How do you feel about the question, “Where are you from?” My own brain immediately starts to spin at the question – spiralling through all the variables that could be relevant to the questioner…
Place or country?
Where I was born or where I have spend the most time?
The country that they can see in my face/accent/language, or the one I feel most attached to?
But also… why is the person asking? Did break a social rule that betrayed me as not being from ‘here’? Are they trying to figure out if we are alike? Are they trying to figure out which cultural box I belong in, and what to expect from me?
So what do we answer?
Often we scramble an answer based on what we think the questioner needs – something that won’t completely confuse their expectations of us. At other times, we evade with a vague, “Lots of places” or “Nowhere” (!) Occasionally, when we feel our questioner is really interested, we might go into the details, include more variables. But it’s rarely the whole story, and we can feel strangely at odds with the answer we have given – as though we have betrayed the unmentioned places, and people.
In conversation the other day, an alternative response was born. We were exploring how we often stop short of laying claim to countries and cultures where we lack citizenship or ethic roots. Noting this, I queried why we deny ourselves these links to belonging. It can feel like appropriation, a kind of cheap theft of others’ stories to say “I come from…” places that we can’t ‘officially’ claim as ours. Appropriation hurts. And we don’t need to do it to communicate our own stories. We can’t “borrow” from others’ stories and expect our own to sound coherent.
So the alternative?
We don’t need to tell people where we are from, which implies a singular origin. Instead, we tell people where we grew.
For so many of us Place is the problematic. And Place can also be the solution.
So an alternative answer to “Where are you from?” is “I am from the soil that grew me”
Okay, so it sounds kooky when put like that but bear with me. We talk of feeling rootless when we could talk of being multi-rooted. The trouble is for many of us that our energies in childhood went into growing roots quickly in many new places, rather than growing one more deeply.
But we can nurture depth in our multiple roots – by acknowledging the soil in which they are growing, and investing in it.
Strengthening our roots
For myself, I was grown in several soils – Nigerien, French, English and American (plus mission organisation culture/soil). I can acknowledge the elements of these cultures that seeped into making me me, without laying claim to ownership of these cultures. I can trace back the elements of me that were grown in all these cultures – my sense of humour, gestures, values, accent(s), favourite recipes and cultural references. These were grown in multiple soils. Soil that grew me.
Even if we don’t want to answer the “Where are you from?” question with “I grew in Nigerien, French, English, American and mission ‘soil'” (!) we can hold the concept in mind while we construct an answer that communicates our rootedness in multiple places. This can take soul-searching and a lot of creativity – but it’s worth it. With this investment in our story’s roots, we can we can confidently acknowledge where we are rooted, and continue to nurture those roots.
Do you want to explore your roots and strengthen your story? Do you want to feel more confident in communicating where you are from? Get in touch here today – I can help you deepen your connection to the places of your story and clarify your sense of self.