Jan 13

Where are you from?

I was either five or six years old when I came up with a simple answer to a question our family often faced which always seemed to require long explanations. We were in Kampala, Uganda, where we lived until I was seven, walking to get ice creams when a woman we didn’t know stopped us to ask where we were from.

My parents knew she wasn’t asking which area of the city we lived in, so they launched into their usual complicated explanation, mentioning that my father was born in Tanzania but grew up in the United Kingdom; that my mother, who was born in the United States, was Irish by family background; that I was born in the Rakai district of Uganda, and my older sister in North Carolina.

It is tempting now to give myself a more interesting motive, but I am pretty sure I was just trying to get us to the ice cream stand faster when I cut the conversation short, jumping in and blurting out, “But actually, we’re from Hong Kong.”

The woman took a step back, taking in all our individual looks: me with my pure African heritage, my Caucasian mother’s silver hair and green eyes, my Anglo-Indian sister’s dark brown hair, and lastly my father’s unmistakable Indian features. It was quite a stretch to expect her to believe that any one of us (or our ancestors) came from Hong Kong, but she couldn’t exactly say, “No, you are not”; especially not when my mother, without missing a beat, decided to agree with me. “Yes,” my mother confirmed with a nod, “actually, we’re from Hong Kong.” It was kind of like saying you come from Gondwanaland.
Where are you from? It is such a mundane question, and one of the first that gets asked when meeting someone new. When people ask it, they are usually not just asking about places. They want to know who you are, what you have experienced, what underlying stereotypes they could pin on you subconsciously.

So how do you answer a question that is often aimed to place you in a single box when your answer would spill over into others? For the longest time, I answered the question by talking about wherever it was I currently lived and temporarily called ‘home.’ After Uganda, it was Sudan, then Tanzania, and finally, for the past three years, Vermont.

Strangely, it is the last of these places and the furthest from my physical place of origin that has become the place I truly feel I am from. It sneaked up on me, this feeling of deep connection, of rootedness in Vermont.

I find myself saying, “I’m from Vermont,” instead of “I live in Vermont,” and it feels perfectly right. Like Hong Kong, Vermont is a place that I have claimed for myself; this time not just as an abstract idea of ‘home’ but as a place where I really feel I belong, and that belongs to me.