The Dreaded Question: Where Are You From?

by Rachel Pieh Jones on January 27, 2014

airport

A young white woman asked my daughter Lucy to spin the globe and point at where she was from. Lucy rotated the globe until her hand hovered over Africa. Before she could be more specific the woman laughed and said, ‘no, tell me where you are from,’ and spun the globe toward the United States.

“I’m from Djibouti,” Lucy said and forcefully turned the globe, jabbed a finger at the tiny nation in the Horn of Africa. “I was born right there.”

The woman, who happened to be South African, was surprised but gracious. And Lucy, of course, was right. She was born there. She once said to me, “I don’t know why the rest of you live here, I’m the only one who was born here.” Another time Lucy saw a group of black women selling food under a banner that read African American Dishes. Lucy ran up to them and said, “African American, like me!” These women were also surprised but gracious.

More and more I hear people asking my children where they are from. For now, for Lucy, the answer seems obvious. She was born in Djibouti, she has spent her whole life except first grade there. She is eight years old and sees things in black and white. But already she is picking up on nuances that counter her assumption. Like that people in Djibouti, Kenya, and the US greet us by saying, “Welcome home.”

For our teenagers the answer is also complicated and they are becoming more aware of the complications. Their responses to the question vary.

My parents live in Djibouti, where I still have a bed and friends and where I lived for 10 years. But I also lived in Somaliland. But now I go to school in Kenya. I also went to school in France for a while. But I was born in Minnesota…

where are you from

I realized, after a trip to the US for Christmas this December, that we needed to talk about this question. Not so that we would come up with a satisfactory answer, there probably isn’t one, at least not one that would work in all circumstances. But so that my kids could hear me affirm whatever choices they made in describing where they came from, or where home is. So that I could help them find words, develop a vocabulary, begin to name the places that, when all pulled together, form the answer to ‘where are you from?’

I don’t know how to answer the question myself. One morning in Nairobi, an hour after landing via London from Minneapolis en route to Djibouti via Ethiopia, someone asked me where I was from.

Did she mean where had I just come from? London.

Did she mean where had I originated? Minneapolis.

Passport nation? America.

Did she mean where I keep my precious photo albums and fill up my daily routines? Djibouti.

Did she mean where half my heart lives nine months out of the year? Kenya.

I stumbled. It could have been jetlag but I think it was uncertainty. I couldn’t figure out what she wanted to know and the question flustered me until I nearly spilled my coffee. Rather than answering with whatever words came out my mind, I was frantically trying to decipher what she wanted to know and I couldn’t handle it.

“The airport,” I finally answered. Which was also true, we were, most recently, from the airport.

Is there a better question than ‘where are you from?’ How do you answer? And how does that answer cross over into what you consider home?

 -Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

                         Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones

*image credit

About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Marilyn Gardner

    Love this post — you probably knew I would. All of us adult TCKs talk about this all the time on forums. Funny how we always have more thoughts on the issue. We say things like “Home is where I unpack my suitcase” Hone is where I feed my cat” and more. Two things I really appreciate about this article– 1.That you’re helping your kids find a vocabulary. My two kids who were born in Egypt were like your Lucy–they wrote African American when asked to identify themselves. I wish we had talked it through before moving to the US. 2.I so appreciate your last question because a couple of us got into a discussion on this online a few months ago. I like the question “What’s your story” because it leaves the conversation so open. You can make your story as short or as long as the situation calls for but it’s not as black and white as “where are you from?” So much more to say but I’ll stop. Thanks for bringing this question up for this community.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I love that question. Perfect! I just talked with our daughter at school too and she said they are talking about how to ‘tell their stories.’ Makes me want to use that question when I meet her friends, or others, instead.

  • Shannon

    Rachel, Your children’s answers (and your’s) to that question can be so multi-faceted which I love although presents its difficulties as they wrestle with identity questions. But maybe more quickly than others, it leads to answers of “identity” rooted to “someone” rather than “somewhere.”

    I speak from my own experience as I’ve always found that question difficult to answer as I grew up in Montana but lived most of my adult life in California and have lived in South Africa since 2010. But my parents are transplants from Minnesota/Wisconsin (another reason why I like following your story – the mid-west connection and my relatives probably live near yours). So as much as I don’t seem to “fit” into my state of birth, it is still home as much as California is and South Africa is becoming and my origins and much family goes back to the mid-west. The “up” side of things is that I have many homes and cultures that I can adopt the good – in a way – as part of me. I think that’s an exciting aspect for you and your children.

    I tend to explain “home” as being the people I’m connected to rather than the place – so I call several places “home” and probably confuse a number of people.

    Then throw in how many South Africans answer this question, and it’s different than how I would answer.

    (Let me not throw in another identifier I seem to gravitate towards, that is my ancestry – I love history and family history.)

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Your explanation of home as a connection with people is beautiful Shannon. I can see my kids developing that, even can feel it in myself.

  • Bethany

    I’m not an expat, but I have the same problem – birth to 9, I lived in Pennsylvania; 9 to 18, Oklahoma; 18-21, Ohio; 21-24, northwestern Ontario, 24-present, Ohio. When someone asks me that question, I always over-explain that whole timeline and conclude by saying, “but Oklahoma will be most like ‘home’ as long as my parents are there.”

  • Dan

    I resonate with the question to you, “where are you from?” What do they really want to know? And, how much do you want to tell them?

  • Sherri

    Now that my children are older, I am always interested to see what they list as their home town on Facebook. My two college students name a town we never owned a house but it is the town of our home church. We have stayed near this town on furloughs. No family in this town. Their college is in another town. But they pick it as ‘home’. My third child lists Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He is 17. He has lived here since he was 9 so makes sense. We have discussed it many times and there is no right answer.

  • Barb

    OK, this is silly in comparison but I always answer Minneapolis even though I currently live in St Paul and have lived in St Paul for 38 years! It’s just that I was born and raised in Minneapolis so I guess that is still home.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      No silly answers here, like in school right? No silly questions. :O)

  • Lana

    I’ll be honest. I’m just tired of the question, and the “welcome home” can reduce me to tears.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      So relate with this Lana – I’m the same. I even feel like crying at immigration when they look at my passport and say “Bet your glad to be back!” Unspoken is the “bet your glad to be back from that god-awful place that’s stamped in your passport!” Totally get this comment.

      • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

        Oooh I hate that, too. After our evacuation we were in Ethiopia and someone said, ‘aren’t you glad to be here?’ and I thought: no, no I’m not. Please stop projecting emotions onto me. And then I cried.

        But maybe I was in a slightly extra-sensitive spot at that exact moment.

        • Lana

          yes, exactly. Thanks, you all!

      • Anna Wegner

        I have the opposite reaction. After not being in the US for over three years, I wanted to hug and thank all the border control officers. I managed to restrain myself. We’re returning to our “other” country soon, and they’re not quite so welcoming to you when you enter.

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          Do you get the ‘what the heck are you doing in this place, oh strange foreigner?’ look when returning? Sometimes we get that but if I am with my husband, I don’t. This is a small place and people working at the airport often have had him as a teacher or just know him from traveling.

        • Kristi Lonheim

          I, too, like the ‘welcome home’ as the US will always be one of my homes. When the airport computerized the immigration line recently I was sad because I wouldn’t get the ‘welcome home’. I was pleasantly surprised that the process is streamlined, saving an hour or more on some days, there is still someone at the end and a ‘welcome home’ was still uttered.

  • Lana

    Actually what makes me more frustrated is when people talk for me. The Canadians always tell me: “Lana is from Texas.” But I haven’t lived there in years. It’s only the dang accident that makes people say that.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Argh, that would be frustrating. Good word to not answer for my kids!

  • Richelle Wright

    I love watching my children answer when people ask, “Tell me about your home,” or, “What makes your home special to you?” because that frees them to answer according to how they feel at the moment… and some days, home is different – sometimes it is the people, the place, the memories, the anticipations of the future or some combo of any or all of those. It also helps them to begin learning that “home” can depend on perspective… and that it is perfectly okay that they have many homes.

    Home is where you feel safe to be you – that’s what we’ve tried to teach our children.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      “Home is where you are safe to be you.” Love that Richelle.

  • karph63

    I was born in PA but our kids were born in FL, and then we lived for about 8 years in Ukraine. Now both of our kids are in college in Florida, but neither of them live in the same town as our home church, and even our residence address is in a different town. So none of us are ever sure how to answer that question, and do people want the short answer “I’m from Namethistown, FL” or the long answer “I was born in Thattown PA and then moved to Thistown FL and then to…”

  • kaybruner.com

    I love this verse, Psalm 90:1: “Lord, through all the generations, you have been our home.” The more I feel this way on the inside, the less compelled I feel to give a six-paragraph answer to the poor soul who unwittingly unleashes the TCK beast… These days, I can just say “Dallas” and let it go.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      ‘unleashes the tck beast’ what a great way to put it. And that verse. Perfect. God knows, doesn’t he? Like the comment from Franingram: citizens of heaven.

  • Deb

    Sometimes the problem isn’t that MK’s don’t know how to answer – it’s how long the person who posed the question is willing to listen. I advise our seniors to consider saying something like, “I’m from (country or state) but I grew up in (parents’ place of ministry). It’s not 100% accurate and doesn’t cover all the possibilities, but it’s brief, satisfies those who are just being polite and opens the door for those who would like to know more. It also doesn’t trap the MK into being expected to know a lot about a place they’ve only visited.

    • http://fylliska.blogspot.com/ Phyllis

      That’s a good way to word it! So far, our little ones tend to say, “I was born in Russia, but my parents are American.” At some point, they’ll have to accept that they’re American, too. :-) But, with that answer, interested people can find out more, and uninterested ones can just be confused.

  • Hope Egliht Johansson

    One thing I love about this topic is that I can honestly say now that my home is here, in West Africa. It’s where I want to live. It’s where i feel the most comfortable. It’s where my heart is. For a long time I wanted to say that, but I longed for the trappings of American life. My oldest son (7 yrs) is fiercely vocal that he is from Virgina. He’s American. He teaches his little brothers that “this is who we are”. But when we are State side I think the answer sort of changes because then they miss their real home. Their beds, their dog, their life here. I pray that they always love it here and never hope to live somewhere they don’t.

  • mpieh

    I can’t identify with this on an international level, because I’ve always live in the States. But I moved quite a few times as a kid (as an adult too), so have always had a hard time answering the dreaded, “Where are you from?” question. Every time I go to my homepage on facebook, it asks me where I grew up and reminds me that my profile is incomplete because I haven’t answered that question. I simply can’t pick one location. My home has always been where my family is. When I was a kid that was with my parents…and now it’s with my husband and children. They are home.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Funny how Facebook can provoke that feeling. Even Facebook is asking this dreaded question! But somehow I love that you haven’t answered it yet. Just let FB wonder.

      • mpieh

        I just went back to my facebook homepage and clicked on the dreaded question. It actually gave me the option of, instead of naming a place, choosing the answer of “I don’t have a hometown.” I couldn’t bring myself to click on that…sounds too pathetic. So I just opted to skip the question all together, and now it won’t bug me about it anymore. Problem solved! :-)

        • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

          Perfect!

  • FranIngram

    Born in Hong Kong, British but never lived in Britain, now American, but not really. Best answer: I’m a Citizen of Heaven, by the grace of God in Christ. All cultures and homelands fail in comparison. Rootless in this world but anchored forever in Christ.

  • Anna Wegner

    That question stumps my family every time. In some places it’s easy to say “I’m from America.” But when you want to be more specific than that… it’s complicated. While in the US, I either find myself being vague and evasive, and wonder if people think I just got out of jail, or I’m hiding from someone. Or I give a 5 minute answer, eyes glaze over, and I realize, they didn’t really need to know. I’ve started just saying the place I grew up & still have family in the area. One child told someone at an airport they were from Antarctica. I guess that’s one way to handle it!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Antarctica! Love it. I would be that a lot of people would even believe it, or not quite get it and sort of gloss over.

  • Expat Alien

    From everywhere and nowhere. Always depends on who I am talking to. I usually say something vague like nowhere is particular. There was a time when I was like your daughter and said Burma. It always got a laugh…..

  • Andries

    I was born in the now DRC, lived in South Africa, Swaziland, Namibia and now the USA. I normally just say “Grants Pass”, if they say “No where are are you really from?” (Because of the mixed accent ) I will launch into a more detailed account of where I am from.

  • Wendy

    Great post that our family totally relates to. “What do you mean you’re from Japan? You ‘look’ Australian and you have an American accent.” That’s the kind of response our kids get. I’ve linked to this post on my blog: http://mmuser.blogspot.jp/2014/01/where-are-you-from.html

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks for sharing it Wendy. Why can’t people let us be from where we say we say we are from? Like the woman who wanted Lucy to turn the globe to America because she looks American. That’s exactly why I am challenged to give my kids the words to express themselves, but also the freedom not to if they don’t want to.

  • http://www.angiewashington.com/ Angie Washington

    “The airport” HA!!! That’s awesome, Rachel. Your posts are always so enlightening, with the perfect touch of humor.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks Angie, appreciate that!

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    Awesome post. Oddly, my American born children think of themselves as being “from Haiti” and my Haitian born (the two oldest at least) think of themselves as “Minnesotans” … We have spent almost zero time in MN the last six years but the 12 year old Haitian kids won’t lose their chance at a good hotdish.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I love this Tara. So sweet (and funny).

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  • Corrie Ayers

    Love the article Rachel- You have a great sense of humor, but yet still make your point very clear! This has been extremely helpful as I think about upcoming conferences where I will be working with TCK’s! In my relationships with TCK’s I have found that they are “relationally” rooted rather than geographically rooted as most of us are who have lived basically in one place or country! Love the discussion here and I have learned better ways to ask questions! Thank you

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks Corrie. I think my kids would say that same thing about relationships being the rooting thing. I feel it myself, even not as a TCK, but just an expat, more and more.

      • Corrie Ayers

        I am sure that it true for you – I think we are all relationally rootes in some sense – But more so for those of you who are living outside your passport country! I love your writing – you are witty and yet drive the point home! Thanks for writing.

  • Mrs W

    I love that you said “the airport.” I find that I answer differently every time, depending on the audience and my emotional state. Mostly, though, I say the US because, 1. It’s simpler and 2. Like Kay says, the more I find my home in the Father, the less it matters to me where others think I’m from. At least on first acquaintance. Another favorite verse on this for me is Deut 33:26-27 “There is none like God, O Jeshurun, who rides through the heavens to your help, through the skies in his majesty. The eternal God is your dwelling place and underneath are the everlasting arms.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Wow, love that verse, so beautiful in the context of this conversation too. And I really appreciate what you said about it mattering less what other people think about where you are from. So encouraging, thanks!

  • http://www.thehomemadecreative.com/ Alena@TheHomemadeCreative

    I have yet to actually enter the mission field, but I can relate to this question. I was born in Hamilton, Montana (USA), but moved 19 times by age 18, all in a four hour north/south radius from my birth place. Then I moved to Oregon state for a year in college, back to Montana for 2 years where I got married, then to Wyoming for almost 3 years, then most recently to northern Illinois where we live now. All told, I am 28 years old, and stopped counting my moves at 32, a few years ago (and we’ve moved 4 times since moving to Illinois 3 years ago). Where am I from? Got me! #lol

    • http://www.thehomemadecreative.com/ Alena@TheHomemadeCreative

      It’s funny, but it’s also very much not. I have no tangible roots, and that can be really hard sometimes. I have always wanted strong physical roots for my kids, but now we believe God is moving us toward foreign missions, and roots seem unlikely. I suppose I hope that one day my kids will look back and answer that question by saying that they come from their family.

  • Loreen Egli May

    I was born an MK and have hated this question all my life! At 41 this is the first time I have ever read about anybody else having the same issues! I was born in Iran to an American mom and a Swiss dad so therefore my citizenship is US and Swiss, however I don’t call either one of those countries home. When I was seven we moved to Germany where I lived until I moved to Canada at 17. This is home for now. My favourite question when crossing the border into the US is, “Why were you born in Iran?” Seriously?!
    Anyway, thanks for the blog. I can totally relate and I loved. It.

  • Elena

    I laughed at the “From the airport” answer. That is great! As a 42 year old TCK I have finally starting relaxing and just saying Ohio when THE DREADED QUESTION hits me. My Costa Rican husband and 3 TCK sons look at me astonished, but it’s not worth the time and hassle to add more. I used to, then I realized that 99% of the time, the question is just a conversation starter. Perhaps a better question to ask would be simply “Where do you live?” or “Where do you call home?” although that last one still trips up a lot of TCKs……

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