all of us in 2011, at my high school grad party

“So, Where Are You From?”

Alas, the dreaded question. I am not shy; in fact, one of my favorite pastimes is meeting new people. But the beginning of any relationship is an awkward one, two step, and neither of us is Ciara.

When I’m in a large group of people, introductions are inevitable. For me, it’s enough to just know names at this stage — I have no desire to know someone’s entire backstory. If I think someone is sane and interesting enough, I will make a personal and genuine attempt to become acquainted with that person.

Often in these large groups, someone will have the brilliant idea to make everyone adhere to one lame rule: “Say your name, your favorite cereal and . . . where you’re from!” Great.

You see, “Where are you from?” is rarely an easy question to answer, and my experience with it epitomizes this conundrum. I am the nightmare incarnate of icebreakers, of administrators who want to put everything into a nice box, and of people who seek superficial relationships. I will never be that girl who grew up in suburban Grand Rapids, Michigan, or the cool chick from Melbourne who went to boarding school in New Hampshire.

As with everything that goes wrong in my life, I blame my parents. I can’t introduce myself without introducing them too. They met at university in Shanghai, China, and were married upon graduating. Two years later, I was born at the Beijing Friendship Hospital.

My mom’s family are true Beijing ren (Beijing people), and proud of it too. Meanwhile, my dad was born in Kankan, the second-largest city in Guinea. Yes, that’s West Africa. How did this black man end up all the way in China? He was exceedingly smart and handsome, and as one of the top three students, the Guinean government paid for him to attend university. So as an exceedingly smart and handsome young man who wanted to break into the world, he then went to the most exotic place he could think of: China.

After one year of intensive Chinese language study in the Middle World, he finally began university in Shanghai. As the General Secretary of the African Students’ Union in China, he fought for increased benefits for African students. He worked with Chinese government officials, and even organized a special exhibition in honor of Nelson Mandela when Mandela was released from prison. He loved his suits, played basketball, and smoked cigarettes, so he cut a tall and lanky figure. Somehow he met my mom, who was also not a typical Chinese woman. My mom met my dad’s height of six feet five inches with her own very respectable height of five feet nine inches. She was athletic too, and worked as a model in her university years. However, she was unhappy in Shanghai, which was not as cultured or advanced as her native Beijing.

Mom and Dad in their respective cultural wedding attire

They have never talked much about their courtship, but I don’t need many details to know that the approval ratings of their relationship must have been lower than that of the federal government when it shut down. More than a few Chinese thought that my dad would sell my mom, or worse. In fact, one reason for their young marriage was because my dad knew if he went back to Conakry not yet married to his non-African, non-Muslim fiancée, he would very soon have found arranged for him a very African and Muslim wife.

At the age of 22, my mom left her home for the first time, and she left it as part of a very noticeable and talked-about interracial marriage, for a land where she knew neither the language nor a single soul. I don’t think there is anyone braver than her in this world.

I met my dad through photo first.

Let’s fast forward a couple years so that I come into the picture. My parents began their import-export business upon arriving in Conakry, and my mom returned to Beijing to have me. After some more months, we returned to Conakry. My pre-school years were spent mostly there, with some time sprinkled in Côte d’Ivoire as well as Mali, but I went back and visited China often. Until recently, my dad’s dream was to be the President of the Republic of Guinea. He had the looks, the connections, the principles, but I think he was far too kind to be the president of such a jumbled-up country, where too many citizens lack both scruple and farsightedness. He was never willing to bend the rules or look the other way, and that would cost him.

Mom watching over me as I do my homework in my parents’ store in Conakry.

My dad was on the wrong side of the government, and they saw him as a threat. My parents wanted me to be safe, so America the free was the logical choice. My mom and I flew to Columbus, Ohio, where my uncle was living with his family. A few months later, my younger brother, Sekou, was born. For various reasons, it was decided I would be better off in Chinese boarding school back in Beijing, so at the age of six, I flew alone for the first time.

Half of my first grade education was spent in Chinese boarding school, where I was the only dark little girl, who had to deal with remarks about her dirty skin (possibly due to an over-ingestion of soy sauce, if you were one extremely ignorant old lady). Despite some racism, my overall experience was positive. Besides, I had my wonderful grandma and aunt, who would visit me once a week and take me home on the weekends. I was nevertheless ecstatic when they told me my parents had sent for me once again. My grandma accompanied me this time, and we flew off for Conakry one last time. We could be a family together again!

My mom had decided enough was enough, and that we needed to settle down, so that my baby brother and I could grow up away from political strife and uncertainty. I still remember those last two weeks in Conakry, because I haven’t been back since. My parents made sure we were left with positive memories: we took a rowboat onto one of the many islands off the coast, and I spent the entire day running around on the seaside in my hot pink Barbie two-piece, climbing the rocks and wading only so far as I could stand, since I couldn’t (and still can’t) swim. The next thing I remember is all four of us flying to Nice, France.

Dad and I with Monaco in the background.

The next half-year was spent along the beautiful Côte d’Azur in the town of Cagnes-sur-Mer. One of my dad’s best friends (from when he studied Chinese) lived there, and she and her partner did so much for us so that we could stay in France, but in the end we had to leave. As foreigners, my parents could not find employment, not to mention my dad has never been able to stand someone thinking he is less merely because he is a black African.

My brother and I on a walk along the sea in Cagnes-sur-Mer.

So we entered America as political refugees in the year 2000. We chose Columbus, Ohio, once again because my dad’s brother was there, but we moved to the suburbs when I was in sixth grade. We have lived in our own house since. We visited China two summers in a row, but the last time was in 2007 for my aunt’s wedding. Now I attend Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut. I spent the summer after freshman year in France, and this fall semester studying in Scotland.

The last time we went back to Beijing in 2007; you can see the countdown for the 2008 Olympics in the back.

So you see now why I dread the question “where are you from?” Do you really care about where I am from when you ask that question? Do you actually want to know my mixed culture, the responsibilities and privileges I face because my parents worked so hard and sacrificed so much? Do you want to know why I look the way I do, especially when I laugh and I look more like my Chinese mother?

Usually I can guess, so if it seems like you don’t really want to know, then I will tell you: “I live in Columbus, Ohio, now.” If I’m in a good mood, I may say: “I was born in Beijing, but I live in Ohio now” or “My mom is Chinese and my dad is Guinean, but I live in Ohio now.” If you press me for further information, I will probably reveal: “I was born in Beijing, because my mom is Chinese, but then I lived in Guinea and Mali, in West Africa. I spent half of first grade in Chinese boarding school and half in the South of France, then when I was seven we moved to Columbus, Ohio.”

I hate this question because I am so much more than however I answer it. How do I pay homage to my parents and my heritage? Everyone and everything that I have been exposed to? How do I explain that sometimes I find it difficult to express myself, because the phrase I seek is best said in Chinese, or you can’t really feel the cadence of the words unless I murmur it in French? I always feel like I’m leaving something out when I attempt to categorize myself. So now, I have decided to stop. If you’re brave enough to ask me where I’m from, I may tell you. But I hope you have more than a few seconds.

As with everything in my life, I thank my parents.


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