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?