Last Updated on November 21, 2017 by
Say you moved around when you were growing up, or maybe you were raised in one place but moved away and frequently changed locations as an adult. Then you take a trip and someone asks you, “Where are you from?”
How do you answer?
In today’s climate of über-travel, blended ethnicity, hyper-migration, globalization, and expatrification, the question “Where are you from?” is as complex as ever. Perhaps a deconstruction of this simple question may seem overwrought, but why is virtually everyone inclined to ask it? And more importantly, what do they really want to know when they do?
As I wrote a recent post entitled What Do Nomads Call Home? and considered the thoughtful comments it elicited, it occurred to me that where one is from and where one calls home – while the same for some — are in fact distinct concepts.
As I considered our own struggle to answer the universal question, “Where are you from?” I also reflected on the challenges in sensitively posing it to others.
Where Does “From” Mean?
Since Mrs. Dictionary served me so well in the last post, I’ll refer to her again for a definition of the word from.
1. used to specify a starting point in spatial movement
I suspect this definition will resonate with many of you because it suggests that “from” is less about origin and more about life as an exercise in movement and personal evolution. It speaks to identity: I may originate from one place but I may feel as though I’ve begun life anew in another. This new point of reference more closely aligns with my new identity.
Not only is this relevant to the nomad navigating the globe but it’s also relevant to the immigrant who grew up in one location and moved halfway around the world to begin a new life chapter in another.
2. used to indicate source or origin
A wholly traditional view of one’s origins and something that deep down inside probably resonates with all of us.
Where Are You From: How We Answer
This simple question can comprehend so many different concepts depending upon who is asking, why they are asking, and where you, the respondent, happen to be emotionally and physically when you are answering. “Where are you from?” might imply:
Where were you born?
Where did you grow up?
Where is your family from originally?
Where do you currently live?
Where did you last live?
We have been asked this question so often that you’d figure our responses might be more fluid, more graceful than they are. But no. Instead, we are still deer-in-the-headlights. Why? Because we are pausing to consider why the question is being asked and which bits of information might be most relevant for the person asking.
It’s likely that someone asks out of curiosity, to put us in context. Many people expect a static answer because the assumption is that we, like they, have come from one place and have probably lived in that place most of our lives. For better or for worse, where a person comes from helps many folks place strangers in cultural and socioeconomic context.
Yet Audrey and I answer this same question in two very different ways.
My approach: “I grew up in Pennsylvania and lived in Washington DC and Dallas and the last place I lived in the United States was San Francisco for six years. Then we lived together in Prague for five years before living out of backpacks for the last three and a half years.”
Audrey’s approach: “I’ve spent most of my time growing up outside of Washington, DC in Virginia.”
True enough, but she does this rather humbly despite having moved to India at five weeks old and having lived out her childhood in places like Sri Lanka, Cameroon, Gabon, Ivory Coast and Tanzania and later choosing to spend her adult life between California, Estonia, Czech Republic and the rest of the world.
With my longer-winded version, I figure that whatever the person is looking for, it’s probably in there. It offers the various geographic hooks of my American identity (Pennsylvania, East Coast, California) and it illustrates a curiosity and wanderlust to live abroad in Europe and to travel around the world. I also figure it deflects some potential prejudgment along the way.
Audrey feels that her story is complicated and people really don’t want to know it all. Instead, they prefer a simple answer so they can identify her with a geographic area for context. If a person wants to know more, then they can continue the conversation but she doesn’t offer up her whole story at first.
Perhaps our answers form a package deal. In any event, there are so many different ways to answer this seemingly straightforward question.
Where Are You From: How We Ask
We are curious about the people we meet and we’d like to hear their stories. Sometimes they are from the place where we happen to meet them, but often they are from someplace else, near or far. Today’s migration patterns mean that big cities are more than ever multiethnic stews whose inhabitants are drawn from around the world. I think of cities like New York, London, Paris, Buenos Aires, Berlin, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Sydney – each offers excellent “Where are you from?” conversation fodder.
So we tend to ask the question a little differently, particularly if there’s even the slightest doubt as to one’s place of origin or migration path.
“Where’s your family from?” we’ll ask.
Posing the question in this way is neutral; it doesn’t assume anything. At worst, we might look a little silly, for the person we are asking might have lived his entire life just down the block. But in case he hasn’t and his family originated from somewhere else, this approach is respectful and allows for the conversation to expand into where he is living now, where he grew up and possibly where he wants to go next.
Our goal in posing the question is not only to better understand a person’s story – his roots and journey – but also to make a personal connection. For example, if a woman in Buenos Aires shares with us that she and her family are originally from Armenia, we can then ask “which part?” and make a deeper, more meaningful connection.
In this respect, our question serves less as an incision and more as an icebreaker.
Do you have a difficult time answering the question, “Where are you from?” If so, what answer do you give? Where you were born, grew up, live currently, last lived — or something entirely different?
How do you ask others this same question?
And in the end, does it matter where you are from? After all, we’re all citizens of the world, aren’t we?
79 thoughts on “Where Are You From? A Nomad’s Guide to Asking and Answering the Question”
This is a funny one for me. I always just answer ‘Canada’ and leave it at that. If they ask for specifics and they’re from Ontario I’ll tell them St. Catharines, my hometown and where my parents still live. If they’re not Canadian and they want a more specific answer then I’ll bust out the often impressive ‘Niagara Falls… more or less’ answer.
For me that’s the only logical answer to that question, despite not living in Canada for almost 10 years and having no plans to live there again. But when I ask the ‘where are you from’ question, the answer I’m usually looking for is where were you born/where did you grow up, so that’s the answer I give to people who ask me. Plus I hate small talk and am happy to get off the topic onto more interesting things like poo stories.
While most people are happy with ‘Canada’ as an answer for Canadians, it doesn’t seem like ‘American’ is good enough. Most people are like… ‘I know, but where’ and many Americans I meet often specify a city or state straight away when asked the question which is often the information that people are generally looking for.
One thing that always makes me chuckle though is another mostly American thing. When someone answers the ‘where are you from’ question with ‘New York’… delve a bit deeper and I bet most have only been living or studying there for a few years. I’m always a bit of a jerk and go ‘Oh cool! I love New York… which part did you grow up in’ which usually comes with a reply… ‘uh, I grew up in Ohio, but I’ve studied in NYC for two years’ etc etc. It’s become my personal experiment to see how many people who say they’re from New York actually grew up there. Not sure why… it’s just something I’m curious about.
I lived in London for 5 years and it’s the city I feel most at home in and will probably return to live in at some point. I pay my taxes to the UK. I love it there. My mom’s family is English and my dad is Scottish, born and bred. But I would feel like a complete tosser if I answered the ‘where are you from?’ question with ‘ the UK’. But then again… at what point am I ‘allowed’ to be from a certain place? Five years, ten? Twenty-five? Do I need to master a faux British accent first? Start eating Marmite? Watching cricket?
Who knows and it doesn’t matter because my answer is always and probably always will be ‘Canada’, plain and simple. I’m not patriotic at all so my answer isn’t a pride thing or anything, it’s just the facts.
It doesn’t matter where I’m from anyways, I agree… citizens of the world and all that stuff. So I don’t really put too much effort into my answer. If people start to ask me more about Canada I tell them I haven’t lived there in awhile which usually leads to them learning a bit more about where I’ve been lately.
I have this problem, and have done for a long time, having grown up with parents who moved around a lot, between various countries and areas within them, and then moving variously with work etc. Since travelling longer term, the problem has only got worse. I tend to try and gauge what the person really wants from the answer, and will therefore either go with a short version (London, the UK, but I’ve moved around a lot) or the long version, which can go on for a bit. There is always the fear that I come across as trying to be boastful or something when answering, so I’ll usually err on the side of less and go into more detail if the conversation warrants it.
I’m sure this post will resonate with a lot of people! I constantly struggle with how to answer this question, even though I too feel like I should have figured out a good answer by now. When I was asked where I was from while I was traveling long-term, I usually said I was from California (or San Francisco more specifically), mainly because that’s where I’d lived right before I left. It’s also the place I’ve lived the longest (though I didn’t move there until after college), but I find that people are often confused by that answer once they learn that none of my family lives there. So sometimes I say I’m from New Jersey, because that’s where I was born, and I think that in many countries the view is that where you are from is where you were born. But because we moved around a lot when I was a kid – and that moving around has continued now that I’m an adult – I feel that simply saying “I’m from New Jersey” just barely scrapes the surface.
In a nutshell, I’d say my most common answer (besides just saying “los Estados Unidos” to a neighbor who asks in the elevator) is “Oh… I’ve moved around a lot, but mostly California.” If they sound like they want to hear more, I’ll give ’em the whole spiel, including Seattle, Denver, D.C., Philadelphia, Los Angeles… and eventually we find something in common – if their eyes don’t glaze over first. 🙂
P.S. You offer some great tips on asking others this question, too. I often ask “Where is your family from?” and it does seem likely to get you a more in-depth answer, offering an opening to continue the conversation.
This is SUCH a good question. When I was living in NYC for years and I would travel people would ask where I was from and my initial response would be NYC. Once my bf corrected me and said no you’re not, you live there, but you’re from Charlotte. I was annoyed at 1st haha, but then I totally got it.
I say I’m a State Department Brat–even if they haven’t heard the term before, people usually understand what it means. Or, if overseas, say that I grew up all over the world because my parents moved. I’ve learned that the road is a neighborhood and I have more i common, often with people with a similarly disjointed upbringing. Seems like Obama has a similar feeling–a disproportionate # of his inner circle have that kind of background.
I take a similar approach to Kirsty above and simply reply, “America” or perhaps “the US” in order to be a ‘bit’ more specific. After all, that is the country of my passport, even though I haven’t lived there for 11 years.
If people are interested in more information, I am more than happy to provide it but I am usually hesitant to share too much info at first, not due to a lack of trust, but because I’m never sure how much information the other person really wants to know. And I try to avoid saying that I’m from “Boston” (I grew up 20 miles from Boston) as I don’t want it to appear that I expect everyone I meet to know where this city is located. I’d rather start broad and slowly narrow it down based upon the other person’s actual interest and geographical knowledge, hoping that will create a more comfortable situation.
And in the end, like you mentioned, this question often acts as an icebreaker and is not subject to any one set of rules. No answer is ever incorrect and a personal connection can be made no matter what we say, as any answer inevitably leads to more questions!
I tend to say I’m from all over the place originally, and now I’m a Londoner. If they’re interested enough to ask after that I’ll tell them the long version (which can get quite long, especially if they ask follow-ups about where my parents are from, as my family on both sides has been quite nomadic for at least three generations now!)
Funny how one simple question can send you into an internal panic! I definitely get that deer in the headlights feeling when someone asks it and I inevitably fumble and switch tactics mid answer – sometimes I am specific like Dan and other times I try to be as simple as possible knowing that the simple answer will lead to more questions if the person IÂ´m talking with is actually interested. I have a similar experience to Audrey and as a “diplobrat” there is always a part of you that is sensitive to peopleÂ´s eyes glazing over while you give the real (and long) answer as well as a fear of coming off as stuck up for “country name dropping.” This tendency to dial down the exotic-ness of oneÂ´s upbringing comes up both in the US and when abroad… inevitably someone asks why you moved so much and any answer with the word “diplomat” in it can create a weird barrier between you and your conversation mate. Lately the answer I have been going with is “I am half American half Paraguayan spent most of my life living in different countries in South America.” Of course that slo-mo moment of panic and stumbling through the answer to “where are you from?” can create an instant connection with people who recognize what is going on because of similar upbringings and experiences!
I say “I was born in Kansas City but have lived several places since then”. I never felt like I belonged in Kansas City, even before I started traveling. If people ask what other places, then I list them. I guess sometimes I say I’m from the US. After living in Latin America, I don’t say I’m from America anymore – they pointed out that “American” could also mean Central or South American.
Oh man! I still have no idea how to answer this. I think about it all the time. In Colombia, it’s easy because people want to know exactly what part of the US I’m from. But, I always add on “But, now I’m a Bogotano” (someone from Bogota). In the US, it’s a little harder, especially when answering the government forms. My business address is the US, but I’m living in Colombia and have my Colombia ID now. But, it will still be 5 years before I am a “permanent resident.” Personally, I prefer Citizen of the World, even if it can sound a bit trite. Good question!
I simply say I am from New York. Even though this is not exactly the truth. It avoids a lot explaining and equivocating. The questions I have more of a problem with are “where have you been?” and “where are you going?”
I had a tough time with this question when I went off to college. I grew up in South Carolina but went to high school in Utah. I always felt obligated to give a schpeel, b/c otherwise, no one would get it. Now, I just tell people I’m from South Carolina. It’s mostly where I grew up and the place I identify with the most.
I’ve had this issue even living in the U.S., where I am from, as I lived in the Midwest until I was 16, then moved to the South, then moved to the Northeast. When people in the NE, would ask me where I’m from I told them the last state I’d lived in in the South (Texas) because it seemed strange to say the Midwest, since it had been five years plus since I’d lived there. Now that I’m living overseas, I tell people I’m from Connecticut because that’s the last place I lived and because I still own a home there. If I sell my home, though, I think I’ll still say Connecticut because that feels like home.
I am a citizen of the world, but where I’m from is still important to me. I spent 95% of my life prior to moving to Asia in Halifax. That’s where many of my life memories resonate from. I’ll never lose that, and Halifax will always be “home” to me no matter where my actual physical home might be.
A double layered question for me. I usually get:
1) Where are you from? Uh, Calgary, then Vancouver… NO – what is your nationality?? Oh, I’m French, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Chinese.
2) Were you born in Canada? YES. Some people find this hard to believe, don’t know why.
3) Finally, where did you grow up? Calgary, then lived in Vancouver for 10 years…
No wonder I hate this question. 🙂
Interesting question–even more interesting responses. Even though I’ve lived in Chile for 19 years, my accent gives me away, so almost every new encounter starts with THE question.I say US, they ask where, then it gets complicated because few people seem to understand that New York is a state–and a big one at that. So they ooooh over Manhattan and I have to explain there were cows where I grew up, that it’s close to Canada, yes we get a lot of snow there, yes it’s cold, yes I like it, yes I like Chile, yes I miss my family, yes Chileans are very nice…. (sound familiar?)
But I also wonder–if just answering the question “where are you from” is problematic, doesn’t “where is your family from” exponentially problematic? Which side? Which generation? these days the old geographic family tree can get pretty complicated!
I meet many people who have grown up in one place and then moved abroad but not so many that have lived all over the shop like me, so I love that you’ve written this. It’s fun to see how others deal with “the question”.
I ask about family origins as well even though it doesn’t fit my own situation that easily. It seems to be the most polite even if it can sound a bit like prying in those few situations that you’ve mentioned.
For my answers, I consider all the variables: where I am, where the person asking is from, why they are asking, etc. Then I generally go with something easy to accept for the purpose, but add details if they ask for them. Further complications happen, however, with my ridiculous accent which is a result of living my life in large chunks in more than one English speaking nation (I’d love to have one accent). For example, if I say I am an American-Kiwi dual national someone will often go, “but you sound British”. In England people will ask me why I sound like a Kiwi when they thought I was American, and so on…
Wow great post! I always fidget anxiously when people ask me this. Though I was born and lived in the same place for most of my life, I have been traveling for awhile and don’t necessarily feel a connection with my birthplace nor necessarily wish to be identified with that place from the get go. An even harder question for me is the direct, “Where do you live?” As a nomad, I have no home, and so sometimes I answer “I live in my body.” Some people cannot grasp the fact that there is no base that exists for me, nowhere I truly, truly call home.
Like Nomadic Chick said, some people ask me where am I from to find out why am I brown LOL, or to figure out my ethnic background, which is a mix of English, Scottish, Irish, French, Italian, Indian, African, and Carib – it becomes a totally different question from that perspective.
I of course still fall victim to asking this question myself, like you said, to establish some kind of connection with the new person I’m meeting.
This is a complex question for me because I never know what people want to know when they ask me this… I’m not sure if they’re asking about my heritage, where I live, where I grew up, etc. My parents were immigrants and my features and my name are very West African. To add to this, I moved around a lot as a kid. I currently live in a city that’s the closest big city to the town where I spent a good chunk of my formative years, but it’s technically not where I’m from. So when people ask me where I’m from, I try to assess the situation. If it’s idle conversation, I’ll just name the city I live in. If I think the conversation/friendship is going somewhere, I’ll give a much more detailed account of the fact that I am not really “from” one particular place!
I always hesitate when asking people where they are from. It can be a bit intrusive, after all. But in the end, curiosity is the stronger force and I end up asking.
Over the years I have become more sensitive to this question of “where are you from?”. I have come to believe that most people ask it because they wish to pigeon-hole you in their mind. Consciously or not. Positively or otherwise. My motto is “Don’t ask a question, unless you have the wherewithal to withstand the answer” 🙂
How can I answer all the questions hidden behind “where are you from”? I tend to want to ask a few of my own: Do you mean:
By birth? By ethnicity? By looks? By language? By accent? By location? By early childhood? By upbringing? By education? By religion? By ideology? By thinking system? By inclination? By attitude? …. Once you answer all of these questions, and more, I MAY be able to answer yours 😀 Now, read on…
You see, I was sent to boarding school in the UK from Iran in 1974, when I had just turned 13. I have lived in Greater London since that time (it is now 36 years). Now, this means my English is better than my Persian, especially since my partner, two children, and I speak English when we are together. French & Persian being the other 2 languages spoken in our home.
But… I have an ‘accent’ when I speak English, and with my appearance which is ‘middle eastern’, people get confused. Persian, being an Indo-European language, does not leave the same marks on your British accent as for example Arabic or Hebrew. And with my well honed English grammar, and London/ International English slant in speech, people become intrigued. But consider the effect of an answer I may give to the question “where are you from?”. ‘Iran’ would immediately conjure up a few prejudgements- good or bad- in a person’s mind (depending on their standpoint).
The fact is, I was brought up by atheist parents, one of whom is Jewish in origin. I spent the first 12 years of my life in a country which was MILDLY Muslim AT THE TIME (Iran), and subsequently went to a British boarding school which had daily Christian hymn singing at assembly, and Church every Sunday. I was therefore exposed to all 3 ‘Abrahamic’ religions. I personally went through (and discarded) a few ideological pathways from the age of 16 which included Marxism, Deep Ecology, Buddhism, Third Wave, and currently regard myself as a social & economic liberal (in the British sense, not American). As for religion, I have little time for it (literally and figuratively). Have I answered your question? 🙂 Oh, and my accent may sound South African, because my first English teacher was from there. But that’s another story…
Wow. Â Terrific, thoughtful comments. If you missed the earlier piece on “What Do Nomads Call Home?” check it out as there are more relevant and often overlapping comments there as well:
@Laurence: Â That’s the best approach: tune the depth of your response to the person asking. Â I appreciate the concern of sounding boastful, but something tells me the fact that you are mindful of it probably ensures that the tone of your response is modest.
@Amy: Â I completely appreciate the California/San Francisco but family on the East Coast issue. Â I know exactly how you feel. Â It’s confusing. Â Actually, it’s quite American really.
And it doesn’t seem fair to simply scrape the surface.
I like the “I’ve moved around a lot, but mostlyâ€¦” answer. Â That conveys quite a bit without having to go into specifics. But there’s something nice about offering up those specifics — to find that you have a connection.
Glad you like the “Where’s your family from?” approach. Â It seemed to work particularly well in Latin America.
@Kirsty: Â You had me at “Niagara Fallsâ€¦more or less.” Â Am laughing.
Poo stories? Â (For the record Audrey, Kirsty Â started it! Â It wasn’t me this time.)
Your New York City story reminds me oddly that university kids who responded “in Boston” when you asked them where they went to school. Â This response was almost always code for: Harvard.
I suspect the NY bait-and-switch is similar to the California bait and switch. Â Meaning, people (like me, for instance) identify themselves with a cool place like San Francisco, even though they only lived there for a few years.
We just want to be cool, really.
So you want to be from the UK, do you? I think cricket and a bit of a British accent would do it for me. Â You are almost halfway thereâ€¦after all, you did use the term “tosser.”
Jus’ the facts. Â Loved your response.
@Andi: Â As the comments here seem to attest, he did have a point 😉
@Kala: Â Good to see you here in the neighborhood. Â Speaking of which, I like “the road is a neighborhood.”
The phenomenon you speak of sounds like that of “third culture kids.”
@Earl: Â Funny you mention Boston as a place people might not know. Â Sometimes I feel that way about Pennsylvania, let alone my hometown.
@Geoff: Â “I’m from all over.” Â I imagine that gets some stares, and interest. Â Nomadism in the blood.
@Natalia: Â Diplobratâ€¦love that bit of terminology. Â Sounds like a conditionâ€¦a good one, I mean.
I think you captured it: Â it’s a matter of walking the fine line between engaging information and eyes glazing over.
Regarding the country name dropping: Â We’ve met and I can’t imagine someone taking your personal history as name dropping. Â You are simply conveying reality.
@Jennie: Â I deliberately use U.S. or United States more often than America (if I use America at all) these days — for the same reason. Â I was given that sensitivity lecture when we were in Latin America, too.
@Jeff: Â Bogotano. Â Now there’s a great word. Â Latin America is funny and great that way — people want specifics about the United States, because their family members might have lived right next door to you. In Asia, a response of “United States” usually sufficed.
@Noah: Â Fair enough. Â The keep it simple strategy. Â Where have you been/are you going? Â Oy. Â Don’t get me started.
@Laura: Â Keeping it simple, and back to the place to identify with.
@NC: Â Sorry I asked 🙁
But I’m glad you answered 🙂
@Marie: Â Dual nationalâ€¦now that sounds like it would be difficult to translate depending on who you are talking to.
@Sabina: Â Sounds like some overlap between Where’s Home? Â and Where Are You From?
Maybe “I’ve moved around a bit.”
@Nancie: Â Another home-from overlap. Not sure if you read the Where Do Nomads Call Home piece, but your comment reminds me of it:
@Margaret: Â Indeed a lot of thinking to be done on “the question.” More than a few people seem to be labeling it as such.
You mean there’s more to New York than the city? (I’m joking — for the record to anyone reading I went to school in upstate New York. Â Actually, Cornell I should say.)
I’m laughing “I have to explain there were cows where I grew up.”
It all sounds remarkably familiar: I miss my family-I love Chile-Chileans are nice.Â I love the rhythm and have sung it the world over.
“Where is your family from.” is potentially even more problematic. Â The people who grew up in a village (and whose parents are more likely to be from the same place) offer up the place. As for others, I suppose they split it: “My mom’s from, my dad’s from…”
But where it really gets problematic is when parents are separated, divorced, or even remarried. Â Then you have step- and half-siblings. Â Talk about complicated.
At this point, you invite whomever you are asking out for a drink.
@Jasmine: Â Great to see you here in the neighborhood.
Reminds me again of the What Do Nomads Call Home piece that I reference above. Â That’s what got this whole round of questioning started.
“I live in my body.” — I like that.
@Ekua: Â Great to see you here.
Your approach sounds perfectly fair to me. Â Also sounds like you are a seasoned pro at thinking this through. Â It gets at others’ comments above: Â where is the question going? Â If there’s depth in the relationship, then there’s depth to the answer.
@Sophie: Â Go for it. Â If your motives are good, that usually translates and people usually get it.
@Cyrus: Â I almost used the term “pigeon hole” in writing this piece, but then opted to take it out. Â Not because I myself haven’t been pigeon-holed. Â I have. Â But I also believe that most people are simply trying to get some context to better understand who you are.
Having said that, there are some whose line of questioning does seem intent on putting others in a box.
Good point: don’t ask the question if you can’t take the answer.
Although the prejudgments I’ve been subjected to (for being from the United States while living in Europe in the 2000s) are probably not quite up to ones I’ve imagined you’ve endured, I can appreciate your frustration.
You’ve got quite a story. Â I know if I asked the question I would be inclined to ask a lot of questions — only curious to know more, rather than to prejudge.
Thanks for a thorough and thoughtful response!
Indeed I do have a hard time with this. I’m Filipino…who doesn’t look Filipino but more Spanish or South American. And was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, but left in 2007 and lived in Australia for 2 years and been traveling the rest. Currently I don’t have a home. So I’m never sure if I’m being asked my heritage, or where I grew up.
Nonetheless, what I say when asked this is this: “I’m originally from Vancouver.”
And just see where that leads.
Yeah, I hate this question too, since “birth country,” “current country,” “place I call home,” “place lived longest” are all *different*.
Usually I say “a lot of places” and watch their nose wrinkle as they aren’t able to place me neatly into a box. Then it’s a judgement if they’re open minded enough to understand the long winded answer, or if I just move the conversation on. There are some people who just aren’t worth the explanation, whereas others it most certainly is. We’ve all been there, done that.
The question gets more complicated each year. I was born in a place I barely lived in; grew up in a place I don’t identify with; and have lived in 3 countries other than the place I call “home” – New York City. NYC would certainly be my answer if not for the fact that I’ve lived in 3 different countries over the past few years.
But it depends where you are. In the US, people often want to know your ethnicity; here in Italy, they just want confirmation that I’m not from around these parts.
Maybe I should say, “New York, via Japan and Dublin”?
Or just “American”? Keep it simple; I tend to agree with your wife.
We usually say, “currently we live in …..” or respond with a question, “do you mean right now?” You can tell a lot about someone by how and what they ask next. Maybe they really want to know about you, or maybe they’re just making conversation. Being raised in Virginia and having lived quite a few years in the south as of late, I’m really sensitive to what people are driving at – but wherever you are it seems there are quite a few who are just trying to put you in a box, to see if you’re like them or not (and will run if you’re not), or can do something for them – fortunately it’s all pretty transparent. On good days I think most people are really just curious… but even if they are just curious it can be thorny adjusting to people who seem to think wherever they are from is the center of the universe. When I’m not sure where someone is from I ask “so where do you live?” and work backwards, again taking emphasis off of the “from”.
Wow- Like you, I analyze this question when people ask me this and I certainly don’t have the worldliness you two have! I feel that people ask this question not really because they care about where you’re FROM but are searching for a way to connect with you and find a commonality either because you came from somewhere they really are curious about (what foreigner doesn’t want to hear about the US, and especially cities like NYC!), or that they are searching for a place you have lived that they may also be familiar with, to excitedly exchange stories:
– “OMG! My friend Juan used to live in San Diego and he….”
– “Wow, I’ve always wanted to meet someone from America! You’re really not much different than I am,” (or “You look and act crazy just as I expected!)
– “I have dreams of going to America. Tell me what it’s like!” (for inspiration and further, more concrete visions)
I love asking people where they’re from even here, and I love being asked the question! What a great, insightful post on my favorite question when meeting new people!
Last Wednesday, 1 September 2010, I was invited by the Vietnamese Ambassador to the United Nations to attend a reception in the Delegates Dining Room at the United Nations building in New York. The event was held on the occasion of the 65th Anniversary of Viet Nam’s National Day – 2 September 1945 – 2 September 2010. There were about 50 guests in attendance. It was an eclectic group of very interesting people from all over the world.
I began introducing myself to the guests as I circulated amongst the group. The first person with whom I spoke was from Laos and he asked if I had ever been to his country? I told him I had once been on the border with Laos in a place called Dak To, in Kon Tum Province, Viet Nam (where the vicious battle of Dak To was fought during Thanksgiving, 1967).
Next I introduced myself to the gentleman standing next to him. I asked him out of curiosity: “And where are you from?” He gave me a piercing look and answered: ” Korea -THE NORTH ! “. I got the impression that he thought he had stumped a typical American who had little knowledge of his country, its history and culture due to the fact that the American media rarely delved into this subject. Ah! but he didn’t know that I had recently read a very interesting book by Bruce Cummings entitled “North Korea – Another Country” which explained the history and culture of that country from the North Korean perspective. I must say the book was quite educational. So without mentioning to him that I had read this book, I proceeded to show him that actually, I knew quite a bit about
his country. I wish you could have seen the expression on his face as I relayed this information to him. I bet that caused a little consternation when he relayed this story to his compatriots.
See what can happen when you ask the question: “And where are you from?
some of the facts that I had learned by reading Bruce Cummings book.
@Carlos: Â Sounds like a common struggle. Â I imagine some interesting conversations have followed your response.
@Andy: Â Your response makes me think we should carry an index card with our various answers on it.
Wrinkling noses, now that’s no good. Â Some people want a story, others want ease. For them, disappointment.
Certainly seems like we’ve all been there, done that, but I’m fascinated to hear everyone’s thoughts and experiences.
@Margo: Â Funny you say, “Currently we live inâ€¦” Â Just today, we answered the “Where are you from” with “Originallyâ€¦” Â and the Bulgarian-German taxi driver who asked us said “What do you mean by that, ‘originally'”
So yes, others’ responses and follow-ups say a lot about them. Â “â€¦having lived quite a few years in the south as of late, I’m really sensitive to what people are driving at.” — now I’m curious.
In the end, the transparency is, well, transparent.
I like the idea of working backwards from “Where do you live.”
@Jennifer: Â To find commonalityâ€¦that resonates with us. Â I offer up all the places I’ve spent time for that very reason: Â make a connection, establish a rapport.
I love your quotes! Â I think they really capture the question and sentiment well. Â “My friend Juan used to live in San Diego”â€¦we experienced a lot of that in Latin America, just replace San Diego with Washington DC.
@Liv: Â I tend to agree with you. In the U.S., people mostly want to know where you grew up and fundamentally your roots. Â Your experience in Italy makes me chuckle: confirmation that s/he is not one of us.
The response of NYC via Japan and Dublin works. Â I used to use something like that when we first arrived in Prague, but it almost always required an added explanation, perhaps because people were as much interested as they were puzzled.
@Dermot: Â I really enjoy stories like this that hinge on breaking stereotypes — particularly that of the unworldly American. Â Glad you read Cummings’ book before the conversation.
@Judith: Â Leave a little bit of mystery on the table and see if they pick it up. Â I like that strategy.
Since I’ve been in the same city (albeit four different neighborhoods) for ten years in a row now, I tell people I’m from Seattle. Invariably the look on the questioner’s face is of disappointment, sometimes even annoyance, as though I’m unwilling to tell them the truth. So when I feel like it, I add, “but I was born in the Netherlands”. Which is usually met by their knowing smile and “I thought I detected a slight accent.”
What the strand of delightful comments to this question shows is that a sizeable swathe of ‘nomadic’ people have been created as a result of globalisation and movement of people around the world. The word nomad is not really appropriate because our movements often transgress countries, continents, hemispheres, languages, religions, ideologies… Unfortunately, for those who are firmly based in one of these dimensions, it is difficult to fully comprehend the rest of us. Does that mean when someone asks “Where are you from?”, we should get offended? Well, no, but we do need to try and convey the complexity of the situation as best we can.
@Cyrus: Exactly. As you suggest, there’s no need to get offended; the onus is on us to help others understand. As for an appropriate replacement for the word “nomad,” we’re open to suggestions.
OK. I think we are going somewhere useful here Daniel. We could even come up with a new word (or series of words) to give the English language 🙂 Two things to consider, one is that a lot of words already exist for various states of “statelessness”, but none of them is satisfactory in my view. The other is that we are actually trying to describe various phenomena. One layer is a group of people who move around within one country or group of similar countries in terms of location and income (typically around North America), or even between rich European and English speaking countries. Then you have the ‘economic migrants’ who move from much poorer (usually southern hemisphere) countries to the north. Then you have the ‘expats’ who are highly skilled people from everywhere (including the elite of poorer countries) and these include diplomats and bankers, and they chose to reside in various places due to work placement. The next group are ‘backpackers’ who typically spend limited periods of time exploring the corners of the world. I count your esteemed selves as the elite of this group, and take my hat off to you. You also have ‘traveller’ communities, whether they are ancient & ethnic in nature like the Roma, or hippy groups of later years in western countries. None of these groups however actually transcend the barriers of the mind necessarily. Roma people for example are one of the most devoutly Christian people. Ditto Spanish migrants to the US. The countless Asian & other communities which reside in the US and Europe tend to stick to their religious and national identities even more. Also, I can think of many expats whom I have come across in London. Often they remain wedded to their traditions & language of origin, and try very little to learn from what the UK or London has to teach them. Their kids are sent to expat schools for the French/ German/ or Americans… and rarely bother to teach them the local language & ways properly, especially if they are not English speakers already. In contrast, and as a final group I can identify, you have people who genuinely go out of their way and step out of the comfort zone and not only leave their homeland and settle elsewhere (and not always for economic reasons), but adopt other languages, marry into other races, bring up their children with multiple languages, discard or at least avoid sticking to the religion or ideologies, customs, foods, etc their parents brought them up with. These are the ultimate rebels or non-conformists. Can we have a name for them?
I think it really depends on who is asking because many people who ask are not really interested in the details. We usually just say California as that’s where we were before we left 5 years ago on our open ended family world tour. Simple is easier unless someone wants or needs to know more. It reminds me of that well known American question “what do you do?”.
Most people are not aware that we are Americans as we travel ( always getting asked directions etc from locals often in languages we do not understand), so we don’t bring it up unless they do. We almost never see other Americans on our travels. So mostly we let others assume what ever they like, unless asked. We are rarely asked. When the Dutch or Belgium folks start talking to us in their native tongue though, and that happens all over because of our plates, we have to explain a bit why we don’t understand.
It has always been a hard question for me as I moved around a LOT growing up and it will be even harder for my daughter who has many international “homes” as she has been a world traveling nomad since she was 5. She did live her first 5 years in California so that is usually what she says, but since she is fluently trilingual, she often has to go into more detail if she is talking in one of her other languages to explain it. Many assume she is UK or Irish if they hear her or us speaking English. When we are all talking Spanish with Spanish friends, some may assume we are Spanish.
We feel like the world is our home, but we will also always be American.
It is often confusing to people because we travel Europe in a motorhome with Holland plates, she speaks Spanish perfectly but is very blond and blue eyed. The Mandarin in Europe throws them even more than the Spanish. So sometimes we just have to explain the details, but for the most part, the question never comes up.
In answer to the question from Cyrus: how about ‘Mindgrant’? 🙂
@Cyrus: The concepts or layers you mention all have some overlap as well, which demands another term (hopefully to clarify or further distinguish these terms). I offered up some ideas to Kamran (below). But when the idea really comes to me, I’ll share it here.
@soultravelers: We find that when we’re in Europe, we don’t get asked this question nearly as much — because we blend in more. In Asia, it was different. We were asked frequently. In Latin America also. But there, the interest was deep because the people asking were hoping to find out that we shared a geographic connection with one of their family members living in the U.S.
Fascinating world we live in.
@Kamran: Mindgrant. I like the fusion of words. The only danger with the term “mindgrant” is the emphasis on the mind, intellect. Then, I thought “cultural migrant”, but that implies someone who purposely goes to be in a completely different culture, maybe like an Art History professor who goes to study in Florence. Then I thought, “we’re talking about a different kind of cultural migration, a sort of immersion.” And that’s when I figured the people you speak of might be called (cultural) immersives. Or better yet, transversives — because they don’t just immerse themselves, they go in and cut across cultures as well.
@Jennifer: There’s definitely something to be said for straightforward, resisting the creation of more jargon. But we wordsmiths are always tempted.
@Suzy: Colorado conviction, I see. Am laughing out loud at the inference from “Denver” that you lived in a log cabin.
To people from the U.S., I say “California” in part because I know there’s a very high likelihood, that like me, they lived there for a spell. And then I learn they lived in LA and we have this “do you really think that San Franscisco is better?” silly discussion.
Funny the distinction that Italians make throughout their country – north vs. south. And Sicily, fuhgeddaboudit. That’s another country, if not another planet sometimes. But I love it all. God I love the markets in Sicily. But I digress.
I say Denver, Colorado without question. I was born and raised in Denver, but I’ve lived in Italy and California as well. I think people ask for that connection you allude to in your final paragraphs. Some people ask as they are feeling lost in their travels, hoping to ask “where are you from” to someone and find they are both from California. I don’t really think it matters where you are from. Some people use it as a tool for judgment I think. In Italy, if you say you are from Sicily to a northern Italian, they already have a book full of what you are like just by where you are from. When I lived in California and told people I was from Denver, I would get asked if I lived in a log cabin in the mountains. In the end, it doesn’t matter to me. People are people no matter where you are from.
Dan & Audrey:
I thought the question to be explored was – Where are you from – and not,
– What is your personal history -. The backgrounds and diversity of many who responded are quite interesting but a lengthy detailed answer can begin to sound self indulgent to someone who may only be looking for a snapshot and not an album. I agree with those who seem to think a short answer – I’m from the northeast United States, have been living in Spain for three years and presently doing some traveling – is sufficient. This approach lets the questioner decide if there is a desire and interest to continue the conversation beyond this point. If one senses a desire for more conversation a nice followup could be – Well that’s a little about me – so do you come from this country? In this simple exchange there are usually enough signals about an interest in extending the conversation. By choice I believe brevity is best for starters.
@Don: There’s always a fine line between sharing and over-sharing. Ultimately, it comes down to your motive. If it’s to bathe in your own pride, that will show. If it’s to share and provide some hooks for people to relate to, that will likely come through in tone.
The more I think about this question “Where are you from?”, the more it seems to imply “Who are you?”. Those who wish to stay at the surface will confine this question to geographical locations. But how “barren” would such a response be in isolation? Daniel Noll, one of the owners of this wonderful website, and the person who originally poses this question, has put it under the Personal Development section. So let’s have some depth to this. I asked some related questions about what we call people who “migrate” for non-economic (or for that matter personal safety) reasons, and so far we have had a few fascinating suggestions (including from Daniel himself). Please keep them coming. I promise, I won’t write any more comments (until or unless I have a brilliant one word answer to this question 🙂 )
@Cyrus: Fair point. If not “Who are you?”, then at least “Tell me about this one dimension of who you believe you are.”
We will continue to keep the observations and questions coming. They are a natural extension of who we are and how we absorb the world. We all love travel photos and destinations, but it’s when those places and experiences help us ask questions and learn a little about ourselves and the world around us, that we really begin to understand.
And no need to apologize for or refrain from making comments. That’s what this is all about. When we write — and especially when we ask questions — we are looking for answers. Or more accurately, we are seeking interesting ways to answer and interpret the questions we’ve asked.
@James: Â Thank you for your comment. Â Perhaps the question is to some degree all of the three things you describe (unimportant, unanswerable, [my] problem). Similar thoughts ran through my head when I wrote the piece. When I use the term “overwrought” to describe the piece, I do so rather deliberately.
However, thatÂ people ask this question all the time in every corner of the globe does strike us as making it relevant to discuss why they do and what they are getting at. Furthermore, the responses and personal interpretations are so varied (the comments here only begin to address this), there must be something to the substance of the question.
That you chose to take the time to read and comment perhaps proves the point further still.
Regarding this question as hand-wringing, I’d be curious to hear from others who’ve commented. Â But I’ll speak for me and for Audrey: Â what we are doing in asking, considering and answering this question is not so much about worrying as it is about wondering.
Excuse me for sounding harsh, but the question is to an extent 1) not very important, 2) unanswerable and 3) your problem. Just the same I could see it becoming a rather widespread “illness”. I’m reminded of an essay by E.B. White (who, if any writer ever did, had a lovely sense of place). It was a sort of “worry” about where things were going: what was happening to Maine, the computer bringing us back to the jungle, and, the key phrase here, wondering whether we’d all be like little bees in the future, hopping from flower to flower (and skipping the rest). Of course, no one can speak for what one parents did, whether by necessity (job seeking) or itchiness (wanderlust). But it does become your “normal” doesn’t it? You can’t necessarily expect to have settled answers for an unsettled life. You have to develop your own story, or as some New Agers would have it, your own mythology and certainly enough, your own acceptance. I put “illness” in quotes, because obviously you all are, in a sense, turning your nomadic ways (your “illness” if you will) into something productive. Rather than be a nomad uprooting camp for the next fertile field, you uproot to find the next film. But it becomes a bit hypocritical to then worry about what to say in regards to where you come from. Because, in my opinion at least, constant uprooting comes as much for a displeasure of where one finds oneself as for excitement of the next destination.
which is all it’s about isn’t it?
I myself would there for choose choice #2, unanswerable. But then I’m sure there are some anthropologists out there that could tell us from whence the question originally sprung. :o)
@James: Yes, wondering. We do a bit of that around here. I’m not sure I’m up to the task of a full metaphysical, philosophical or anthropological consideration of “from whence the question original sprung.” So perhaps, like so many queries, ultimately unanswerable.
Perhaps the following question might prove a little easier, less ambitious to tackle:
Always a very difficult question for me to answer. My response often depends on who is asking and how much time I want to devote to the topic! I typically ask where do you live if anything…
@Anil: This reminds me of when we were in Cuba. People would ask “Where are you from?” and we would respond truthfully but somewhat evasively, “We live in Prague, Czech Republic.” Not quite the question they were asking, but the answer suited us all.
I have a funny anecdote which comes mind about this question: About a year ago I was having my hair cut in a busy unisex London hairdressing salon. The person cutting was a woman of East Asian appearance, and as hairdressers often do, she started to chat… One of her first questions was ‘where are you from?’. Against my better instincts & habit at hairdressers, I started explaining the extricate & complex nature of my origins, upbringing and later life (see my post #22 above). After about 10 minutes, thinking I had gone on for too long, I finished off my monologue by asking “so, where are you from?” She promptly changed the subject and went on about some other matter, but as soon as I got the chance, I thought I would tempt her to answer my question, which was only fair, given the amount of info I had volunteered. So I said “Let me guess… you are from Thailand”. At which point, I could see her face welling up with anger in the mirror. “How dare you?”. “If my English husband had come across a silly remark like this, he would know what to do!” At this point I could feel her hands trembling, and can barely remember what else she said, because I was now fearing for the anatomical integrity of my ears, if not any other organ, or for that matter my life … Lol. So I decided not to utter another word… When she stopped ranting, the whole busy salon was silent & you could hear a pin drop during the remaining 5 minutes it took to finish! That was one of the tensest 5 minutes I have gone through! Needless to say, I did not tip the woman or ever went back to that salon 🙂 I never did find out where she was from either 😀 Moral of the story: don’t ask a hairdresser where they are from. Especially when they are wielding scissors anywhere near your ears.. Lol
@Cyrus: Good thing you weren’t getting a shave. Funny story, indeed. And lessons to be learned. Not everyone who asks is interested in a reciprocal inquiry. If I had to venture a guess (going way, way out on a limb) as to where she was from based solely on her reaction, I might say Cambodia.
I will never forget my ten year old daughter being on a stage to do the hula. At the end the announcer asked her where she was from. She burst into tears. She asked me that day what she should have answered. I told her she is from wherever her family is- for our house is portable but our home is forever hers.
I still wonder where the kids are from. They never claim where they are living. Global citizens. Good luck to their spouses. They are doomed to wander the earth doing good with my – now adult- children.
Where am I from- Phoenix. The worst 18 years of my life-lol. The last thirty something have been so much better!
@Janette: Â Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry to hear that your daughter burst into tears…but it does make for a funny story. Â Sounds like a trial by fire inquiry. Â For children (and frankly, all of us) whose experiences cannot boil down to one or two words or even one sentence, the power of a well-told story.
Am glad to hear that your life has improved, post-Phoenix.
Fantastic writeup and a challenging question to boot for well-traveled folks.
I personally try not to over-analyze the question. If people want to box me up into a neat category for context, that’s their personal problem. Those that truly want to know me will pry deeper.
When someone asks me, “â€œWhere are you from?â€. I tell them that I’m originally from Nigeria, and I also spent half my life (16 years) in the US.
To me, the question lies somewhere between where were you born and what ethnic background you are.
@Lola: It’s tough not to over-analyze, though. The question is so universal, and the answers so varied.
The upshot of the question does seem to come down to “Where were you born?”, “What ethnic background are you?” with a dash of “With which place do you most identify?” thrown in.
In any event, it’s fascinating to hear the various approaches, angles and reactions to the question and possible responses — yours included.
I almost wrote a similar blog post! I really identified with this analysis. My husband and I always pause when someone asks us that question and just look at each other and mutter different places. Or sometimes, when we act fast, I say “the US” and he says “Australia,” but then people always ask how we met if we’re from opposite ends of the earth, and so we add that we were both living in Israel for 3 years, met there and then lived in NY for the past three years before traveling. A much longer answer than people are usually looking for! I do struggle with what to say when asked where I’m from in the US, since when I say Chicago, where I grew up, it does feel disingenuous since I haven’t lived there in more than 10 years, and when I say NY I feel insincere since I’ve only lived there for 3 years… Either way, I hear you on this one, and I liked how you framed the different ways of asking the question. Love the blog!
@Ilana: Great to see you here. Oh, the “How did you meet?” question. There’s another one that’s anything but a short story. Regarding your answer of Chicago vs. NY, there’s a matter of the length of time you’ve spent in each and how recently you did, but more importantly, the issue is with identity. For those of us who’ve moved, the answer is something we all struggle with.
Glad you enjoyed the piece and our blog.
Another great post you two! Let me bore you with my dilemma. 10 years ago answering this would be easy. I would simply say I’m South African but my parents are Portuguese and end of discussion.
I still use the same answer these days, however a bit has changed. Having lived in London for almost 7 years, my SA accent has become a rather strange blend of British and South African English, which now leaves people rather confused when I only mention South Africa. So now when I answer the “Where are you from?” question, I usually get the “but your accent isn’t completely South African”, which prompts me to explain about my stay in London.
I tend to leave out where I’m currently living until it is necessary, just to save people from me talking them to death.
Another problem I have is a knack for accents. So when I’ve had a couple of drinks, my mind decides that my ‘normal’ accent just won’t do. I’ve spent evenings trying to convince people I’m South African with Portuguese blood, but doing it in a German accent. Didn’t help my cause… 🙂
@Tony: Thanks for your comment, the story and the addition of a rather interesting dimension to the discussion, accents. They strike me as another “easy” but potentially deceptive way to size someone up. On the basis of accents (or lack thereof), we have sometimes been accused (I use that term lightly) of being Canadian. However, we haven’t yet used a couple of drinks and a German accent to find our way to clarity of identity. Am still laughing as I type. Thanks!
This is a great point – where is anyone ‘from’ really? I generally answer with my country when abroad and with the last city I chose to “hang my hat” when in the US.
I tend to move about every two years so it can be a long and circuitous story when responding to ‘from’.
Like ‘home,’ being ‘from’ a place is more closely related to where I hang that hat than where I may have been born.
I feel like half the time I answer this question, I’m lying. I grew up in Ohio, lived most of my adult life in Michigan, and am now living in Seoul. A number of Koreans I met have not visited the U.S., but they question me as to both the country and the city I’m from. So if they seem really confused by my saying Ann Arbor, MI — then I’ll switch the response to “near Chicago.” I’m not trying to fool anyone, but I want to give them some marker they’ve heard of. The worst was when a guy hadn’t heard of Chicago, either, so then I just told him “near New York.” Haha. This probably sounds really bad, but my intentions are good.
@Maria: If you are moving around a lot, home is indeed where you hang your hat. The next question: What kind of hat are you?
@Odysseus: “I feel like half the time…I’m lying.” I’m laughing. I know how you feel. Easier answers can feel like a one big, long fib. We completely understand this. Sometimes simplicity and conflation (Ann Arbor into Chicago) works best. Absolutely, In the end, all that really matters are your good intentions.
I usually take a deep breath and say: I am a Korean but I grew up in Cambodia and Singapore and now I’m in Boston. It’s long but strong – and it’s a great conversation starter.
But when I see that the person’s not interested, I usually just say “I’m Korean” – this does not indicate that I am From Korea. Being From somewhere is different from your nationality. I grew up mostly in Cambodia so instead, I sometime just say “I’m from Cambodia” – if the person is interested, they would say “so, are you cambodian?” or “You don’t look cambodian.”
You get the idea.
@Na: “Long but strong.” — I like that. And if your answer starts conversations, then you obviously have the right formula.
I don’t have a problem with the question “Where are you from?” as I’m pretty used to it on the travel/expat trail (My short version is, “I’m from Pennsylvania, but I’ve spent the last three years living and working in China, Singapore, and Paris.”)
I wrote about this recently on my blog, but I actually do have a problem with “Where’s your family from?” because it’s usually asked after people aren’t satisfied with my first answer. (Or similarly, “No, where are you REALLY from?” and “Where are your parents from?”) Because I have Asian features, very few people let it go when I say I’m American, and “Where’s your family from” makes me feel like being from Pennsylvania isn’t good enough and I have to fit into people’s stereotypes.
@Edna: Let’s hear it for Pennsylvanians! For me, like all questions, it depends where it comes from. If I sense that people are just curious (even if a bit underinformed, naive, etc.), I’m more than happy to answer. My answer helps inform. If, however, the question has some kind of agenda behind it, I may just answer it, but move around or beyond it more quickly than usual.
I get this question a lot at home, in Washington DC. Half the time the person is asking where I lived before moving to DC, while others are asking about ethnicity. Usually I can tell which question they’re asking– those who moved here from other countries tend to ask about ethnicity, while Americans are asking about my former sate of residence– so I answer accordingly.
@Caroline: Thanks for sharing your own experience with us. Audrey and I can appreciate the context for getting this question in the DC area. Audrey grew up there and I lived there for a couple of years. A very international place where the same question — like this one, Where are you from? — can take on completely different meanings and intent.
I do get asked this question a lot, and most of the time I assume that what the asker wants to know is what my nationality or ethnicity is. I lived in the US for 10+ years, and since last year I live in Germany. That’s more than one third of my life, but I usually think “the right answer” to the question “where are you from?” is Japan (where I was born and raised, and where my family is from).
I sometimes respond to the question by asking “what do you think?” or saying something like “I’m from Bavaria” (which of course I’m not) as a way to make the conversation a bit more engaging, because the asker will then share more about what they mean by the “where are you from” question.
Sometimes, depending on the context, my first response to the question is “Well, I’m not sure”. At this point in my life, I think that’s how I actually feel.
Related to this topic, a friend of mine recently recommended this TED talk to me, and I think many readers here would also enjoy it: http://www.ted.com/talks/pico_iyer_where_is_home.html
Oh my gosh, I have such a hard time answering that question! I’ve only lived a handful of places and clearly I am not Italian, so it really confuses people when I say I live in Italy. My typical response these days is that I’m American but live in Italy. If they press further, I just usually say I am from Pennsylvania, though haven’t lived there for nearly half my life now.
@Ayako: Even as you answer the question, it seems like the answer can cut either way, “Where are you fromâ€¦now?” or “Where are you fromlâ€¦originally?”
Thanks for including the link to Pico Iyer’s talk. I like to think that he used this post (a few years old now) as background for his talk.
I kid, I kid.
A good friend of ours (originally from the U.S., but living in Berlin) actually first sent me the Pico Iyer video a couple of months ago. Before that, we’d been discussing the nature of identity in today’s fluid lifestyle, nomadically encouraged, globalized world. So while movement is relatively easy (for an arguable few, of course), sorting out our ever-changing identities as we move is a little more challenging.
Thanks for your comment!
@Jennifer: I can identify with that personally, particularly the Pennsylvania part 🙂
I hate this question so much … I actually spend much of my life just trying to prepare for when I next get asked it. It really has caused me so much anxiety … dumb? Yeah … but it’s real.
I was born in Wales … that’s just an awful place to start off with because half the world doesn’t know where it is or what it is. The other half of the world just consider it tantamount to “England,” which it isn’t, but as I only lived in wales for my first four years, and then moved to England, I think I should just go for “Britain”; but no-one from “Britain” who asks you where you’re from wants to hear that (always look at you funny), so you can see how hard it is, and I’ve only just begun.
Anyway, I now live in the United Arab Emirates, but for the previous 17 years I lived in the United States. My family (my “now” family that is) also live in the United States, but my last family now live in Japan – where, of course, I lived for five years prior to living in the US.
And prior to living in Japan, I lived in Turkey for three years. I have no family there in Turkey, but, oddly enough, it feels more like home to me than anywhere else I’ve lived (apart from the US), where I don’t live anymore – but my family does (right?).
I do NOT want to be telling any of this to anyone who just asks me where I’m from. I absolutely hate it when other people say things like “I’m from London AND New York.” It just feels like they’re inviting inquiry because they’re so “special.” I do not feel “special” at all, and in so many ways I feel rather embarrassed to be “from” … wherever it is I’m from.
My accent is, for the most part, English. But I’ve lived in the US for long enough for it to be “not quite English,” but certainly not American. This means that most people think I’m Australian … where I have never lived, and never been (although I’d like to). Of course, no-one who really knows an Australian accent thinks I’m Australian, yet Australian is by far the most common guess (a distant second is South African!) … again, never been there, but would like to.
Here in the UAE, I travel on my US passport … I brought my UK passport with me (you never know!), but I haven’t been there for years, and have no reason to ever go back. I’d like to think of myself as American, (why not?), but in my heart of hearts, I know I’m not. Sometimes I resign myself to just being “English,” which is the one thing I most certainly am not: not born there and none of my blood family were born there … and yet … in my heart of hearts, I think I am … that … English; but in my brain of brains, I’m just not.
From tomorrow, I’m going to adopt a new policy. If someone I think is British asks me where I’m from, I’m going to say England. If someone American (or anywhere else) asks me, I’m going to say American. (Actually, if someone Australian asks me, I’m going to say English too). After all these years, I have come to this decision based on a realization: Brits and Ausies care about this question in a different way to Americans (and everyone else). A Brit (and I think an Ausie) will think me pretentious if I say anything other than English. Americans, on the other hand, seem to be much more welcoming: it doesn’t matter to them if I wasn’t actually born there; all they care about is that I love the country, which I do. Anyone else from any other country probably just wants a frame of reference, and as the US is where I go “home” to, then that’s the frame of reference they will get. Yes, I know, what about all the other English speaking countries that I haven’t included here. I’m going “America” with them too – they should be sympathetic enough to the plight.
Wow. Thanks, Phill for the thorough perspective. I had a conversation recently about this general topic with an acquaintance recently and they scoffed that I even considered it. And admittedly, my story and arc is simpler than yours. However, the nature of mobility — and circumstances like yours — make it a growing, relevant question.
Your thoughts and planned responses are certainly well considered. However, as you spoke of Wales, England and Britain, I wondered why you’d never answered United Kingdom. I can imagine a host of reasons, but I thought I’d venture to ask.
Regardless, if you tire of answering, you could always fall back on indicating you’re a man of the world.
Ah, the “United Kingdom can of worms” is just the can of worms beneath the can of worms of the where I’m from can of worms. OK … here it is …
The difference between the United Kingdom of Britain is, of course, that the United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland. I’ve never been there … but I have three grandparents from there (not hat I ever knew them). The grandparents did, however, leave me with a very Irish last name – which further confuses my Welshness. The grandparents, as far as I can gather, were from the north, but it could have been the south, so that’s another country – the Republic of Ireland – where, oddly enough, I have actually been.
Indeed, I have actually claimed to be Irish, on occasion, when it suited my needs. These needs generally being getting into Irish parties; these parties of course being in America … where everyone cares more about you being Irish; presumably, because they’re no more Irish than I am.
By the way … my plan to be “a Brit to the British” and “an American to Americans” … didn’t work.
Fascinating. I hope your “plan not working” is only a minor inconvenience.
My “plan not working” is working very well! It’s the best “not plan” I ever had. As it turns out, no-one from the UAE is “from” the UAE … I’ve actually found a country and a place where … everyone is as “not from” as I am …
Home at last 🙂
Oh the “where are you from”question… I personally try to avoid asking, occasionally will find out through conversation. Sometimes, if a person has an accent I can’t place, will say (learned this from a friend) “you sound like someone who speaks another language” and they always are happy to share. When being asked, my answer will depend on how engaged I want to be in the conversation. I’ve lived in three different countries (for about 17 years in each, plus studied in another) during different stages of my life and speak three languages daily, sometimes in the same conversation. So would often say “I’m East European” or “it’s complicated” (if I don’t wish to engage) or “I’m a Russian speaking Ukrainian born Israeli Australian” if they struggle to believe