This question has been slipped casually into small talk at least three times in the 11 days since I arrived (angekommen?) in Frankfurt. Funnily enough, despite the repetition, I find it no longer riles me up. It used to – I remember very vividly the flash of annoyance when a friend ventured to ask as we trundled along the windswept, cobbled streets of Edinburgh. These were my undergraduate days.

I suppose I interpreted it to mean that they saw me as inferior in some way – I wasn’t white, I wasn’t born and bred in Europe. I didn’t belong. I was Other, an outsider. Or maybe I felt affronted at the insularity – that they thought English belonged exclusively to them. I realise now that this line of thinking was pretty self-defeating. To instinctively presume that these were their motivations probably meant that, somewhere at the back of my head, I recognised these projected views as truths.

In other words, I was hung up on getting mad at other people, and missed the giant signboard on my forehead bearing the word “Insecure!”.

Coming back to present-day in Frankfurt – I suppose growing up comes with a certain level of self-assuredness. The fact that English wasn’t the mother tongue of all 3 people who asked also took away any reason to feel offended. And it was fun conversation; there was beer and orangenschorle, there was a French guy cracking a joke with a punchline nobody got the first time, there was – gasp – banter. And then there is summer, a breeze, fading light at 10pm…far too enjoyable to let something silly like that get in the way.

Anyway, for some reason I ended up giving a different answer every time. These were my answers:

  1. We were colonised by the British (after which I launched into my observations about the difference in proficiency between my parents’ schooling generation and mine)
  2. My parents speak English and we speak English at home (although this would actually raise the question of “How come your parents speak English?” but people seemed to be satisfied with that)
  3. Oh, I attended national school in Malaysia…(after which I launched into an explanation about national vs. vernacular school, Malaysian demographics, Malaysian race politics…)

I’ll try and add to the list. Hopefully better ones.