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

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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.

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