Whether I’m traveling in Latin America or Western Europe, people always ask: “where are you from?” It’s a loaded question and I usually sigh when I hear it. It’s an invitation to learn more about a person, but it means starting from the very beginning. For the millionth time.
“I’m from the United States,” I say with a bit of hesitation. I only hesitate because on the occasion that they ask, “No, where are you really from?” I will apologetically say that my mother is from Israel. She was only 6 months old when her parents moved with her older brother and sister to the United States. I don’t feel qualified to call myself Israeli, but that is where my curly hair and Middle Eastern complexion come from. But then I think about her parents who emigrated from Yemen and Hungary. Would they even call themselves Israeli?
To make it simple, I am half Middle Eastern, half American. But I don’t speak a lick of Hebrew and I don’t strongly identify with Israeli culture, so I don’t feel worthy of calling myself “Israeli” when I am among people who are really from there.
If the question “where are you from?” means where do you see a doctor or where do you live now, I would say Canada because that is where I’ve spent the majority of the past three years. I love Canada, the kindness of people, and the beautiful landscapes and mountains. I also love that talking about politics doesn’t produce a lot of shaking heads and eye rolling.
But when I go to Canada I have to carry a document that only lets me remain in the country until 2021 when my studies are finished.
I usually say I am an American; I am from New York. If I want to be sure that I’ll get a positive response, sometimes I stretch the truth and say I’m from Canada. People are always happy to hear that – these days saying I’m from the United States can have a mixed response. And people usually want to stop and talk about politics.
I say all of this to make the point that my family history is very straightforward. Many individuals are much more multi-cultural and international than myself. They might have a home associated with their father in Toronto but their mother came from Vietnam. They may have a connection to the place they live, a connection with somewhere they dream of living, and a connection with their family’s place of heritage. These are all very different yet valid ways of thinking about home and where you come from.
Some travelers say they aren’t even sure where they are really from. They are half-Chinese, half-German and a travel-blogging nomad living out of a suitcase who was raised in Miami but grew up in Iceland. Their feelings about where they’re from are a conglomerate of many identities.
What is home? Where is anyone from, and why does it matter?
Home is my childhood house in upstate New York. But on a deeper level, it’s my family and friends that made this place matter. Instead of feeling attached to the physical house I cherish the memories, people and laughter from my childhood. I remember escaping into the woods behind my house with friends, playing with our pets, and cooking with my parents.
There are almost 220 million people today living in countries that aren’t their homes. It is easier than ever to work remotely and live anywhere that you choose. Some people are constantly on the move, living a nomadic lifestyle that is coordinated with their online careers.
Why do we ask “where are you from” to get to know someone?
Where you come from doesn’t matter as much as who you are and where you’re going. Sometimes I don’t even ask “where are you from?” because I realize that the answer will cause me to define that person a certain way. There is judgement in identifying someone by where they were born. Instead, I can learn about someone by asking about who they are, their likes and dislikes. I can ask what they love most about traveling or what their passions are. These things matter more than the passport you hold.
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