Lubna Kerr: Why do you need to know where I am really from?

What is the most popular question a person of colour gets asked?"Where are you from? No, where are you really, really from?”

I love this question. It’s a great opportunity to engage with the person that is questioning you.

You can play with the answer and the person asking the question, or you can flirt or you can joke. Sometimes I do all three. Always with a smile.

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Like the sugar which makes the medicine go down, a smile makes the answer more palatable.

Lubna Kerr/TickBoxLubna Kerr/TickBox
Lubna Kerr/TickBox

Maybe I should give out a sweet at the same time. Actually, I do just that when I'm out flying for my show, Tickbox. Tunnocks have given me teacakes to hand out.

Sometimes I wonder though, if the people asking the “really from” question ever realise the impact it has on the person at the receiving end.

As someone who’s proudly Scottish, who came here aged three (from Pakistan following a war), grew up in Scotland, went to university here and married a Scotsman (someone had to), it's irksome being asked that question time and again.

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I feel they are questioning my Scottishness, my love for a country that has given me so much and allowed me to prosper. It feels like they are questioning my right of belonging to a place I call home.

Lubna Kerr/TickBoxLubna Kerr/TickBox
Lubna Kerr/TickBox

Am I not allowed to feel Scottish if I am not white?

As a nosey person, I actually totally understand why people ask the question. We have an inbuilt natural curiosity about people. We are innately inquisitive about our fellow human beings, which is a lovely quality to have. I think of us all as David Attenboroughs, but interested in the human race. Can you hear him asking that question?

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Scottish people have taken South Asian cuisine to heart, and now show us how to make the very best Chicken Tikka Masala. This is a dish I only ever hear of in an Indian restaurant or take away.

Such “classic names” are not indigenous to the Asian subcontinent, but were created for Westerners, to make it easier for them to ask for a spicy dish. Like so many Asian people, I have no idea what a vindaloo is. It’s not that I don’t know about Pakistani food, we just call it a different name.

I remember the first time I got 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” as I had lived here for 15 years at that point. “No,” he said, “Where are you really, really from?” So I said I had been 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?

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“No” he replied to his own question, “you are from the WEST”.

Now even I, with a C in O Level geography (yes, I am that old) know that Pakistan is in the East.

He continued “You are from Glasgow”.

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So it turns out, it's better to be a Weegie than an Alien Zombie of Pakistani origin.

Ever since then, I always smile when I get asked that question. However, I think the Scottish public are getting wise to the fact that it might irk some of us who have a better skin colour than them, so they are finding more intriguing ways to ask the same question.

When I get asked “Where are you really from?” I now know that the intention behind that question is not always based on the colour of my skin. As someone who grew up in Glasgow but crossed the cultural divide (and the M8) and have now lived in Edinburgh longer than anywhere else in the world, I know there is more to that question than meets the eye.

I like to play the mystery game and find out why they are asking that question.

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Like an Asian Miss Marple, I seek the truth. What is the intention behind the question? I enjoy finding the clues and I think I'd be a great Miss Marple. It's a role I'd love to play and if Kenneth Branagh can play Poirot then why not?

I've had so many fruitful conversations by taking this approach and we always leave the conversation with a light heart and a smile. Is that not the point of life? To bestow joy, sprinkling magic as you travel. Now I sound like Mary Poppins - another role that passed me by.

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“Is that a West End accent I hear?” asked the man from Aberdeen.

“No, South Side actually,” and the man smiled.

Sometimes the reply to my answer surprises me. I was speaking to a woman at a party (it sounds like I spend a lot of time at parties, honestly I don’t). She was white and said she’d been born in Pakistan and lived there until she was five. She wanted to try out her Urdu on men and see what I thought. We had such a laugh, with her trying to remember words and me replying in my Scottish Pakistani accent.

People like to feel connected. They want to feel we have something in common and that's why that question is asked.

I take it as a beautiful gesture, people are opening their hearts and minds and offering the hand of friendship. And I am always ready to accept. Well, in the Pakistani culture it's rude to refuse anything.

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Growing up in Scotland but retaining some Pakistani values has been interesting. As stated, when offered food, as a Pakistani person you never ever, ever refuse, tea, coffee, samosas… or any food ever. If you then also don’t take something away in a margarine tub, you'll offend your host.

I remember doing outreach work about diabetes and going to meet Pakistani people, who are at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes. They constantly offered cream cakes and pakoras and samosas… and of course as an NHS diabetes expert I knew the hidden dangers in each delicious mouthful, but as a Pakistani person, I knew I couldn't refuse.

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What drives me is the authenticity of my story. My father gained a scholarship to do PhD in chemistry from Strathclyde University and my parents were excited about moving to the wonderful country of Scotland. Both my parents were university graduates and spoke English well but hadn’t been taught Glaswegian.

Despite my father being a scientist, my mum was an arts graduate and they loved the arts. As a child I was taken to the old Pitlochry Theatre and dreamt of being on stage and playing Lady Bracknell… I have many handbags.

Growing up with the arts was magical. Bollywood and Pakistani films at home when video first came out; before that it was the cinema on Sundays, as that was the day of rest in Scotland.

If you want to hear more about all of this, and lots more, then please do come and see my show Tickbox. It’s a story that will leave you feeling reflective but upbeat about the positive impact of immigration on all of us. Plus, you get a Tunnocks Teacake.

● Lubna Kerr: Tickbox, Summerhall (Venue 26), 20:55, 16-28 August, and

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