Where Are You From?

by Jessica Critcher

It’s an icebreaker moment. A pleasant person seeks to know me better. They ask me where I’m from, which is apparently a casual, normal thing to ask someone. And instead of the name of a town or some other succinct answer to the question posed before me, they get a non sequitur about my father. My father the Marine. This conversation fills me with a very specific type of anxiety.

I’m from everywhere. I’m from nowhere. Do they think I’m showing off? It’s entirely too complicated. It’s altogether more information about me than they wanted, I’m sure.

I often wonder why people ask each other this question. What it is they really want to learn about me from my answer? If I knew, then I could just pick a place and tell them.

My humble origins are in North Carolina, where I put my poor mother on bedrest in my haste to exist. But if I say I’m from North Carolina, they’ll expect me to know things about barbecue. Or college basketball. They’ll be listening for a particular accent. I have no memories of this place. No southern twang.

Do they want to know where my parents are from? And if so, hasn’t this gotten a little intimate?

A small place in Nevada that is not Las Vegas, and must therefore be defined by its distance from Las Vegas because most people have not heard of it (although it is the site of the famous Clark County Fair). I lived there for a short time while my father was overseas. I have childhood memories and camcorder footage of being happy in this place, but whenever I go, I am keenly aware of the fact that I am a visitor.

Do they want to know where I’ve lived the longest?

Where I got braces on my teeth and learned of my own insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe? Where I lost my faith in religion? Where I met my husband? Where I first worked for a corporation? Where I first saw my favorite band in concert?

Six years. On a Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. Yes, the place in that TV show about the FBI. Sort of. My in-laws are still nearby. The house I lived in has since been torn down, the hornet nest outside my window long since destroyed. Going back there doesn’t quite feel like returning to where I am from. Although, admittedly, I probably would not recognize that sensation.

Do they want to know where I graduated high school? Where I learned to drive? Where I voted for the first time? Where I first lived away from my parents?

Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada. If time is short or I don’t want to go into the details, I say I am from Las Vegas because it is a city full of transients, so nobody else from there can quiz me on whether or not I’m actually from there (the way people do if you say you’re from Boston). When I am back there, the slot machines at McCarran are oddly comforting. Anything is tolerated. Nothing is sacred. They’ll take me if I want to be there. Like the ancient history in the neon graveyard, I called Las Vegas home for a time. But I have since moved on.

Do they want to know where my parents live now? Where I would run in the event of some horrible emergency or family crisis?

They ended up in Billings, Montana. They bought a house. They haven’t moved in nearly ten years. Is that how you get to be from a place? To stop there, and just stay? They did this after I had already left the nest. Saying I’m from Montana would feel disingenuous. And it would lead to follow-up questions or assumptions about my political beliefs. My opinion about guns. My knowledge about some other town in Montana that a friend of yours visited. I find myself there at holidays, but I’m not from there either. The winter air at Christmas time is always a shock. People from Billings love to brag about how little they care about the cold. No, even when I step off of a plane to embrace my mother, the one person I have known since my heart started beating, I feel like a curious tourist. I am not from Billings.

Do they want to know where I came from most recently?

This answer changes very frequently. In no apparent desire to put down my roots, I up and married a sailor. We eloped because being from nowhere makes it hard to know where to hold a wedding. My husband does not obsess about this question of being from somewhere the way I do. He tells people he is from Texas. People from Texas seem to share some kind of understanding. Blue Bonnet ice cream, and something else. Something deeper I can’t quite grasp.

Is that what it means to be from somewhere? Is that what they are looking for when they ask me where I’m from? Do they want a spark of recognition in my eyes at the mention of a regional brand? Are we as human beings just reaching out for some common ground? Or does something about me make them genuinely, insatiably curious to know exactly where in the world would produce such an oddity?

Why do so many people want to know where I am from?

Of course this is just a thought exercise for me, because I’m white. Because when other Americans ask me where I’m from, they take it as a given that I am a citizen. Once on a train in Tokyo, my husband and I gave up our seats to some older Japanese business men. They brushed off their English to chat with us, and there came the inevitable, apparently international, “Where are you from?”

I said Boston, because that was where I lived at the time, and the business men all nodded. It checked out. I must have looked like what they imagined someone from Massachusetts would look like. My husband said Texas, and they shook their heads no. We thought at first it was some kind of language barrier. Yes, Texas, USA. They didn’t buy it. When you’re even a little brown, like my husband, the question is more loaded. They gave him something I never get: the double ‘where are you from,’ with the final emphasis on from.  You’re from America like everyone else, until you’re not.

No one asks where my colonizing ancestors came from at a meet and greet. Scotland, I think. Maybe if I do one of those DNA spit tests, I will finally have the right answers at a networking event.

Since I married my sailor, I have always lived by the Coast. But never the same coast. And never for very long. I have rehearsed my responses to all of the follow-up questions.

No, we don’t know where we will live next.

Yes, we’ll stay about three years. Give or take.

Yes, we do have some say in where, but not the final say.

Yes, it is a little lonely to show up somewhere new and start over.

Yes, it is rather exciting as well.

No, I don’t know where I will eventually end up.

No, I don’t mind.

No, I don’t have a favorite. But [whatever place I happen to live right now] is growing on me.

And they usually seem satisfied with these answers. To be reciprocal I ask where they’re from, and pretend like I have learned some important secret from their reply.

About the Author
Jessica Critcher studied English at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. She has been featured in Freethought Today, Bitch Magazine, Gender Focus, Katherine Press, Hardcore Droid, MOGUL, and other publications. Her writing (inspired by such figures as her great-grandmother, Virginia Woolf, and the giant Pacific octopus) centers on women and their relationships with each other. She currently lives in Oakland, California.