Everyone Else Just Sits Here: Explaining Where You Come From

AbroadTable Setting

Perhaps the most inevitable question you face when you travel abroad is, where are you from? But regardless of how common, it is hardly straightforward. Especially when you confront its English-as-a-second-language cousin, where do you come from? The latter variant is particularly confusing when asked by a fellow backpacker, who could simply be inquiring into your travel itinerary.

Rarely do you meet a long-term overseas traveler whose current hometown is also their birth city. In my case, my last permanent residence wasn’t even my birth country. At the very least, most people move to a different city or region to work or study. Some people no longer have a mailing address, having spent months or years carrying their house on their back. Consequently, “I’m not really sure how to answer that,” and “What exactly do you mean?” are the two most popular answers.

Before arriving in New Zealand, I worried that as soon as I left Argentina, my experience in South America would be expunged from my record. People would hear my accent and incorrectly assume that I lived in – that I had come from – the United States. This misconception would only be encouraged by my own declaration that “I’m from Ann Arbor, Michigan.” They would want to know my opinion on the latest season of Lost, the presidential elections, and childhood obesity. They would ask me about Michael Moore, student life at the University of Michigan, and why my city is named “Ann Harbor” if it is a city of wild grape trees and lush vegetation. And I would have no comment.

Luckily, my friend rescued me from awkward small talk. During her wedding festivities, she introduced me to other guests as “her friend from Argentina.” At dinner, the tables were named for the cities from which people had traveled to attend the wedding. “Amy Goldstein: Buenos Aires,” read my place card. My neighbor quipped, “This is your table. The rest of us just sit here.”

Even though I was grateful to not have to field questions that would be best answered with “N/A,” hearing my friend tell people that I was from Argentina made me slightly uncomfortable. While technically true (I did in fact come to New Zealand from Argentina), it felt dishonest. I was born and raised in America by American parents. Surely, three and a half years abroad was not enough to supplant twenty-two years in the United States. More importantly, it’s obvious that I am not actually Argentine. Or is it?

A few weeks ago, I walked into a store in Wellington, casually greeting the shop owner. “Argentina?” he fired back. I stopped dead in my tracks. “No,” I replied, slowly turning around, “but it’s funny that you should say that.” Apparently, his hypothesis was based on a combination of my accent and my looks. Once we established that I was an American with an odd way of speaking, he began to guess my ancestry. After correctly identifying my Russian heritage, he moved on to the other half. “Italian?” he ventured. I revealed that I was actually 100% Russian. “Well, there must have been a soldier or something along the way,” he said with a wink.

While I was staying at a hostel in Napier, a few local girls asked where I was from. When I told them the United States, they stared at me blankly, prompting me to add “of America,” for the sake of clarity. “Oh,” they replied, “you could be from Brazil or something.” When I stopped at a petrol station in Gisborne, the cashier, no doubt an acquaintance of the shop owner from Wellington, insisted on divining my origins before allowing me to pay for my Diet Coke. “Your eyes are French, but your skin is Spanish,” he declared after a thorough (and invasive) examination. I immediately started giggling, prompting another customer to join the game. His guess was Greek. “I wish I was Mediterranean,” I confessed. “You’re an Aussie!” the cashier exclaimed with an enthusiastic clap of the hands. Clearly they were not the best judges.

“No! I’m American,” I explained, now unable to control my laughter.

As I made my way to the door, I heard the other customer ask, “Do all Americans have long legs?”

“Oh. Thanks. And no,” I replied before getting the hell out of there.

Generous interpretation of my proportions aside (I’m 5’1″), what shocked me most about all of these exchanges is that everyone failed to recognize that I could be Argentine, Italian, Brazilian, Spanish, French, and Greek, and still be American. Remarkably, in today’s world of multinational states and stateless nations, we still associate citizenship with nationality. Myself included. When I lived in Argentina, I was constantly surprised at hearing someone evidently of Asian origin speak perfect Castellano. Interestingly, I never had this reaction when I lived in the United States. Maybe that’s why Americans never have any trouble identifying me as American. In the States, heterogeneity and diverse ancestry is not only accepted, it is expected and, in many places, celebrated.

Recently, while opening a bank account, I asked the woman assisting me if she was from Wellington. She hesitated. “Well, I guess I should say that I’m from China.” She went on to explain that she had lived the majority of her life, up to that point, in China and that all of her relatives still lived there. But she had been living in Wellington with her partner for over six years. So is she Chinese or is she a Kiwi?

What criteria should we use to determine where people are from and to which group they belong? What carries the most weight: where our parents are from, where we are born, where we are raised, or where we choose to live as adults? What counts more: nature or nurture, birth or free will? What about skin color (tanned or untanned?), lifestyle, religion, or adoption? And if our background and cultural identity are so relative and malleable, do they even matter?

Not long ago, my friend and I were discussing a similar topic. She mentioned the father of a mutual friend, who was born abroad and speaks English with an accent. She explained that when he talks, my friend does not hear an accent, she simply hears his voice. We tend to dissect people, breaking them down into their component pieces. We analyze and use this information to help us understand who they are and why they are that way. We paint them by numbers. But all of those colors combine to create the portrait of an individual who is so much more than the sum of his parts. In the end, when it comes to people, what truly matters is the big picture.

Still, I need a satisfactory answer to the unavoidable question. (“I don’t define myself based on unnatural, socially constructed ideas of identity” is just too wordy and annoying.) I think that I’m going to follow the example set by my newlywed friend and start telling people that I am from Argentina. After all, it is my last country of residence, both legally and sentimentally. And as soon as possible, my parents and I are going to have to have a chat about our family tree.


3 Responses to “Everyone Else Just Sits Here: Explaining Where You Come From”

  1. 1 shari April 7, 2009 at 10:14 am

    I think it’s funny that a stranger would imply your mother had an affair with a soldier because you don’t “look” Russian.

  2. 2 susi April 7, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    we want to know where someone is from because it is out of the ordinary day life. People from somewhere else are exotic, have travelled, are different in whatever way someone wants to define it. “Where are you from” can mean “I want to know more about you” or your culture, or your taste in food, or what fresh ideas and experiences you bring to the table, even if that table is a one minute exchange with a clerk, doing the same job , day after day. Or it sparks the curiosity of people who want to learn something new, like “I’ve never met an Italian, or an Argentine. What’s that country like”. But to me it means asking someone to tell you a story, the story of how they came to be where they are, or where they were.

    What a fascinating question to probe. Thanks for asking it.

  3. 3 Juan June 29, 2009 at 2:12 am

    Excelente post y mejor aún el comentario de Susi, imposible no estar de acuerdo.
    (sorry por el atraso en el comentario pero recién encuentro tu blog)

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