‘Where are you really from?’
Wherever I encounter this question, I know that the person asking is always trying to find out where my grandparents are from.
They want to know why I’m not white, and this is a more polite way of putting it. It’s an exhausting question, one that inherently invalidates your place in the world. I resent telling strangers about my lineage simply because they think my face requires an explanation.
And it’s a question I used to struggle to answer.
My dad’s parents were from Jamaica. But, beyond going to Notting Hill Carnival as kids, neither my dad nor my sister and I ever had much of a connection with the Caribbean island of our heritage.
My dad was brought up in foster care after his parents came to the UK in the 1960s and their relationship never really recovered. As a result, I knew that I had a ‘nana in Jamaica’, but only ever saw her a handful of times during my childhood – and we never visited.
It never sat right with me to simply not engage with the place my ancestors called home. There was a gnawing longing to learn about the country, and as a result, discover more about my family and my place in the world.
But earlier this year, my sister and I travelled to Jamaica for the first time – following the unexpected death of our dad in 2020, that longing for connection grew even stronger – and I was taken aback by just how profound I found the experience.
I felt a rush of familiarity and acceptance. My sister and I spoke about the warmth of the people we met, the joy of seeing women who looked like us, with similar body types, and a sense of comfort that wrapped around us like a warm sea breeze.
We didn’t even do it in a particularly ‘authentic’ way. We stayed in a hotel, drank cocktails by the pool and visited pretty waterfalls with British and American tourists. And yet, there was something about being there that tugged at our heartstrings and whispered to us that we were home.
For British-born people with immigrant parents or grandparents, especially those of us with broken families, it can be difficult to forge independent connections with your heritage – but finding a way to build those bridges on your own terms can be a lifeline.
Travelling to the country where your parents or grandparents were born can kickstart this journey.
These visits back to ancestral ‘homelands’ are about more than simply seeing the sites your family members would have seen, walking down the same paths, or running your hand along the brick of a childhood home.
The impact of such trips can run incredibly deep. A 2012 study focused on the children of migrants found that visiting their parents’ birth countries caused them to ‘reconceptualise their sense of identity, belonging and home’, and that these visits can be both positive and incredibly emotional.
Researchers in 2016 said ‘homeland tourism benefits immigrants’ psychological wellbeing’, adding that many booked these trips due to a deep desire to connect to the past.
A study from last year concluded that for people who make these trips, ‘heritage comes into being as they engage with the elements of the past’, allowing them to ‘resonate in a meaningful way’ in their present lives.
In other words – no amount of stories, photographs, music or recipes can provide as powerful a connection as physically travelling to a place with historical resonance for you and your family.
I didn’t necessarily believe in this power until I felt it for myself.
Second generation immigrants – those with at least one parent born in a different country to where they live – represent 34% of the population in Europe.
For those of us even further removed from the history of our lineage, it is crucial to find ways to make those connections real and meaningful. Doing so can help to counter some of the conflict that comes with straddling multiple histories.
Being of mixed heritage, a lack of connection with the Jamaican side of my family has triggered feelings of shame and inauthenticity in the past. It felt harder to claim that side of who I am. This feeling faded as I got older and became more comfortable with my identity, but finally visiting Jamaica also really helped. Knowing more about where I come from has been empowering.
For anyone in a position to visit a country that holds history for their family – I implore you to bump it up the priority list. Travel is not accessible for everyone, and I’m incredibly privileged to be in a position to take a trip to the Caribbean, but it took me more than 30 years to make it to my grandparents’ birthplace – and I don’t intend to let that much time elapse again.
Visiting Jamaica reaffirmed my sense of identity and changed my perspective on home and where I belong. I learnt that it is possible to build this kind of connection, even if you don’t have family to stay with when you visit, or a parent to be your tour guide.
Discovering your heritage without those direct family ties doesn’t make it any less valid.
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