“Where are you from?” –Everyone
Over the past couple years, I’ve met a lot of people. Some of the people I’ve gotten to know have been really great: I’ve heard some hilarious stories, and a few heart-wrenching ones. I’ve made some amazing friends—friends I’ve stayed in touch with across oceans and continents. I do enjoy getting to know people I’ve never met before, my innate tendencies towards shyness and social awkwardness aside.
I enjoy getting to know people. But I don’t enjoy meeting people.
I don’t enjoy meeting people for one reason: they always ask me the exact same question.I hate this question. I really hate this question. I truly, deeply, utterly hate this question. I have a hard time expressing in words just how much I hate this question. I hate the assumptions behind this question: that everyone came “from” somewhere, that they have this one place where they were raised that they still feel an affinity towards. I hate how this question is often used to other people whose names or skin color look different from “the norm.” I hate how people are stereotyped and categorized because of where they grew up. Most of all, I hate how this question always, always, always leaves me at a loss.
“Where are you from?” I don’t have an answer.
My family has moved every four to six years since before I was born. I have lived on the coast of Washington, the mountains of Idaho, the plains of Montana and later its valleys. Since leaving my parents’ “home,” I’ve lived in four cities (including the greatest city anywhere on earth), two towns, and a tiny village at the edge of the wilderness. I do not have any lingering attachment to most of these places. And the places I do feel an affinity with are the ones I lived in for the least amount of time. I do not know how to answer your question.
I know that the people who ask me where I am from don’t mean anything by it. I know that they don’t intend to cause me discomfort—just the opposite: they’re asking this question to be friendly, to get to know me a little better. Either that or they’re just being polite; I can never quite tell. Still, the answers I give to this question never seem adequate.
In the past, I’ve tried giving the “Readers Digest” version of my life’s journey: listing the states that I’ve lived in and waiting to see if they ask me about any one in particular. Other times I’ve said, “Washington and Montana,” splitting my answer between the two states I’ve lived in the longest (except that I don’t feel I belong to either state–not entirely). If I’m traveling outside the region, I’ll sometimes say that I’m from the Pacific Northwest and leave it at that.* My current answer to the “where are you from” question is that “I’m from lots of places.”
And it’s true:
I am from each of the communities my family has lived in. I’m from towns of Northwest Loggers and Montana ranchers. I come from Outlaw Days, rodeos, Logger’s Playday, school carnivals, 1860s Days, county fairs, harvest moon festivals, potlatches, potlucks, and powwows. I come from libraries so small they keep everyone’s card on file and schools where the average graduating class had less than 100 people. I’m from hard, sturdy stock: people who work hard, kick back, and take life as it comes.
I am from the people in these communities whose lives touched mine–who helped shape me and guide me towards the “me” that I was, am now, and will someday be.** I’m from the little old ladies who ran coffee hour at church, and the middle aged guys who flipped flapjacks at the Kiwanis Pancake Breakfast. I’m from Mrs. B—, my first grade teacher, who kindled my passion for learning, and from a dozen other teachers who nourished it. I’m from Jan W., my “substitute grandma,” who once took me to visit a one-room schoolhouse. I’m from other mentors who showed me how to live a life of meaning. I’m from a long line of babysitters who took care of me while my parents had to work.
I am from my parents, who raised me: who taught me how to read, how to pray, how to see the world around me. I am from a family who loves me, whom I love and for whom I will always be grateful.
I am from my grandparents, who have supported me financially, and who helped shape my parents’ character. I’m from my great-grandmother, the family matriarch, who died when I was young and yet stories of her life continue to inspire me. I’m from my family’s family, and their family’s family, and so on and so on forever. I am from each and every one of my ancestors, those whose stories I know by heart, and those whose lives I will never know.
I’m from my friends: those I lost touch with long ago, those I still hear from now and then, those whose friendship I treasure today.
I’m from each and every one of the books that I’ve read—from the stories that guide me through life.
I’m from the Pacific Northwest: the snow-capped mountains, the gray mists of the coast, the evergreen forests, the sweet grass of the prairie, the meadows of wildflowers, the alpine lakes, the twisting rivers, the deep green-blue waves of the sea. I’m from this land of mist and rain, snow and sun, of extreme landscapes, of farmland, of wilderness–all of which is steeped deep into my soul.
I am not from the city. That much is clear to me.
See, I don’t understand “home” the way most people do. I’m still trying to figure out what “home” means to me. I’ve never understood what it means to have a hometown—to have just one place you belong to (or for some, that one place they spend their lives trying to run away from). My roots are spread out across thousands of miles, between scores of lives in a half-dozen communities. I can’t give you a straight answer of “this is where I’m from,” because I’m not really sure what you’re asking.
I’m used to getting a lot of strange looks when I attempt to answer this question. Sometimes it’s a look of bewilderment, other times it’s boredom. Either way, it’s not something I look forward to when meeting new people.
Between school, work, and volunteering, I’ve met a lot of people these past several years. I’ve gotten used to people asking me where I went to school, what I studied, what I do for a living, et cetra. Those questions I can answer easily enough. But whenever I’m asked that most common question, that question of where I come from…
I never know how to answer.
*That one doesn’t do me much good while I’m living here, of course.
**”A self is not something static, tied up in a pretty parcel and handed to the child, finished and complete. A self is always becoming.” ―Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet