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Where are you from?

Where are you from?


by Jon White

Where are you from?


This is probably one of the most common questions that we ask one another (in America, anyway). It is often asked, I imagine, carelessly and without having too much importance attached to it. But it is a question I find myself struggling to answer.


What does it mean, after all? Am I being asked where I was born, or where I grew up, where my most formative experiences took place? And is there really meaning to be found in the geography of my life?


My usual answer is; “it’s complicated.” Because the truth is that I don’t really feel like I’m from anywhere, or rather not one specific anywhere. This frustrates my mother, who doesn’t understand why I don’t enthusiastically embrace the city and state of my birth (Indianapolis, Indiana, USA to be specific). I think my mother believes I am embarrassed or ashamed or something. Maybe that was true once, I can remember wanting to divorce myself from my origins with great earnestness – but that was a long time ago now. And the truth is, it wasn’t the place itself I really wanted to escape from.


Kurt Vonnegut (also from Indianapolis) once described the city for him as being like a place hit by a neutron bomb – all the buildings were there but the people were gone – meaning his personal connections had been lost. For me, it’s kind of the opposite; my family all still live there, it’s a pretty nice place in lots of ways. But the place I grew up isn’t really there anymore – as in much of it is physically gone or altered beyond recognition. When I visit, I am navigating through a ghost world that disappeared years ago, moving from lost landmark to lost landmark.


But other places, too, have a claim on me; Australia, New York, Oregon all are places where important, formative events occurred.


So I think my biggest struggle with the question is the underlying assumption that a specific geography or place says something about who I am; that my story is bounded in some way, limited by location. Would the tragedies and triumphs feel different if they occurred elsewhere? I have lived on enough continents by this point to have begun to discern the universal in the particularities of locale.


I have long thought of St Paul’s words,

 “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.“


One of the most significant aspects of my conversion to Christianity was taking responsibility for my own story, for not allowing the stereotypes of place to determine my relationship with God and the world. But, instead, to try to find my true self, my created self, and live into that. If you were to ask me what I thought faith required, it would be that – taking responsibility for your own story, and letting it be shaped by the story of God’s love.


Nowadays, I live in a place where many people are fiercely attached to place. Sometimes I am envious, no longer feeling I have a home, I occasionally long for the sense of belonging and comfort it brings. More often though, I see and experience the limitations and boundaries it creates on the possibility of hope.


And what is God if not the ultimate source of possibility, the ultimate source of hope? What is the Eschaton if not a promise of all good possibilities fulfilled, all hopes redeemed? Paul reminds us of our unity in Christ for the same reason that he reminds us that we are no longer bound by the Law – so that we will be reminded that our love should not be constrained or limited in any way.


Jon White is the Rector of St Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Beckley, WV and is also editor of Episcopal Café.


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Philip B. Spivey

As I read Jon’s meditation on place and origins, I began to realize how important that-place-I-come-from has been in the formation of my identity and my experience of who I am in the world.

I’m also reminded how in early Western culture, one’s surname spoke reams about their origins, especially in elite circles: It spoke to a metric of a person’s wealth, land, breeding and, ultimately, to their value and desirability as a human being.

In the Bible, Jesus speaks of being sent by the Father; at his baptism by John the Baptist, God the Father confirms this relationship with Jesus: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” There’s no doubt of a kinship relation here, but what about Mary? While Jesus was sent by the Father, Jesus was borne by Mary; Jesus’ earthly origin is through his mother. There would be no Jesus without Mary.

I identify with Jon White’s feelings of disorientation when I reach out to find material evidence of my past. In part, I feel blessed that I can go back to the hamlet I in which I was raised some 60 years ago in Queens, New York. Many of the buildings and landmarks still stand, but the faces and languages are different now; I can’t read some of the store signs; and my fantasy of being welcomed-back-home is just that.

It’s true that in United States, there’s nothing you can rely on with more regularity than—change. Our nation is a nation of movers and shakers; we’re a nation of immigrants, migrants and ex-pats; we thrive on the latest new gizmo and the latest new trend and very few things from the past are revered. When you’re asked “Where are you from?” it’s because we can never be sure whether this person is newly arrived in town, or she has lived down the block from you for the past decade. And so, we keep asking.

The dark side of “Where are you from?” –and Ann raises this issue above—is when the sentiment underlying the question seeks to establish (as in earlier times) your rank and station in life. More pointedly, the question arises when the questioner experiences some cognitive dissonance between what he sees and his preconceptions (stereotypes) about an individual. For example: I’m an African American born in raised in New York. I have what could be described as a full-blown Brooklyn accent. Over the years, I’ve come to learn that some folks have difficulty putting brown skin and a New York accent together in this one person. In this instance, “Where are you from?” suggests that the person is looking for something that’s not there—could it be a southern accent— or —white skin? Darned if I know.

What’s particularly painful to watch, however, is how Asian Americans—2nd, 3rd, 4th…generation Americans—are repeatedly asked: “Where are you from?”. This infuriates people I know and we have to ask—“What does an American look like?”

Ann Fontaine

Where are you from for me is always answered by “the Oregon coast.” It is the home of my heart and spirit. Though I have lived in Wyoming and Boston they never felt like home. I had friends and interesting things to do – I could have stayed but always I longed for the culture and place and ambiance of the Pacific NW.

For many people, however, it is an offensive question – with the meaning of “you don’t really belong here” — “you are not one of us” — especially for those whose ancestry is Asia or Latin America, the question is not a friendly “let’s get to know each other better”question but an offensive remark that wounds. See video

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