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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?