08 January, 2017

"Where Are You From?"

Can I just say "Earth"? (Image source: Pixabay)

"Where are you from?" It's a simple enough question and one of the first that people ask each other when they meet. But for me, answering this "simple" question has become increasingly complicated in the past few years.

There are two reasons for this: the first is that I often don't know what people are actually asking. Do they want to know where I was born? Where I've lived the longest? Where I lived right before I moved to where I am now? If I'm traveling, do they want to know where I currently live? If people find out that I'm from the US and assume that I'm an exchange student, they could also be asking either where my parents live or where I go to school. For me, the answer to every one of these questions is different, so it makes it difficult to choose which place to name, and the most appropriate answer can vary from situation to situation. For the first year or so that I was in Germany the answers to these questions at least involved a single country (the US), but now that I've moved around quite a bit in Germany as well as in the US the possible answers involve two different countries. What I usually end up saying is, "I'm originally from the US," but that is always followed with, "Oh cool. Where in the US?" and we're back to square one.

The second reason that answering this question is complicated is that sometimes I don't actually want people to know. When I meet new people they don't always pick up on the fact that I'm not German right away (a privilege of being white with only slightly accented German), and if people don't notice I don't like to bring it to their attention. Why? Because after we've more or less established where I'm from the next question or remark is always something like, "So, D*nald Tr*mp, huh?" (I don't even want to write his name because he gets way too much free publicity as it is and I'm not going to feed into that.) As a result, I often don't want to put my American-ness front and center, because I don't want to have the same political conversation for the 67th time.

And if answering "Where are you from?" is hard in Germany, it's at least equally hard when I'm in the US. In typical over-friendly American fashion, cashiers and other customer service personnel often ask where I'm from and I've found myself frozen with indecision about what to say. Do I say Germany? Do I say one of the places where my parents live? Do I say Vermont, where I spent most of my time growing up? Sometimes it feels like I have to launch into my entire life story just to satisfactorily answer a stranger's question. Sometimes I just say something vague like, "It's complicated"; sometimes I say, "I live in Germany" (which is somehow different than saying, "I'm from Germany"); and sometimes I just say whatever I think the person is expecting to hear or whatever will cause the smallest number of follow-up questions.

What this dilemma ultimately comes down to, really, is not just the wide range of options I have when answering the question, but a confusion about which country to identify myself with. I wrote about that in a previous post, in which I discussed where home is, and since I wrote that post more than a year ago that question has not become any easier to answer. In the grand scheme of things I know that hesitating when answering a question like "Where are you from?" is pretty high on the list of first-world problems, but it's the kind of thought that sticks with me and causes me to stew over it later. At this point it feels like any answer I give is wrong, but giving the complete, "right" answer would take way too long and is not what anyone who asks that question is really looking for.

I know this problem is not unique to me (if it can even be called a problem), and it's not even unique to expats and immigrants like myself. The more people move around and the farther they go from their hometowns, the more complicated questions of home and belonging become in general. Maxim and I have talked briefly about this topic and he also said he sometimes doesn't know how to answer this question, even though he has lived in Germany almost his entire life. I guess I just have to accept that this question will always trip me up and try to embrace the complexity and variability of the answers that I end up giving.

If you're an expat, how do you deal with this question? I'm curious to hear other people's responses, so let me know in the comments!

No comments :

Post a Comment