There is no denial that for a writer, words are the strongest tool in our possession. We have a kinship with language and the words we use to describe our feelings and thoughts. We understand the weight of words, the difference, sometimes subtle, between similar words such as hit and strike, or lean and thin. The word a writer chooses is specific to the context they are applying it too, as well as the meaning or implication they are seeking for such a choice.
As a writer, this is why I know the phrase, “Where are you from?” can hold so much significance to the person who it is asked of. When you meet someone for the first time, a natural question to start up the conversation might be to ask them where they are from. From this question, any number of topics can begin. Someone might be from Tennessee, and start talking about their childhood in Tennessee. Or another person might be from Thailand, and the questioner can mention the time they visited Thailand as a college student.
For me, this question is complicated. When I am asked the question, I get anxious. And annoyed. This physical response has come after years of being asked this question and having it come to be seen by me as a microaggression. I was born in Iowa in 1983. My family moved to California when I was nine years old. From the age of of nine until very recently, in fact December 17th, 2014, I have lived in California (from Bakersfield, to Santa Barbara, to San Francisco). Now, I live in Cambridge, MA. I’m not sure where to say I’m from.
If I say I’m from Iowa, people look at my brown skin in confusion and wonder how I could be from a part of the country where the average person has skin the color of ivory. I then have to go into an explanation of how my parents emigrated from India and my father found a medical residency in Des Moines, Iowa. Or how my family moved to California because they wanted their children to grow up in a community of Shia Muslims from India called Dawoodi Bohras. (And yes, my mother also really didn’t want to live in the snow anymore.)
Or, if someone else who might have a similar skin color as me – whether they are Indian, Pakistani, Afghani, or some other racial/ethnic identity from a non-European country – ask me where I’m from and isn’t satisfied when I say California, I have to then go into a discussion about my family history. Always, there is the curiosity of my background. I understand that human nature is a curious one, but these questions, always make me feel like my privacy is being invaded. I have no problem explaining my background, my experiences, my religious beliefs (or lack thereof) when the conversation calls for it, but the question, “Where are you from?” always blindsides me.
Recently, I was coming back from a wedding in Seattle. When I first arrived for the wedding, I took a cab from the airport to the hotel where my family would be staying for the duration of the wedding festivities. The cab driver immediately asked me if I was Indian. I said yes. He was too. He then asked me what part of India I was from, assuming that I was born there. The assumption is part of what makes me uncomfortable, the idea that based on our skin color, there is an automatic camaraderie, when in fact, I want to be able to choose who I have that camaraderie with. I might feel more of a camaraderie with a white, sixty-nine year old woman who is also a feminist working in the domestic violence field than I do with the guy whose ancestors happen to come from the same country mine do. It’s the unspoken assumption of who or what my identity is simply based on my skin color that brings out the hives every time this question is asked of me. Now, I know the cab driver was just trying to be friendly, but years and years of having to open up to people when I just didn’t want to has led me to believe this is a form of unintended discrimination.
Then there is the Ethiopian town car driver who took me back to the Seattle airport after the wedding was over. He had seen my family come to say goodbye to me, as I was the first one to leave that day, and asked if my family was from India. He asked me where we were from and again made the assumption that I was from India. I told him no, I was born here. Yet, he felt that this was his invitation to ask more about the wedding, about my culture, and about what Indian culture thought of interracial marriages (my cousin married someone of European descent). I was tired, it had been a lot of days of family socializing, and I wasn’t ready to tell someone my life story. But I didn’t want to piss off the town car driver, lest he charge me more or make the ride to the airport any more uncomfortable.
There is no simple fix for me as to how to be okay when people ask me this question. Yet, I wonder if there is a way to convey the unease that the vague question of “where are you from” can bring up for some folks. As a writer, I know to be careful of the words I choose and the specificity or vagueness of something I say. Words come with associated meaning. Different associations for different people depending on their backgrounds and experiences. A seemingly harmless word or phrase can be weighted heavier by others than you might think. Perhaps, I would find the questions of where were you born or where did you grow up more appropriate or more palatable than “where are you from?” Regardless, I know I need to be careful about the meanings I convey with the words I choose, and thinking about my meaning associated with this common question helps me to remember that lesson.