“Where are you from?” An increasingly difficult question

I imagine that each social milieu has its own particular range of introductory questions that are considered acceptable to ask someone you’ve just met.  “What do you do?” seems common across social milieux, with the expectation usually being that an interlocutor will answer by telling you where they are employed.

In a number of contexts, one of the first questions might be “Where are you from?” This is particularly common in social settings comprised of people presumed to have geographic mobility (e.g. expat communities, “global” cities, university, etc.) Interestingly, this question — “Where are you from?’ — seems most difficult to answer for precisely those people who are likely to be in the social settings where it is frequently asked.

I take first the example of my European colleagues. In the borderless, but still differentiated new Europe, it is not uncommon to have a biography like that of many of my dear classmates. Their answer to the question takes some time, often along the lines of “Well, my mom is Swedish, my dad is Swiss, but I was born in Germany, but I’ve lived in England for a while now.” Even if the Cosmopolitanist archetype of the “global citizen” is currently most prevalent among the socially mobile of the rich world, it is spreading: We met a man who was born in Nigeria, lived part of his life in Kenya, and has now settled in the UK,  but when discussing the US with us, used the word “we.”

For me, the question is also growing increasingly difficult, my relatively straightforward upbringing notwithstanding. When someone asks me where I’m from, I usually just answer “the US,” but most people know enough American geography to want a more specific answer. For the last two years, we’ve answered “most recently, Minnesota” as that is, indeed the last place in the US that we’ve lived, the state where I voted in the last election, and where we still own a house. But if, as seems likely, we continue moving from place to place every few years, we might eventually reach the point where we have been away from Minnesota longer than either of us has lived there. At that point do we revert to answering with our respective birth states, from which we’ve been separated even longer? Do we bore people we’ve just met with a catalogue of everywhere we’ve ever lived? Should we just refuse to answer?

In summary, maybe it’s safer to ask “What’s your favourite animal?” at parties.

Yeah, so I was born in East Africa, but my parents migrated occasionally...

Yeah, so I was born in East Africa, but my parents migrated occasionally…

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