Where Are You From? It's a Complicated Question

The question is more difficult for some people than for others

Posted May 05, 2015

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Where are you from?

We ask this question of new people that we meet all of the time, yet we seldom pause to consider how complicated it is. Even in strictly geographic terms, the question is ambiguous. Depending upon what the questioner wants to know, it can mean any of the following things:

Where do you live?”

“Where were you born?”

“Where did you grow up?”

“Where did you live just before you moved here (wherever here may be)?

“What place in your past do you most strongly identify with as the place that made you who you are?”

It can also be much more than just a question about geography. It is a classic American experience to move off to a big city from your small town and reinvent yourself in the process. Many celebrities (Bob Dylan comes to mind) embarked on this journey with a new name, powered by an intense desire to camouflage small-town roots and small-town selves.  Consider the following:

Were you once religious, but are now an atheist?

Did you have a secular upbringing, but are now born again in the Lord?

Were you (perhaps even unknown to yourself at the time) a closeted gay and are now “out”?

Once conservative and now liberal?”

Were you the nerdy high school wallflower who went off to college and became a whole new person?

In any case, there is always the tension between who you think you once were and who you are now trying to become. Asking people “where they are from” automatically triggers all of those bittersweet memories that embarrass while simultaneously evoking pangs of loss for the person that once was.

The question is more difficult for some people than for others.

If you have never moved away from where you grew up and still have lifelong friends who knew you back in the day, and if you have never experienced a major political, theological, or existential upheaval, you may have the serenity that comes from a sense of stability and belongingness that others may envy.

And yet, you may also wonder about the road not taken.

In this sense, asking someone where he or she is from implies a psychological journey through time rather than a physical journey through space.

The length of a life’s journey cannot always be measured in miles. 

John Lennon once observed that life is what happens while you are making plans, and there is great wisdom in this statement. Have you ever noticed how much you discount the present in favor of either a dreamed-about future or a romanticized past?

I venture to say that most people spend the first third of their lives in a perpetual state of “becoming.” “Won’t it be great when” becomes the phrase that regularly opens conversations with peers, just as “wasn’t it great when?” is the opening gambit for people who have reached a certain age.  I have very few memories of anyone ever saying “Isn’t this great, right now?

Perhaps life is indeed a journey rather than a destination, and where you are right now can only be understood in relation to where you came from and where you are going.

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