What does it mean to be from someplace? For some, the answer is as simple as the place they were born and raised. However, it is commonplace to live in many locations the course of a lifetime, and with that, the question of geographic identity becomes more and more muddled. But the intent of the question often is less about geographic residence than about clan affiliation and cultural ancestry. And it serves the very human instinct of defining self and other. How closely related are you to me?
In my case, the response to the question ‘where are you from’ depends very much on the inquisitor, the location and the context of the question. Because where I am from depends on how I distinguish myself from the local population.
A real-life example from the first day of my freshman year of highschool: my civics teacher had prompted the class to take turns answering a variety of questions, one of which asked about our origins. As everyone around the class shared a bit about themselves, most answered the aforementioned question with a simple ‘born and raised in Atlanta’. When it was my turn, however, I had to pause a moment before answering the question. Where was I from? I considered myself mostly from Atlanta. However, simply saying that I came from Atlanta failed to recognize my family’s origins and some of our cultural affiliation, language and practices, noticeably different from that of my peers. It would give the impression that I came from a background similar to theirs. Conversely, calling myself Argentine (like my dad) or Norwegian (like my mom’s side of the family) would feel false. While my parents are Argentine and Norwegian, they have become somewhat Americanized. My mother grew up in the United States (save for a few stints abroad), and my father has been living here for thirty years. We often travel back to Norway and Argentina to visit relatives, but I have lived in the United States since my second birthday (up until a couple of years ago). I feel much more at home in the U.S. than in Norway or Argentina. When I travel to Norway or Argentina, it is immediately clear to everyone, not least myself, that I am neither truly Norwegian nor Argentine. Myself, I am hardly a model of those cultures. But the depth of my cultural affinity and identification with these two countries is profound.
This problem solved itself, to an extent, when I moved to Switzerland. As far as the Europeans at my school were concerned, I was nothing short of the paradigm of a ‘True American’. My parents’ backgrounds, their cultures, all became irrelevant: all that mattered was that I had lived most of my life in the U.S., that I measured things in feet and not meters and that I lacked the British accent so common at my school. It occurred to me that no one cared about my family’s prior heritage because my American culture overwhelmed it.
Comparatively though, certain students at my school find it far more difficult to answer the question ‘where are you from?’ Many have bounced from city to city their entire lives. They are more the product of their schools and family than they are the product of the culture associated with the place they live. For a student with Dutch parents who has never lived in the Netherlands, but instead has lived in South Africa, Italy, Mongolia and now Switzerland, where does she come from? In this case, one could argue that her culture is the one she simply demonstrates the most (perhaps she spent the longest period of time living in Cape Town and they would call herself South African). Would this person really come from anywhere? Is that even possible?
What interests me is our need to pinpoint a person’s identity, to create a human mapping or typography. In the same way that we immediately want to know someone’s political opinions or religion, we feel much more comfortable if we can place somebody in some sort of narrative box. What is the purpose? Why do these easy categories matter? Why don’t we all feel a stronger common identity as members of the human species?