Ask Not Where I am From, Ask Where I am Going.
On a sleepy Sunday evening, John and I wandered into an empty bar in Hudson, a charming small town in Upstate New York.
“Where are you guys from?” asked the bartender.
He was perhaps curious why the two of us were strolling around a ghost town on a Sunday night. Every other New Yorker has gone back to the city to prepare for the next work day. Or it was his routine question for any visitors.
“Everywhere,” John said. “She lives in New York but she’s leaving soon for this big journey in South America. I used to live in New York, but I’ll be heading back to California.”
It was too complicated an answer to a simple question.
“I guess ask not where we’re from — ask where we’re going,” he said.
The bartender paid no more attention to us nor our exchange of smiling glances.
John was born in New Mexico. He then moved numerous times with his parents growing up. As an adult, he continued to move across states for school and for work. Eventually, he settled in the bay area but always thought there would come a time when he packs up his life and leaves again.
As for myself, I was born and raised in Hong Kong but spent the better part of my formidable years in New York. A year after college graduation, I bought a one-way ticket to Medellín. Since then I’ve been traveling around the world for three years, shifting my accent one continent at a time.
During my travels, I’ve both asked and answered the question of “where are you from?” a thousand times.
Most people asked this out of simple curiosity, especially if they couldn’t quite piece together my accent, skin color, and my odd existence in an odd place (i.e. in a drug-filled techno club in Berlin, or in Medellín back in the days when I was one of the three Asians in town).
They weren’t really interested in who I was, but only wanted to confirm if their snap judgment was accurate.
Will she say China? Japan? Singapore? Philippines? Thailand? Hmm… what other Asian countries do I know?
“New York,” I said to any man with potential yellow fever.
“Hong Kong,” I said to a Taiwanese person when I wanted to come off approachable.
To other Americans, I sometimes answered “I was born in Hong Kong but I moved to New York with my parents,” or “New York, but I’ve been traveling around so I’m somewhat homeless.”
Once, I answered “New York” to a gay couple from London, with the classic New Yorker nonchalance. They responded gracefully with “oh, so you’re the New York princess” — almost with a curtsy. We’ve stayed friends and shared many glasses of wine since then.
In Europe, people often asked if I was from the US three sentences into our conversation. But in Chile, a Canadian woman had asked if I was Canadian because I sounded like one.
My accent changed on a weekly basis. Even my identity shifted as I maneuvered my way through various cultures and languages. The answer to where I’m from depends on my audience, not me.
Frequent travelers often struggle with telling the story of where they’re from in one simple sentence.
People who had frequently moved around as children tend to keep the same nomadic pattern after they grow up. Perhaps that explains why some people have a more prominent ‘wanderlust gene’ — one that’s nurtured by the exposure to changing environments.
I met a French guy who was born in the UK, raised in different places, and had trouble proving himself French to the French government. He’s still moving around the globe today and calls himself a “Glomad.”
And I have a Malaysian-born Bangladeshi friend who grew up in New Zealand and then moved to Australia — he now has a very international accent. I asked why he put his hometown as Bangladesh on Facebook even though he wasn’t born there. “Because people mostly want to know my origin,” he said, despite the fact that he never spent any time in Bangladesh.
Does the question “where are you from” actually carry any meaning then? Are we trying to confirm details on people’s birth certificate or our own cultural biases?
I lost count of the lost souls who didn’t have a simple answer to the simple question: where are you from?
Instead of asking a one-dimensional question, I’ve recently started to ask fellow travelers and myself this: Where’s Home?
I’ve yielded the same reaction from travelers — a brief pause, followed by a lighthearted laugh, and a much more thoughtful answer.
Meditating on the idea of “home” requires a deep look into one’s identity. My life would even flash before my eyes before I can give an answer. Where do I feel most at home? How did I get here? What made me stay? Where to next?
And I challenge you — to ask not where I’m from.
Ask where I’m going.