To me, it seems a dreadful indignity to have a soul controlled by geography. — George Santayana
‘Where are you from?” It was a simple question. But the way Jane stared back at the guy, you’d think he’d asked her to recite Title III of the Patriot Act. I knew how she felt, though not to the extent she felt it. After all, my older sister had three cities on me — she was born in Brooklyn, attended preschool in Pensacola and Corpus Christi, Texas (where Heather was born), grade school in San Diego (where Jenny and I were born) and Adak, Alaska, junior high and high school in Newport, Rhode Island, and then back in San Diego, where she and the rest of us graduated from Bonita Vista High, near the town in which my parents chose to settle, in the county in which we all currently live. Considering the involved answer, Jane’s reticence made sense. We were at a coffee shop; the guy’s question was the kind of small talk someone makes when his own thoughts have become tedious and he happens to be sitting next to a couple of friendly looking women.
As the silence stretched to its breaking point, I jumped in to assist. “You mean do we live around here?” The guy nodded. “No, I live in Hillcrest, and Jane here lives in Allied Gardens, which is north of the College Area,” I explained in an insipid tone. There was an implicit understanding that this coffee shop chitchat was a one-off deal; the principal motive for this man’s speaking to us at all was to pass the time, so I had difficulty mustering enough energy for anything more than basic civility.
The thirtysomething fellow told us he was from Alaska (which explained the robust, ruddy, understated hunk look). Jane and I perked up at this common denominator, but the conversation reached an impasse when he revealed he hailed from a city on the mainland, whereas we had lived on one of the tiniest and farthest-flung Aleutian Islands. Uninterested in prolonging the halfhearted exchange with a random we’d never see again, Jane and I politely withdrew.
“I hate when people ask me that question,” Jane said as we were bidding each other goodbye in the parking lot. “I never know what to say.”
“Yeah, it’s a tough one,” I said. “I usually say I’m from San Diego because I’ve lived here the longest, but that doesn’t seem completely honest.”
Later that evening, I selected a bottle of wine from the cupboard while David whipped up a simple dinner of eggs, Hungarian sausage, and spicy paprika. My man is American born and bred, but both of his parents spent their initial 20 years of life in Hungary before escaping to America during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. David may not be “from” Hungary, the way I am not “from” New York, but his Hungarian roots are unquestionable when one considers his cumulative usage of paprika.
David refilled my glass, and I set down my fork and looked at him. “Where are you from?” His expression served to remind me that he’d not been privy to the line of thinking that had led me to voice the question, so I elaborated. “I mean, when people ask you, what do you say?”
“I feel like I’m not really from anywhere, in a way,” David said. “But I usually say Boston because that’s where I went to high school.”
“Not from anywhere? Doesn’t that make you feel like you’re missing some sense of self?”
I knew David had been born in Baltimore and that his family moved to Chicago when he was a baby, and they moved to Boston when he was a sophomore in high school. Because he’s most familiar with Boston, where his parents settled for a while before permanently moving to their vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard, I’d always considered him a Bostonian.
“It would never occur to me to think about where I’m from,” David said. A smile crept at the corners of his mouth. “I’m all about where I’m going.”
“Yeah, I get it, Mr. Livin’ in the Now, but you had a point there,” I said. “Between childhood and high school, which years are the most important when determining one’s ‘fromness’?”
“There was a time when most people were born, lived, and died in the same town,” said David.
“Sometimes, I want to ask people to just tell me what it is they really want to know when they ask me where I’m from,” I said. “Are they trying to determine my family’s socioeconomic status? My ethnicity? Religion? I’m a forthright person. I wouldn’t shy away from answering. Thing is, I don’t think most people are consciously aware of what it is they’re really trying to find out by asking a seemingly innocuous question.”
“They’re just making conversation.” David refilled his own glass and topped me off.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said. “Talking about the weather, movies, books, or any other third-party thing is making conversation. When you ask someone about themselves, you’re looking for information to help you shape your opinion of them. How can you judge if you don’t know the facts? People are mentally lazy; we like to fit others into categories. What better guideline for categorization is there than the stereotypes associated with one’s origins?”
“I just don’t think it matters so much where someone’s from,” David said.
“Okay, what about manners? If someone tells you he’s from India, then you know not to use your left hand when eating in front of him. Or if the guy is from Japan, you’ll probably avoid looking him in the eye because he would likely consider it rude. And if you learn a fellow restaurant patron is from Paris, you might cut him a little slack when he doesn’t leave a tip — the first time, anyway. We make assumptions about people based on where they say they’re from; it helps us to know how to deal with them.”
The more I thought about the concept of fromness, the more convoluted it seemed. “Who we are is made up of a compilation of our origins and experiences,” I continued. “Our origins represent the parts of ourselves we can’t control, while our experiences are a by-product of our choices and circumstances. When I say I’m Irish and Italian, there are thousands of years of history and culture attached to two little words. I come from that. I am that, to an extent.”
“You are only that because you have chosen to embrace that,” said David. He had a point. My “Italian” mother is actually half Greek, but since that culture never seeped into my upbringing, it is always left unsaid when I answer the ethnicity question.
“I suppose most people take some comfort from belonging to a place or tradition,” David said. “It’s like an anchor for them. But I guess I prefer a broader worldview. Next time someone asks me where I’m from, I think I’ll just say Earth — or perhaps I’ll elaborate and say, ‘You know, the part of Earth where they eat lots of paprika.’”