I have what’s been described as a “very London” accent. I also have olive skin and dark features. Like some odd magic trick, the latter seems to make my accent disappear. Several dates I’ve been on throughout my 20s have confirmed this; let me explain.
Take a man I met via a dating app some months ago. We chatted, identified things we had in common, exchanged banter, then agreed to meet up for a drink. He seemed intelligent, capable of holding an interesting conversation. He seemed sure of himself and independent. All of these things I found attractive, and I hadn’t managed to get past boring small talk with anyone on an app in a while. Excited, I got dressed up, put on a smokier eye than usual (and nude lip instead of a bold color, in case we kissed), and traveled into central London. Sat down at the bar, glass of wine in hand, I was actually — for once — hopeful. And then he opened his mouth, asking the dreaded question that seems to affect all ethnic minorities, and makes plenty of us shudder.
“Where are you from?”
“No, where are you really from?”
“No, where are you really from?”
In that moment, I wished I hadn’t bothered and was back home in the comfort of my bed. I also wasn’t listening very much anymore, as a mixture of frustration, boredom and anger brewed inside me.
It reminded me of a video date I had during the pandemic — before I’d even been asked how I was, he asked the same question, and followed up with “Where are your parents from then?” when I repeated I was from London. Relieved I hadn’t traveled anywhere or spent money on that date, I hung up, after informing the guy my parents are Londoners too.
If someone decides to open with a question about where I’m from, it shows me that first and foremost, all they see is otherness.
Countless men in pubs, meeting me for the first time, have asked this. I’ve instantly known they probably aren’t for me if they haven’t yet grasped how offensive and narrow minded this question is, especially in 2023. When it’s suggested that people aren’t properly British — and that is what’s implied when we ask this question — it’s alienating, hurtful and reveals plenty about racial and ethnic biases.
When I hear the words begin to escape someone’s mouth, I cringe inside and almost want to seal them shut, before all attraction goes to waste.
I feel like a Londoner more than anything because I am. It’s where I’ve always lived (aside from university) and it’s the culture and life I know. Whenever I leave the city and come back, and I see the dark sky covered by grey towers and office lights, I feel a warm glow inside. This is because I am home. And yet, this home of mine is routinely questioned by men I hardly know on dating apps.
As a third-generation Turkish Cypriot woman, I don’t always feel so connected with parts of my heritage. Sure, I cherish Turkish and Cypriot food, like kofte (meatballs) and firin makarna (similar to lasagna). But I’ve only been to Cyprus twice in my life — the first time I hardly remember as I was so young — and my experience of Turkey thus far has been beach resorts my parents would book during my early teens so they could “get some sun.” We don’t have any relatives out there, except for my granddad who only moved back when I’d hit adulthood.
There can be a lot to navigate with third generation heritage. Speaking to friends who also have this identity, I’m not alone — which provides some comfort. I can’t speak much Turkish, and I grew up with a disconnect to the values of family members who aren’t as “Westernized," as they put it. Being third gen can also leave me feeling not Turkish enough when in the company of extended family, but then also apparently not British enough when out with someone who can’t relate, is Caucasian, or has never had their identity questioned.
My identity has been challenged more times than I can remember. At school, someone told me that because my “blood isn’t English,” I’m not a “proper British person.” I rolled my eyes knowing how incorrect this is, but it taught me early on that to some people, my Britishness will never be valid. At university, a man once outright told me I wasn’t British and was so vile about it that I asked him to open my desk drawer and check my passport before chucking him out of my room.
If someone decides to open with a question about where I’m from, it shows me that first and foremost, all they see is otherness. It’s confronting and infuriating. While there’s nothing wrong in discussing my ethnic heritage — sometimes I’m more than happy to — the timing, context, and language used when bringing up that topic is vital. Surely we’re in an age where people, especially in cities, can’t play ignorant anymore?
I feel like a Londoner more than anything because I am.
This is why being asked where I’m from on a date can sour things for me. Being othered within five minutes of a date starting feels flattening, like the weight of my foreign looks falling on top of me. Also, it’s just not very creative, is it? Of all the things you could use to begin a conversation, pointing out the fact I appear ethnically other isn’t it. I once played dumb when a man asked where I was “from from,” pretending not to know what he meant and instead breaking down specifically where I was born and raised in London — eventually he got the hint and awkwardly moved the conversation on. On another occasion, I corrected the phrase and said, “You mean, what’s my ethnicity?”
My heritage is a part of the puzzle, but it’s not the whole picture, or the lens through which someone should view me. They might end up stereotyping, drawing conclusions about who I am: my religious views, my family set up, my hopes for the future, for example. At the worst end of the spectrum, they may even be fetishizing me. Racial and ethnic minorities are routinely treated in this way. Women of color are so often reduced to their background or appearance on dating apps: being sexualized, told they are “exotic,” or just outright ignored, with studies showing they get fewer replies.
It’s hard to prove definitively, but certain men in the past have given me a bad feeling when focusing on my ethnicity, or when I learn their exes have been Mediterranean, too. One guy told me his ex had the same name as me, another exclusively seemed to date women with olive skin based on his Instagram pictures, someone else said they “like the tone of my skin” straight off the bat, and someone else suggested meeting at a Turkish restaurant then proceeded to explain how “worldly” he was having lived (and shagged) various places abroad. Then as for the men who’ve only dated blonde Caucasian women in the past, I worry I’m a bucket list experience for them.
What I wish I could tell those men: It would be better to ask, respectfully, about my heritage further into our conversation. You could ask about what my name means, or use the word “ethnicity” over “from” if you’re dying to know about that. Better yet, wait until I bring it up. I’ve always felt more comfortable being in charge of that coming up while dating someone, as I know friends do, too. I’m always confused as to what would be gained from knowing I’m Turkish Cypriot — do you just want to tell me you’ve been there on holiday once, or decide something about me?
This isn’t the experience I have on every first date either — lots of men know to leave it, and those are the men who are more likely to see me again. Then maybe, on date number two, over lahmacun (Turkish pizza), we can talk about it.