally write this entry by Chia Suan Chong’s post on the very same question.  While we have different starting points, the “Where are you from?” question is a complicated one to unpack, considering the emotional response that it invokes.  In my version of the question, I’ve bracketed ‘really’ because it’s often the intention behind the initial question.  “Where are you from?” followed by a look of confusion caused by my answer (e.g. “I’m from Canada.”) is usually followed up by the actual question they wanted to ask: “What is your background?” / “Where were you born?” or, sometimes, the straight up “Where are you really from?”.

Now, I’m a Canadian-Filipino living in the UK.  I was born and raised in Canada and moved to the UK in 2006. So when someone asks “Where are you from?” I usually answer “Canada” because that is where I’m from. While the person asking the question usually means well, I do find it frustrating when “Canada” isn’t the answer they were expecting and so often I prepare myself for the inevitable follow up questions.  Over time, I’ve come to expect that my answer doesn’t often fit with other people’s idea of “Canadian” though, ironically, I supposedly sound like one.

Studying the concept of the English language ‘native speaker’

This PhD that I’m undertaking is a personal journey that explores the role of race and ethnicity in TESOL.  As stated in my bio, I explore the status and identity of visible ethnic minorities who consider themselves native English speaking teachers (or VEM-NESTs for short).  I’m a VEM-NEST, and in the past I’ve experienced discrimination based on my race, from having job offers revoked once I sent my photo to being paid less than other teaching staff because, as the owner of one school put it, “The students don’t think you’re a real native speaker, so they don’t want to pay more.”  Yet, I’ve been hired as a English language teacher because of my North American accent.

As a full-time English language teacher I was angry.  Not that explosive type of anger but that slow, simmering type that eats away at you in the background.  I was angry because I was paid less than the rest of the teaching staff who were white-native speakers.  I was angry for feeling the need to be on the defensive, and became fed up of having to explain my background to each and every class I taught. In many ways, I felt that my professional ‘self’ was being de-valued because of perceptions regarding my ethnic identity, and as a new teacher, it was at times overwhelming.

Let me be frank in my position and state that I do not believe that language ability equates teaching ability. In the English language teaching industry (ELT), being a native-speaker (NS) does not and should not equal being a qualified / good / best / better teacher. Ever. Moreover the definition of what it means to be a native speaker of English isn’t as straightforward.  From a teacher’s point of view there are several excellent blog posts addressing the issue of native speakers and ELT, one of which is Josette LeBlanc’s great blog post exploring how to re-defining the NS label as well as an interesting discussion thread on The British Council website on the value of NS teachers. There isn’t enough space here for me to argue persuasively against the hierarchical nature of NS/NNS in the TESOL industry – there are many authors out there who have written extensively on the subject. However, the very fact that this is still being debated today is a reminder that there is still a long way to go before these  views are put to rest.

The relationship between race identities and NS/NNS labels, however, is a relatively new and limited discussion in TESOL.  I’m well aware that are some who equate my North American accent / Canadian passport with teaching ability and through my experiences (past and present) I’ve also been made aware that my ethnicity challenges expectations associated with the label ‘Canadian English native speaker’. So for me, “Where are you from?” is loaded question.  In some ways, I’m still haunted by feelings of being under pressure to prove I’m as good a teacher as my students expected from a ‘real native speaker’ (a.k.a. ‘real Canadian’). On a different level, I continue to be frustrated when my answer “I’m from Canada” is not a sufficient enough reply. I feel I shouldn’t have to explain my Canadian identity or why I speak English so well.

There’s more I could say on this but I’d like to leave it here for now and invite you post your reactions and thoughts in the comments below. Please keep your comments respectful and civil. Thank you for reading this post!

7 thoughts on “The “Where are you from (really)?” question: A bit of me and my PhD topic

  1. Thanks for sharing this account, Eljee! It adds a different twist to the whole NS/NNS debate, and one that is not often problematised. Reading about all this in a first person narrative form (as opposed to a detached theoretical treatise), made me all the more aware of how the inequitable power structures that permeate ELT affect real people in very real ways. It also made me reflect on how such a state of affairs might change…

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  2. Thanks Achilleas for your comment. 🙂 I think there are quite a number of individuals out there who can relate in some way and it’s been amazing meeting other people ‘like me’ or who know of others who have experienced something similar because it puts a human face on the theoretical discussions.

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  3. Interesting. I find myself in a reversed situation here in Japan where every white is expected to be a native English speaker. When I say I’m Russian, I get a “what are you doing here then?” look, and it makes me very uncomfortable to tell people that I’m an English teacher. I think I sometimes sound apologizing. I did have my share of suspicion (some even thought I was my manager’s love interest), so the question about my origin is a touchy one for me, too.

    P.S.Eljee, do you think you could add a simple registration form to the site to simplify commenting in the future? Thanks.

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    1. You’re among a number of people I’ve come across who “pass” for a NS of English as long they don’t reveal their nationality. It seems that BANA (British, Australian, North American) countries are still strongly associated with White-NS identities. And I used to apologise (e.g. “Sorry, I am Canadian” I think more as a defensive reaction to the situation, although nowadays I don’t, being older and sort of wiser 😛

      BTW thanks for the registration suggestion, but I think this particular WordPress theme has only this option (e.g. email sign-up) :-/

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      1. Thanks for the compliment. I have an accent, although not really a Russian one (as absurd as it may sound). More of my personal speaking habit. I don’t tend to articulate sounds, especially vowels as well as native speakers do (which is, in a way, characteristic of slavonic languages), so I usually start self introduction with my nationality to avoid the question. Among non-native speakers (and my students) I usually cause more confusion because they are not so good at noticing accents unless it’s very strong.

        I didn’t realise you were using a Wodpress-hosted site. I own a WordPress website, too, so I was automatically logged in. There’s a tiny registration link in the footer for those who don’t have a WordPress account, but I think you could make it a bit more conspicuous with a plug-in? My site is self hosted, so we probably have a slightly different functionality, but that’s how it worked for me.

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  4. Hi Eljee, I know this comment is late but I can totally relate to your post. You’re articulating exactly what it’s in my head about this “where are you from?” question. I’m doing my PhD with the same motivation as yours, though with a slightly different focus. I’m a Hong Kong born and bred Filipino studying in Australia by the way. I can describe one of my recent interactions with a nurse here.

    N: Where are you from?
    Me: I’m from Hong Kong.
    N: Okay (giving me this confused look).
    Me: Yes, Filipino from Hong Kong, to be exact.
    N: Ohhh! Okay! But you don’t look like those Filipinos that I see in the karaokes.
    Me: I actually have a bit of Spanish blood.
    N: Oh I seeeee.

    I bet this sort of interaction is of no surprise to you. But as loaded as this question is for us. I just find it fascinating to be able to a research on this identity thing. I enjoyed reading this post and looking forward to read more.

    Good luck with your PhD!

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