One balmy evening in Domincal, Costa Rica, two friends and I found ourselves stuck in conversation with a friendly tourist from the United States. Despite the best of intentions, he was boring us all.
We didn’t feel like chatting, and the dance floor was calling. So, when he inevitably asked, “Where are you all from?” we answered in the least gracious way possible:
“I forgot,” said one friend.
“I’m undecided,” said the other.
“I don’t know,” I finished.
After close to a year living in Costa Rica, we thought our responses were a clever alternative to the repetitive small talk we had come to dread—with tourists and locals alike. Our unfortunate conversation partner doubtless thought we were very rude.
However, our reluctance to answer a seemingly simple question touches on a deeper issue for me, and perhaps for many vagabonds.
I have small talk fatigue. I’m tired of regurgitating the same facts. What’s more, I haven’t lived in the place I grew up (is that where I’m “from”?) for 10 years. I haven’t lived in the pace I receive mail (is that where I’m from?) for five years. It just doesn’t seem like relevant information anymore.
I definitely have small talk fatigue. But that’s only part of the problem.
As someone with vaguely European features, I never had to deal with the “No, where are you really from?” bullsh*t growing up. (That’s another ballgame entirely). But having spent most of my adult life outside the U.S., having a distinct accent in every other language I speak, and being obviously foreign more often than not, I face two questions with higher frequency than could possibly be healthy:
Where are you from? And, why are you here?
I just don’t want to answer these questions anymore. My place of origin is probably the least interesting thing about me. It leads inevitably to more uninteresting questions. Yet it is always, always the first thing we ask. (I am also guilty of this, though more and more I try to catch myself before it slips out). And, if I do answer the question, “ah,” they say, as if now they know everything there is to know about me.
I reject the very premise of the question: that the world is made up of nations, and that we “belong” to the arbitrary borders within which we were born.
I refuse to identify with a nation simply because we have collectively consented to buy into this fiction. I refuse to flaunt my country of origin (utterly accidental, and in no way representative of any personal merit), as if it were something to be proud of.
Do the advantages and disadvantages of our birthplace, the cultural conventions of our upbringing, and the social constructs of our particular place in the world play a large role in shaping our selfhood? Of course. They play a massive role. I will be the first to make this point. But do these factors define us in our entirety? I strive every day to ensure that they do not.
Is it an exceptional privilege to reject a national identity and seek a global one? In a way, yes. Few have the luxury to choose to dissociate from the title on their birth certificate or passport.
Yet, I believe we are all capable of taking a critical look at the structures we have been handed as incontrovertible—at the stories we have been taught as truth. We all have the choice to accept the world given to us…or to deconstruct it, fiction by fiction, and build a new one.
I was born in the United States. I have a U.S. passport.
On the one hand, this tells you everything: my position of privilege, my opportunities for work and education, my background, and cultural references.
But on the other, this tells you nothing about my values, my vision, my spirit, or my heart.
I was born in the U.S., but don’t ask me about that.
Ask me, “Where is home?” I will tell you:
Home is Costa Rica, for now.
Home is with my family, wherever they happen to be.
Home is my community—global.
Home was South Africa, Zanzibar, London, and Italy… for a while.
Home is in my body.
Home is a hot shower and a good meal.
Home is wherever I am welcomed—and wherever people are kind, good, and full of love (everywhere).
Home is many, many places, and sometimes it is nowhere at all.
And maybe tomorrow I will tell you something different. Isn’t that so much more interesting?
Don’t ask me where I’m from, ask me where I’m at home. Then, maybe, we can talk about something real.
Image used with permission from Marc Maksim Photography.