Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Where are you from?

Have you ever though about what a loaded question this is:

Where are you from?

Someone asked Magdalena that question the other day and I realized I hadn't taught her what to say. Then I realized I didn't know what to teach her to say.

It's not so hard when it's a non-American asking the question. Then she can just say "USA" and be done with it. But if anyone wants particulars, poor Magdalena is either stateless or from too many places at once. She has an equal claim on Arizona, New York, and the UAE, because she has lived in each for about the same amount of time (the UAE will soon exceed those others but I don't think I'll ever be able to teach my kids to say they're from the UAE, with a straight face, because that's just too funny). If we care about where she was born, well, that throws Vermont into the mix. She also spent a good chunk of time in each of Provo, Utah and Cairo, Egypt, so there's that, too. I think I'll teach her to say she's from the USA, but that she lives in Sharjah. That should be simple enough for a 2.5-year-old to handle.

Then again, I'm still working on what to say as my own answer to this question. With every place we move, the answer just gets more and more complicated. By the time we moved to Ithaca, the answer was something like, "we moved here from Arizona by way of a summer in Provo but I'm from Oregon and Jeremy's from Idaho and we met at the BYU." Only the truly interested or persistent got the bonus answer that involved Russia, Syria, Jordan, Vermont, etc.

Here, like I mentioned, we can often get away with just "I'm from America." It's nice. Other times, I couch my answer in terms of "we moved here from Upstate New York." Sometimes I can even tailor my response to what I already know about the person who's asking - "oh, you're from Washington? I grew up in Oregon!" and then I can leave everywhere else out of it.

The good thing about living in a place like the UAE is that we are by no means the only freakish specimens of statelessness. You can hardly meet someone new here without hearing a "where are you from?" story like, "well, I'm Pakistani/Yemeni but I was born and raised in the UAE and have never been to either Pakistan OR Yemen." Or you meet someone who is clearly Arab and you get all excited because maybe they're from somewhere you've lived but when you ask, they give a bland answer like, "Canada." It seems rude to follow up with, "yeah, but where are you REALLY from?" (...and yet, I've totally done that.)

I had to laugh a couple of weeks ago when I met a family of three outside Miriam's school. They were looking at the school for their son and they needed help figuring out which entrance to use. I showed them the way and then, by way of conversation, asked where they were from. They were obviously Arab, the woman was wearing hijab, and they spoke English with an accent. And yet the man's answer to my question was "oh, we're from the University of Sharjah."

Well, that's one way to answer!

So, give me a short answer and a long answer or something in between: Where are you from?


Tim said...

Yeah, it is not quite so complicated for us, but when do we start claiming Provo? I am "from"Utah and Cait from south Carolina but our home is in Provo, our child was born in Provo, no immediate plans to move. It is kind of a dumb question but fills our need to place people in boxes.

Jen said...

1000 bonus points for coming up with the phrase "freakish specimens of statelessness."


We actually live in a similar area (though it's definitely on a smaller scale than the UAE)...it seems like Boston often serves as the non-Mormon "provo" for the under-35 crowd...meaning everyone "does their time" here at some point in their early adulthood.

We also have an Air Force Base in our ward, adding to the mix.

Instead of saying where I'm "from," I always change the wording to "I grew up in," because I'm pretty sure that most of the time that's what the person wants to know. I grew up in Maine.

That doesn't help Magdalena, though....she hasn't finished "growing up in...." =)

Señora H-B said...

I grew up in rural Nevada, but I've lived in Utah, Massachusetts, Indiana, Spain, Peru, and Chile. My parents live in New Mexico. I still say I'm from Nevada, even though I haven't been there in 8 years. What will I say once I finish grad school and get a job? I don't know.

My husband, on the other hand, has only ever lived in Indiana. He will always be from Indiana, I think.

Bridget said...

I don't know when you can start claiming to be from somewhere other than where you grew up. At the same time, it bothers me when married couples with several children still call wherever their parents live, "home," at the expense of the place where they currently live, and have possibly lived for years and years. It's just weird to me. Jeremy and I have operated under the assumption that wherever we are is our "home." Where our parents live is still home in a sense, but again, not at the expense of where we live as our own family.

Anyway, that doesn't answer the question of when you can claim "from"ness. What do you think of, say, a Jordanian family claiming Canada as their "from"? How long would they have to live in Canada for me to accept it and not ask a follow-up question?

Liz Johnson said...

I have no freaking idea. I hate this question. I was born in Provo, moved 8 times (Arizona, 3 cities in Tennessee, Miami, and Dallas), spent 6 years in Mexico City (where I did most of my "growing up" from age 12-18), went to BYU, spent 8 (!!!!) years there, divided up by 4 months in Mexico and 4 months in Romania. Then we moved to Indiana, and we've been here almost 4 years.

I have no idea. Could somebody please tell me where I'm from?

Liz Johnson said...

(and don't say Provo, because I WILL CUT YOU. besides, I don't think anybody can say they're "from" their college town unless they actually grew up there, right?! RIGHT?!)

JosephJ said...

Liz, you'll always be Mexican in my book.

When I go somewhere away from where I live now, I say I'm from/live in Boston (current residence). When someone HERE asks where I'm from, I tell either which suburb I call home, or say I was raised in TN. When we visit TN, and I'm asked where I'm from, I give the town in TN, or say I'm living in Boston. Provo never comes into the mix, even though my "time there" spans 8 years.

The tricky situation came last year when my parents and my family (MY spouse/kids) were both on vacation out of town, and we introduced ourselves differently. They said, "We are from Tennessee" and I said, "We are from Boston." My mom got a bit confused by that, maybe a little hurt, too. Afterwards, she reminded me I was from Tennessee. YES, it will always be where I grew up, and yes, as long as my parents live there I will have a home there, but as you say, it's not my current home. I figure the title "home" gets tattooed on each town you have ever lived, and even those dumps you lived in for 4 months way back when can be associated with a memory of home.

Interesting tidbit: Knowing where you are "from" can be a challenge, like when we were "between addresses" when we got married, and we went to register for our marriage license. I put down for my address my in-laws address, as did my fiancee. I didn't have an address of my own, so it seemed to make sense. Genealogists in 100 years will be confused, since I never really resided there.

Amanda said...

Like Jen, I usually say I grew up in S. California (even though I was born in Utah, but we lived there for all of 1 year), and went to school on the central coast of California. I don't know why I bother making the distinction though- people have no frame of reference for the central coast and just mentally translate that to either LA or San Francisco even though it is about 300 miles from either place.
I'm not complaining though, people tell me what places they are from in Utah and my eyes glaze over. Then they try and be helpful and tell me it's near some other place where I don't know where it is.

Sarah Familia said...

I'm was totally going to blog about this topic! Now I don't have too :)

I usually say California, because I grew up mostly in three different houses there, and it's a good conversation starter (we always talk about Hollywood next). If pressed, I add San Diego, because it was one of my favorite places to live, and the likeliest for people abroad to recognize. I've spent too much time in South America to make the mistake of just saying "America," and I hate political discussions, so I don't like saying "U.S.A.," which invariably segues into commentary from my interlocutor about how wonderful/terrible the current president is.

But like everyone else, I was born in Provo. My husband grew up in Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Singapore and Indonesia. Since our marriage, we've also lived in Washington State, Ireland, the Philippines, Florence, northern Italy, and now Tunisia.

Last week someone asked my six-year-old, "where are you from?" She smiled and shrugged. "I don't know."

I don't know either.

Eevi said...

When I answer Finland to that question, which I get a ton due to my accent, there is almost always the follow up question of " how does a girl from Finland end up in Tucson". So I give the whole story of " moved to california with family when I was 14, went to college in Provo, got married and moved to AZ because o husband' job".

Jennifer said...

This question is so much easier when you haven't moved around very much and your husband grew up the same place as you! I usually say something like, "We moved here from Utah where we were in school, but we grew up in Oregon." Short and sweet and tells most of the story.

Poor Magdalena! I don't know what she should say. What does Miriam tell people?

B-Rad said...


Melody said...

This question has gotten considerably harder since I got married, but still not as hard as it is for you. I grew up in South Carolina and lived in the same little town that entire time. Then I got married and have since moved 6 times in not quite 7 years. But since we finally bought a house, I just tell people I'm from St. George since this is a permanent residence (Unless they are from St. George and are asking the question of where I grew up, in which case I say South Carolina).

For Cameron the question is even harder since his family moved around so much. If someone wants to know where he grew up he usually says Chicago, but that is only because he graduated high school there. I can't even keep track of all of the places his family has lived. I think he was born to be a nomad.

AmandaStretch said...

This sort of reminds me an exchange from the film Garden State:

Andrew Largeman: You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn't really your home anymore? All of a sudden even though you have some place where you put your sh**, that idea of home is gone.

Sam: I still feel at home in my house.

Andrew Largeman: You'll see one day when you move out it just sort of happens one day and it's gone. You feel like you can never get it back. It's like you feel homesick for a place that doesn't even exist. Maybe it's like this rite of passage, you know. You won't ever have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, for your kids, for the family you start, it's like a cycle or something. I don't know, but I miss the idea of it, you know. Maybe that's all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.

AmandaStretch said...

I have a friend who actually does answer "Heaven" when asked this question, after moving around so much. Her parents have continued to move since she left home, so she can't really go back to her childhood home, wherever that is.

As for me, I say Utah, because I was there until I was 6 and then again from 14-22. I might say Utah and Texas. But now that I've lived in DC for five years, and not just for grad school, this area is slowly becoming home too. DC is one of those places where almost everyone is a transplant too, so it comes up a lot.

Another of my favorite sentiments about where home is can be found in this song by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros: http://youtu.be/DHEOF_rcND8

Jessie said...

I suppose the technical answer is Idaho, because I was born there, and now I live there again, and my parents live there. But in between I lived in Kansas, Alaska, Virginia, Nevada (for seven years, my record), Arizona, and the Dutch Caribbean.

When we were at school on Statia, we had the same thing happen repeatedly that happens to you - you ask where someone very foreign-looking is from and they say America with no further explanation. The nicest way I found to ask what I REALLY wanted to know was, "Where is your accent from?"

Susanne said...

"What do you think of, say, a Jordanian family claiming Canada as their "from"? How long would they have to live in Canada for me to accept it and not ask a follow-up question?"

On the other hand what about people who say they are from Midan when they have never lived there, but their father's family was from this neighborhood in Damascus? (They lived their whole lives in Germany or Mezze.) I remember when one of my Syrian friends asked where I was from and when I said I was born in SC, but lived most of my life in NC, he asked, "But where is your family from?" meaning "what part of Europe are your ancestors from?"

I think I'd always want to know further where someone is from (like the Jordanian family), but depending on how that "I'm from Canada" was said, I'd either follow-up or leave it alone!

Sarah said...

When my now 7-year old daughter was about two someone asked her where she was from and she said, "a yellow submarine."

I always say I'm from the Pacific North West because that's where I was born and that's where we currently live. I always found it interesting that during the times I lived "over-seas" I would say I was from the USA and then usually have to clarify with "from Washington--the one without the whitehouse."

breanne said...

I have been thinking about writing a blog post on this EXACT thing for the past 2 months but I haven't gotten to it. I think the "where are you from" question used to be a lot more defining for people's identity--but I think that is changing now because so many people move so often.

And I actually don't tell people that I am from Scandinavia, although when I ask people with foreign roots and they say America, I always want to ask them about their ethnicity. Why don't we care where Caucasians are "really" from?

Kathy Haynie said...

I was born in Oklahoma but grew up in California. I moved to Oregon when I was 25 (now 57), so I definitely feel that I am "from" Oregon. I've lived here longer than anywhere else, and have very deep Oregon roots now.

My maternal grandfather was a true "Okie," who came to California a few years before the dust bowl. He was very proud of having two born-in-Oklahoma grandchildren (my brother and me). We were born at the army hospital at Fort Sill while my father was stationed there in the army during the Korean War. So we really weren't "from" Oklahoma--our parents were both Californians, and we did all of our growing up in California--but on the other hand, we really WERE "from Oklahoma."

Becky said...

I love this post, I feel like this all the time. When asked here in NY, I usually say "We're originally from Utah, but have lived all over the country . . " or something similar. When we're out of Ithaca I usually say we're from Ithaca. My poor James has your kids' problem, born in Wisconsin, but having spent time (and gone to school) in Utah, MA,and NY.

Loradona said...

So many people who have commented have such complicated histories! I was born in Portland. I live in Portland now. I've spent a few years in other towns in Oregon, and when I was really little we lived in Alaska for a few years. But where am I from? Oregon.

I do remember when I studied abroad in London, and people would ask where in the US I was from, and they had no concept of how large the US really is. I would say "Oregon" and get blank stares, so I began to say, "It's on the West Coast, north of California," and then people would say, "Oh! Near Disneyland!" or Hollywood, or San Francisco, or whatever was their mental connection was to California or West Coast.
Er, yes, I lived right next door.

Nancy said...

I shy away from answering this question. The short answer is "Orem," since that is where I live now.

But seriously? I'm a dual-citizen, which throws more confusion into the mix—I feel patriotic ties to two countries and thus feel like a fish out of water most of the time, like I've been an expat my whole life.

I was born in a small town in Alberta but haven't ever really lived there. I lived in California for a short time when I was younger and have a few early memories from there, but most of my young childhood memories are from British Columbia. I spent my young teen years in Alberta and my later teen years in Utah, though I've never really loved living here and have spent most of my time here trying to get away. Besides, I only lived here for two years before starting college so it feels more like a "college town" to me than anything else. My parents home here certainly isn't my "childhood home."

Russia, Jordan, and especially Egypt, are dear to my heart. Rachel still tells people that she's Egyptian. She's not. Though I think it's funny to tell people that Miriam is African-American.

But for now we're here in Orem, Utah. So that's what we say. I dunno...

Crys said...

I struggled with this question because I was brown. People would say, "Where are you from." And I would say, "The United States, or Illinois." And then they would say, "No, where are you originally from." And then I'd say, "Well my dad is from Mexico....is that what you mean." And then they would say, "Yes," and feel all happy because they felt like they had some deeper understanding but it always left me feeling awkward, and wondering why couldn't I be brown and fromt the US. I mean like the original New Mexican can say, "We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us." And there did manage to be a few Native Americans that we didn't kill off...but maybe I just don't look Native American. But do I look Mexican? When I was at BYU I was constantly having different Island kids asking me which Island my parents came from. I guess they got thrown by the fact that I was round, brown, with hair to my buns :)

Cait said...

In South Africa, "where are you from?" means "from where did you just come?" As in "where are you from?", "I'm from the store." South Africans asked me that allllll the time, and for a while I said "America" and they'd give me a weird look until I figured out what they were really asking.

My guess is it was to that meaning that your acquaintance was answering the question.

amber eve said...

I think I will always be "from" Nebraska, since I spent the first 24 years of my life there. Right now I'm struggling to just answer "Where do you live?" If you want to know, where have I lived? Nebraska, DC, Peru, Sryia. Who knows if, or when, I'll ever be "from" somewhere else...


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