“Where are you from?”
“No, but where are you really from?”
“Dublin. I’m Irish.”
“But where were you born?”
“The Coombe. In Dublin.”
“Okay but where are your parents from?”
“My father’s Irish and my mother’s Spanish.”
“I KNEW it!”
I’ve had this conversation a truly astonishing number of times.
Most of the time I save time and energy by answering the first “Where are you from?” with the answer to the question I know they will get to eventually. I know why they’re asking, and I know how to stem the conversational tide. A simple “My mother is Spanish” tends to trim the conversation nice and short.
On other days though, I drag it out as long as possible, intrigued by how determined people are to dig through my life and find out exactly why my skin is a little bit more sallow, or why my hair is as dark as it is, or why my face is so angular, or whatever it is they’ve picked up on that has marked me as “other.” Half the time, the person asking is completely oblivious to my resigned amusement. They grow more and more frustrated as I refuse to give them the answer they don’t even know they’re looking for, stumbling through a list of questions that really boil down to, “But WHY? Why are you different to me??” Drunk people in particular can get extremely agitated. As I answer their questions on autopilot I watch them struggle to verbalise their curiosity, and I wonder what it is that gives me away. Is it my facial features? Is it my skin tone? My eyes? My hair? My build? The way I speak? The things I say?
Something about me is clearly “off” from an Irish perspective, and it’s something so obvious that people often use the “Where are you from?” line as an ice-breaker… and yet, despite how apparently obvious it is, I can’t see it. If I at least looked 100% Spanish, it might not feel so awkward, but the truth is I answer the same sort of questions in Madrid.
I am a halfling.
I have lived in Ireland all my life. I am comfortable here. I have a stereotypically Irish laid-back personality, along with an Irish sense of timing (every party starts at least two hours after the stated time) and a habit for pulling Irish farewells. I love the Irish respect for mythology, history and tradition (up to a point), and the way the younger generations are pulling the country in a more liberal direction without letting go of our past. I love the string of muttered “Thanks,” “Thanks,” “Thanks,” “Thanks,” you hear every time the bus stops, as every Irish person thanks the driver. I love good-natured banter*, and my travels have taught me that Irish people do banter like nobody else. I can’t roll my r’s, I love to eat, and I can’t take a compliment to save my life. These are all common Irish traits, and although I’ve tried my best to change some of them, it appears that I’m stuck with them.
On the other hand, I visit Spain about three times a year. I love it there. Madrid is my soul city. Right now as I type, I’m listening to my usual morning playlist of Spanish pop. I prefer hip-swaying to head-nodding, and there are definitely more passionate parts of my personality that are straight Spanish. I love to cook (preferably with wine… and the wine doesn’t have to be in the food…), I prefer churros to donuts, and tortilla de patata to roast potatoes. I have a very real suspicion that I may be solar-powered, and after five months of charcoal clouds and misty drizzle my energy is at an all-time low.
Some people feel that it’s difficult to be a halfling; that being a bit of both means they don’t really belong in either culture. I’ve spoken to people who feel like perpetual outsiders because of their dual nationality. In my experience, the advantages far outweigh any of the negatives, but I can understand that feeling. For me, the amount of freedom my bilingualism affords me hugely eclipses the annoyance of tediously repetitive conversations about my background, and I feel lucky to have been brought up with both cultures and languages and traditions and foods and lifestyles.
I am not neither; I am both.
I am Irish and Spanish. I root for Spain in the football, and Ireland in the rugby. I am laid-back and passionate. I am hot and cold.
There are worse things to be than a little bit of both.
*Banter is a sort of verbal sparring that from an outside perspective might sound a bit abusive, but it’s all in good fun. It’s a bit like sharp teasing. It’s not negging or derision, it’s fundamentally friendly… A little hard to explain, actually, but maybe think of it as rough ribbing.