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Where are you from?

| Thursday, February 1, 2018

I dozed off when Alex, a white-passing male with decently discernible American-ness, kicked off his self-introduction in the most typical manner: “I’m a second-year student, and I haven’t declared my major yet.” Then, he said he was from Kenya.

My sleepiness immediately dissipated as I carefully recalled every Kenyan whom I knew of. In an urge to satisfy my curiosity, I quickly befriended Alex and found out later that he was a U.S. and Canadian dual-citizen. My inquisitiveness intensified.

Born to a German-American dad and a Chinese-Canadian mom, Alex grew up in Switzerland, France and Kenya before coming to the U.S. for college. As a result, he did not have a physical home that he felt attached to –– “When people asked me where I am from, I answer with where I feel like I’m a local, or where I feel similar feelings of comfort, love and ease,” he explained.

Granted, our life stories barely overlapped when we met, and there were sentiments in Alex’s answer that I could not fully comprehend. Even so, I truly felt for him and his dilemma of not being able to adequately answer the question “Where are you from?” Just think about it: Wouldn’t running through a whole list of countries that he lived in, his ethnicities and passports be time-consuming and likely to generate more questions? As such, I appreciated his choice of answering somewhere he felt at home.

Alex shed light on a quandary regarding the simple question “Where are you from?” that I had been ignorant of but is nonetheless shared by many people around me. Joshua, one of my best friends, was born and raised in China. Even though he does not look like the average Chinese person, years of living in China have made him culturally indistinguishable from my others Chinese peers –– he drinks hot tea, cracks jokes with me in his authentic Beijing-accented Chinese and uses his particular insights to raise questions related to Sino-U.S. relations at lectures. I asked him what he thought about the question “Where are you from?” and he too shared that he often struggled with it. “In China, I am always perceived as a foreigner. But even though I appear to fit in at Notre Dame, I do not feel entirely at home,” he said.

The truth is that we all live in a world where we are no longer solely defined by the nationality printed on our passports or confined to one specific geographical location. Like Alex and Joshua, more and more people’s lives are so intertwined with multiple cultural settings that a simple answer to the question “Where are you from?” rarely suffices. What’s more, dilemmas also arise due to certain expectations we often hold for other people’s answers. When Alex said that he was from Kenya, my immediate reaction was a combination of disbelief and intrigue. I was driven by my curiosity to connect the disconnections precisely because his answer failed to match my assumption. But I ignored the possibility that Alex — or anyone — could be unwilling to share certain part of his identity or life stories — and when that happens, my inquisitiveness might as well be seen as an unintended intrusion.

A few weeks ago, one of my American-born Asian friends told me that she was once asked where she was from by someone she met for the first time. When she answered “Los Angeles,” the person immediately followed up with “I meant, where are you really from?”

“But I never left the country before college,” she said with a wry smile.

An immense sadness overwhelmed me as I imagined how difficult it was for her to rationalize another person’s doubts about an important part of her identity. I hugged her, not knowing what to say. Indeed, we show kindness and care through our genuine interests in another person’s background, but shouldn’t we let that person decide on what information to share? I was glad that Alex did not feel pressured and instead spent half an hour explaining his backgrounds and retrieving threads of his life for me. But next time I encounter people whose answers to the question “Where are you from?” are unexpected, I will halt my curiosity for an exhaustive explanation and befriend them. Hopefully, we will come to a point where we share each other’s life stories naturally and thus be able to appreciate each other more.

Yizhi Hu (胡以之) is a junior political science and Japanese double major. She hails from Wuhan, China, and lives in Walsh Hall. Yizhi welcomes all comments and can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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