November 21, 2012, Washington, DC: “Are you going home for Thanksgiving? Where are you from?” I’ve met more new people than usual in the months leading up to this holiday, so I’ve fielded these questions a lot lately. It’s friendly conversation, intended to get to know a newcomer, and yet the questions and the assumptions people make about their answers perpetually throw me.
I realize my nice new acquaintances have no idea I’m so consumed by the nuances of the topic. But I suspect many of you agree: When it comes to explaining where we are from, and sometimes where we are going, the answer is oddly complicated.
Do we self-identify as being from the place we were born? Or from the place we graduated from high school? Are there times when the place we last lived defines us in our current hometown? How long must we live somewhere new before we begin to tell others that’s where we are from? Is it socially acceptable to tell someone you’re from all over the map?
I’m thrown lately by the idea that people in this transient city would assume the last place we lived must be the source of our roots. (You’re heading home to Annapolis, right? Wait, you’re not from there?) I’m thrown because I still don’t know how to respond with the one word answers that people expect. (I’m visiting family in Chicago. Yes, I used to live there. No, I’m not from there. I’m from, um…) And I’m taken aback once I do answer, as simply as possible, by people’s tendencies to make quick judgements about someone’s identity based on their association with just one place. (Oh, ok, you’re from Connecticut.)
As if that’s the full story.
Take a look around the dinner table tomorrow and consider the origins of your family and friends. Will each of you be defined in part by the place you just came from? Would you self-identify that way back at home? Maybe you’ll be seated next to a cousin from Chicago who says he’s from Michigan, or an uncle from Boston who’s a native Chicagoan.
Are you going home for Thanksgiving? Is that where you’re from? Is the place that defines you tomorrow at the dinner table that same place that defines you back home?
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