"Don't ask me where I'm from"
Taiye Selasi suggests that instead of asking people where they’re from, we ask them where they are a local. We could ask them about their rituals, relationships, and restrictions: who do they talk to? Where? In what language? Where are they, and where aren’t they, and why?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this question lately as I teach a course about Intercultural Communication. One of my students put the “where are you from” another way: where do you feel at home? I like that framing, too. Over the years, I myself have often tried to phrase it as, “where did you spend your formative years?” I haven’t lived in Oregon for just about half my life now, but I still claim it as “where I’m from” for formative years reasons.
But in its original form or in any variant, this question can be so complicated. I think of my own kids - what would they say? It’s easy enough to say “oh I’m from the US/I’m American” but what if someone wants to know where in America?
For the girls, they can at least give a city/state of birth as where they’re “from,” if needed. Miriam has said “I was born in Arizona” in response to this question and it’s true enough since, well, she was, and also we lived there for four years after that and she has some memories of Tucson.
Magdalena could technically say she’s from Vermont but it seems silly since she only “lived” there for less than two weeks after she was born. But she doesn’t have any clear memories of Arizona or New York, either, the other places she’s lived in the US. But if clear memories of living somewhere are the criteria, it would still seem strange for her to offer that she’s from the UAE! For some reason it feels like that would require an Emirati passport, even though it’s the place where she has lived the longest and spent five extremely formative years. Just now she shrugged and told me she could offer Idaho or Oregon as an answer since that’s where her grandparents and most of her cousins are, and where we spend a few weeks every two summers. I don’t know. It seems complicated.
But the MOST complicated “where are you from” answer is probably whatever Sterling will choose to say someday. He has no US city of birth to claim. He has no period of residency in the US. He didn’t even visit there until he was two years old. But at the same time, he doesn’t have a passport from the country where he was born, either. He can say he’s American but if he wants to claim a geographical region, it will have to be Oregon or Idaho by virtue of his grandparents and cousins.
In the next year or so, we will decide if we want to take Finnish citizenship in addition to American citizenship. But even that doesn’t make this “where are you from” question easier to answer! A Finnish passport doesn’t make you Finnish, after all.
So this is what I’ve been thinking about. Where I’m from, and where my kids are from. As for where we are locals…I would honestly say Turku at this point!