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Where are you from?

Where are you from?

I’m never quite sure how to answer this question. In my experience, North Americans tend to move around more than others, but rarely is anyone asking for my life’s story when they ask where I’m from. Do I respond with where I was born, where I grew up, where I live currently, where I raised my family, or just the most interesting place I have ever lived? Each of these far-flung places contributed to who I am now, so what is it you are asking me?

“Where are you from” is a natural question to ask fellow travelers, especially when it’s obvious we’re all from somewhere else. Still, if the journey is what matters then there’s no satisfying answer to the question.

I usually assume the question usually means “where did you grow up?” Sometimes I’ll embellish a bit and say, “ I grew up in Southern California but now live in the Pacific Northwest.” Sometimes, I just say, “Mars” and see what happens.

The question is often asked in search of common ground. It makes us happy when we find that geographical or tribal connections exist, however distant they may be. “Oh, you’re from Kansas? My cousin’s wife is from Kansas!” Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. called this type of imaginary association a “granfalloon,” a false group like Californians, Lutherans or two random train passengers with no connection except that they both grew up in Chicago. All these groupings may have something in common, but a coincidental meeting doesn’t infer greater meaning. A true group in Vonnegut’s view, a “karass,” is a grouping that has a deeper connection. If that train gets stuck in a jungle for the night and monkeys steal all the food while a leopard prowls the perimeter, those two Chicagoans now have a more cosmic bond.

Still, asking someone where they’re from can be a good way to start a conversation. It can also be a loaded question. “Where are you from” may seem like an innocent inquiry, but it isn’t always neutral. Hunger may be our common ancestor, but we still wrestle over what our diverse origins mean. The USA, for example, may be a melting pot where all but a few have immigrant ancestors. Someone with a “different” accent or appearance might interpret the question’s subtext to range from friendly curiosity to a  “go back where you came from” implication.

Back in the days of the cold war, I asked a guy with a thick accent where he was from. “I’m Russian,” he said. “Do you want to shoot me?”

Insistent questions about origin can feel invasive. Are you truly interested in me as a person, or are you just implying that I have no right to be here? Yeah, I’m different. Why do you need to remind me?

I’m always curious about where people come from, how they got here and where they are going. I like telling my origin story, too. I’ve just learned not to make this the first question I ask. When I worry that my intentions might be misconstrued, I’ve found that the somewhat flattering “how many languages do you speak” or more pedestrian “do you live here” are safer icebreakers.

Origin stories range from the simple to the amazing. “I grew up in Iowa and then moved to Florida.” OK, cool. One of the best stories I’ve heard was: “My family escaped the Spanish Civil War by going to Cuba. When the revolution hit, my grandfather fled to Nicaragua. Two generations later, another revolution! Luckily, I had a student visa to study in the U.S., worked hard and eventually brought my parents and siblings over. Chaos seems to follow us. Now that we’re here, America will probably fall apart.”

Do you mind if I ask where you’re from?

17 thoughts on “Where are you from?

  1. I’m finding that many people ask that question only to pre-judge you regarding your possible political persuasion. If you grew up in Texas, you must be a conservative Republican, but if you grew up in Northern California, then you must be a Leftist Democrate – God forbit if you were from Orange County, CA where most Republician seem to live.Cut to the chase! This is why most people ask.

    1. We must run in very different circles then. I am often asked where I am from, and I sometimes ask others. Politics is never the next statement/question though. If anything, the next comment is more commonly weather — “Not as much snow here as in xxx” 🙂

    2. I’m from Brooklyn and lived last in Kentucky. Proud of both. Only insecure people seem to need to stereotype a person.

    3. We must run in very different circles then. I am often asked where I am from, and I sometimes ask others. Politics is never the next statement/question though. If anything, the next comment is more commonly weather — “Not as much snow here as in xxx” 🙂

    4. I seriously doubt that. The reason *most* people ask is because they want to engage in casual conversation, or simply because they’re curious. I’ve *never* been accused of holding any particular kinds of beliefs or political affiliations based on my answer to this question, and I get asked a lot.

      1. “Engage in a CASUAL CONVERSATION” that is the friendly gist and the beauty of it. ITS JUST THAT!

  2. In the U.S. people are used to being asked what they do for a living, in addition to where they live. Younger people are curious where you went to college… as if you HAD to go to college. Here in Ecuador, people are focused more on family and how many kids you have and maybe, are you a grandparent? That’s speaking from the point of view of an abuelita from all over the U.S. who now loves living in Cuenca. People are loving here, beyond what you will typically find in North America. Let me know what YOU think about that, lol!

    1. Yes, Sally, where I came from you HAD to go to College (and grad school and med school or law school) but your point is well taken. I agree with your perceptions.

  3. I thought this would be about saying, “I am an American.” If that is your answer, you have only moved from one American country to another. Nothing more.

  4. I once asked someone where he was from and he replied in a chilly way–‘Why do you ask”? I stumbled and fumbled for a reply because he was quite confrontative and direct. I explained I taught ESL and couldn’t quite place his accent.-that was why I had asked. It was merely out of interest. Nevertheless, I learned my lesson and have considered it ever since before venturing into that particular conversation with the opening volley–where are you from? It’s really none of my business.

  5. As a Brit, it fascinates me that when I ask a person from the US where they are from, even when we are not in the US, (usually in Ecuador but the same happens in Europe), they never answer “I’m from the US”. They always tell me their state. But Europeans or anyone not from the US usually don’t really care what state you’re from, we’re just checking that you’re not Canadian or, I don’t know, from the Bahamas. No other country’s citizens behave this way. Can you imagine a French or German or Dutch person answering that question with the province they are from when they are not in their home country. The natural answer to this question for anyone (other than people from the US) is to name the country they are from. I answer Hungary or England depending on my mood, or if I see genuine interest I’ll venture “I was born in Hungary but I grew up in England.” Can you imagine a Brit answering this question with “Wiltshire” or “Devon”. We don’t expect anyone to know what that means. It’s weird to me, as if it is expected that the entire globe’s population should be aware of the political, geographical and cultural implications of your being from “New Jersey” or “upstate New York”.

    1. This is an interesting observation. Perhaps us Yanks like to specify what state or city we’re from is because the country is so large and regional differences so huge. I guess it’s a bit arrogant to assume the rest of the world knows or cares about these distinctions.

  6. Assumptions are truly deadly or laughable at best…I once asked a guy in Sulawesi (Indonesia) that question and he proudly replied ‘I’m a native American’ really, from where ‘Mexico City, DF’ He asked me and I said” me too, I’m native American also… from LA’…These days, however, I’d probably get killed for that answer…

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