I get asked this question a lot:
"Where are you from?" [multiple times, variations]
It's a simple enough question, but there's so much in it.
It's less common now, but when I was a kid, there was almost always an undercurrent of "what's your nationality?" to it.
Or: How did you come to be this particular shade of brown?
Or: WHAT are you?
Even before I knew the concept of a 'microaggression,' I used to get really indignant at the question. My thinking was this: My mom's side of the family has been here since the Potato Famine. In her hometown across the Hudson, there's a grave for one of her earlier ancestors who died in the Civil War. My dad's family has been here a whole hell of a lot longer than that. Where are YOU from? Oh, your family came through Ellis Island? Well, welcome to America. Please try to respect my country while you're here.
At my most self-righteous, I'd identify myself not merely as an American, but a QUINTESSENTIAL American. I AM the melting pot. My family's been here longer than yours, put in more work, and if you're talking Geography (it's clear no one is talking geography by this point), I'm from the dead center of the continental U.S.
I'm glad those questions, or that subtext, rather, has faded with time. At a certain point in my late teens, I noticed a demographic shift. As far as the 'nationality' undercurrent, it was coming mainly from darker-skinned folks who were, in fact, seeking kinship. A lot of people assumed (and still do, since I live uptown) that I'm Dominican. I'm not, but I get it, and the question doesn't make me as angry or exasperated as it used to.
"Where are you from?" [multiple times, variations]
These days, it's more often just simple small-talk. Basic "getting to know you" stuff. Although that still presents plenty of problems for me. Even absent the microaggressive subtext, it's still a deeper question than it seems on the surface. It's another way of asking part of a larger question:
"WHO are you?"
Absent the racial subtext, my youthful self's indignation cools. The nearest I can come to an answer to this version of the question is, "I have no fucking clue." (But that's just between us here, right now.) You can't really get away with that at a bar or a party, not if you want to keep things light and moving along (i.e., not somewhere where you're monologuing, for an audience). I can give a factual answer if I'm OK with coming across as boring:
[mime the pulldown map] I was born in this geographical location, and moved to these various points on the map, and now I'm… here. No, I wasn't an army brat. We just moved a lot. Dad had a job where he got transferred from place to place a lot. Nope, not military-related. In the slightest.
There's no short-yet-engaging version that isn't simultaneously jokey or flippant. I can say I'm from New York, but no, I wasn't born and raised here. (It's more complicated than that.)
Or I can say I'm from the Midwest or Kansas City, but then I have to explain I didn't grow up there, either. (It's more complicated than that.)
After years of trying variations on all of these, I'll often just go for a simple temperature check: "[CHUCKLE] How much time you got?" — and sometimes that suffices as an answer, without having to go down the well-beaten path of the various standard dialogue trees.
But man, few questions put me in my head as effectively as that simple one. "Where are you from?" What I really want to answer is something along the lines of: "That question is not the right one to get the information you really want, friend; let's try a different tack."
That, but snappier, cleverer, and funnier. In a way that will make people who've just met me think: "Here is a funny, clever fellow I'd like to get to know more."
Instead, it gets me thinking about my lack of roots. Just last month, I visited Southern California for the first time since my dad lived out there 2 decades ago. I drove out to a little town called Moreno Valley where he lived when I'd visit for the summer. Drove right up to the house where he'd lived, and nothing. I mean, it's still there, just….
I have a ton of very strong memories from that time, but they were all cold, distant. You really can't go back home.
And, just like everywhere else we'd lived, I don't have any roots there, no people. It's the same in Kansas City, or Louisville. So where DO I say I'm from? Where the heck DO I come from, if those places no longer exist? And I don't have an answer. No "home is where the heart is" or like platitudes. Because my heart is in all those places that I can never go back to.
So instead I go back to basics. A home is a structure built to shelter yourself from the elements, to afford you a minimum of safety and security. Sometimes, you have to build it yourself, and as an amateur you're going to make mistakes. Any homeowner can tell you the upkeep is non-stop; things are always failing on you. And, if there's time, you can set up a garden, put down some seeds that might take root. It gives you something to work on with your own two hands, keeps you busy. It's real. It's here, it's now, in the present.
But that still doesn't answer the question.
I'm trying to write more.