insteaHome is a strange place. It’s a call to action, a call out from colonizers, a catcall from the boy who thinks it’s cute to guess your ethnicity. Home is a place of familiarity and unfamiliarity, of going home during breaks and feeling more homesick after each visit.
When people ask me where I am from, I can never tell what information they are actually searching for. Like, where do I live? Where was I born? Where is my family originally from? And no answer is ever enough—not Maine, the place I moved to after an influx of Somali immigrants from Atlanta, Georgia. Not Georgia, although I wish knowing the A-Town Stomp and visiting Centennial Park as a child was enough to call that place home. Not Somalia, the warrior country USANews reports as one of the most broken nations in the world today. “Where are you from?” is not always a simple question. Some people call it diaspora, call it subtle effects of colonialism, call it “you’re so confusing” when you don’t give them the answer they are looking for.
So, what do you really mean when you ask, “Where are you from?”
Sometimes, people are asking for the place that you currently reside in, where you spent your childhood but moved away from three years ago, or that you long for when you are homesick. People are looking for a simple answer, but forget to see how much of a complicated concept home can be. It is not a privilege on its own to think of home and where one is from in such a simplistic, banal way—but it can be a part of the privilege people carry that allows them to remain unaware of the assumptions and aggressions that come hand in hand with asking someone where they are from.
Where are you from?—The pick up line. I don’t know what book some people are getting their tricks out of, but guessing someone’s ethnicity or nationality is not cute. The problem isn’t in the guessing itself—although that has its own implications—it’s in the fetishization and exoticism that the asker’s intentions are usually rooted in.
Where are you really from?—The assumption. Can also be asked as, “No, like, where are you from from?” And that really and from is always said in such an invasive, sharp tone. Usually, this is asked the second time when your first answer wasn’t what the asker was looking for /or/ didn’t satisfy the asker. And when you choose to give the bare minimum, to say that random city or state, when you let the question win and hope for the best in the asker’s intentions, this question is just the reminder that no matter what you say or represent or ride for, your answer is not enough. It is another way of saying, “Why are you here?” and “You don’t belong here.”
Where are you from?—The trauma. Yes, home can be a place of safety and protection for some people. But for others, home can carry a whole lot of sadness, loss, and trauma. Home can be a war zone, can be a place one can never return to, can be a place one needs to leave. Sometimes, asking where one is from can trigger bad memories and act as a reminder of all that one has lost. Anna Rodriguez, a junior, says, “The ‘where are you from?’ question also holds trauma for some people and a lot of people don’t realize that. In my hood growing up (and still sometimes today), if you were asked where you were from, it was your sign to run.”
Instead, people have chosen to start using “Where is home?” as the more conscious, open way of asking where one is from. But even then, people are always either looking for a city and state, an origin, a broad geographic area we call home. As Taiye Selasi put so beautifully, “The myth of national identity and the vocabulary of coming from confuses us into placing ourselves into mutually exclusive categories.” And for those of us who fall in between the cracks, who are torn by borders and between nations, who feel confused and complicated with our relationship to home, we are left to give an answer that fails to say anything real or substantive about who we are.
But what do you really learn when you ask “where are you from?”
My frustration with home stems from this belief that where you are from must define who you are, rather than your experiences. It is a meek attempt at knowing someone’s story, and doesn’t apply the same way to everyone. To some people, “Where are you from?” is as simple of a question as “What is your name?” There are people who can look you straight in the eye and confidently recite the name of that small town in Vermont that they so proudly represent, that they wear on their sleeve and fly flags of on their cars. There are people who have never been ridiculed or questioned about the quarters they have always called home. But to some of us, answering the question is always followed with a feeling of settling, of never being enough. Some people live in places that hate them, that don’t want them, and that isolate them. Some people live in places that do not exist anymore. We cannot expect where one is from to define who they are—their experiences do. I live in Maine—and no, I have never been snowboarding. My family doesn’t go camping, and I saw a lighthouse for the first time two years ago. Ironically, my most common childhood memory is of white neighbors telling my family to go back to where we came from. I am not Maine, and Maine is not me.
Don’t get me wrong—where you are from or live can be a place pivotal to your life and experiences. And, personally, I love the love some people have for their hometowns/cities/countries. In Jamila Woods’ song Heavn, she sings, “you gotta love me like I love the lake, you wanna love me better love the lake”—alluding to Lake Shore Drive, the freeway which runs parallel to Lake Michigan. This type of love is so beautiful, so underrated, and so romantic. It is a love I both admire and envy (mashallah). “Where are you from?” might excite these same people—I mean, how many times have people used, “I’m from ______ don’t play with me!” as their defense? And that narrative and story may stick true to people with those experiences, and it is through those experiences that define who you are—not the place that you live in.
So, where do you call home?
Home is a strange place. But it doesn’t need to be—as my soul-sister poet fav Safia Elhillo says, “Where I’m from is where I’m from and not where I was put.” Instead of allowing this question to be used as a tool to define you, and making yourself feel insufficient when you give an answer they weren’t looking for, remember that wherever home is to you, whether it’s your comfy brown couch you crash on when you visit your big family on school breaks, or the basketball court you felt most free in, or that small town in Vermont you rep proudly, is enough. And if home is a place of complication, if home is not merely a place for you, if home is a feeling you are still searching for, home can be just that. So when people ask you “Where are you from?” or “Where is home?” tell them everything. Tell them nothing. Hit that A-Town Stomp. Speak in a different dialect. Talk about your family. Sing them a song off of Jamila Woods’ album HEAVN. And as the wonderful Audre Lorde once said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I’d be crushed into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Don’t become their fantasy, and remember: you define yourself before any question or answer that follows.