where are you from

Where are you from? park rangers ask before a guided tour. Where are you from? I also ask prospective and new students to the university. The question is meant to be a gentle opening point of reference.

When people answer where they are from, the reply depends on the current distance from their home, which relates to their assumption of the questioner’s geographical knowledge. We’re from San Francisco or I’m from Chicago, fellow visitors to the Grand Canyon might say, but when I privately ask for specifics because I have lived in those regions, it often turns out they actually live an hour or more away, somewhere in Silicon Valley or Chicagoland.

I’m from New York, a student might answer me. Where in New York? I ask and after a series of successive questions I uncover: Manhattan, the Upper West Side, near Lincoln Center, at 64th and Broadway. Oh, I lived a few blocks away before I moved here, I respond. Having inhabited and visited so many places, I love connecting over shared knowledge of the same spaces.

When we visit Spain next winter, I would first answer that I am from the United States. Someplace like Zion National Park, I might say Pennsylvania or Pittsburgh. If I learn at a conference that someone grew up in Pittsburgh, I’d start by telling them I live in the East End, or North Point Breeze. If I’m speaking to someone at work, I might immediately say that I live near Penn and Dallas, or close to Westinghouse Park. 

I would love to see a study of how self-described “geographic catchment” becomes more tightly defined with proximity to that location. 

Like all interrogatives, Where are you from? is not neutral. The receiver of the question can perceive it as an interrogation.

I have certainly been on that side of the question. Where are you from? someone asks, and I’d say that I live here in town. No, where are you from? they persist, and I reply that I grew up in Ohio, along the river, across from West Virginia. No, I mean, where are you from? they ask the exact same question again, as if we are not able to speak the same language, and I share that I was born in the Bronx and my early years were there and in Brooklyn. No, really — where are you fromthey repeat, and I know they are curious about my heritage.

I understand the curiosity. At various times in my life I have been taken for Mexican, Central American, South American, Native American, South Asian, East Asian, Southeast Asian. As a young child in the small town where I grew up, I was initially assumed to be Chinese or Japanese, as though those were the only two options, although I was also discriminated by one classmate for being Black. My last name is ambiguous enough so that, before people meet me, they sometimes guess that I am Italian or Spanish.

It’s fine to be curious. However, repeating Where are you from? over and over implies: You’re not from around here, are you? You don’t look like you belong here. The repetition comes across as a microaggression.

People who are curious about someone’s ethnic heritage should first share their own, as a point of reference and shared vulnerability. Or they should just ask straight out, like the Native American delivery man in college who asked for my nation, speculating that I am Sioux.

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