It starts off as an innocent (and usually simple) question. “Where are you from?” asks the person meeting you for the first time. For most people, a city or country name will suffice to bring about a certain level of understanding regarding their background.
But for me, this is a truly complicated question. Do you mean where am I from ethnically? Do you mean where I am from as in where I’m living right now? Do you mean where I am from as in where I grew up? Do you mean where I am from as in where I identify with most and consider home? I mean, really, this is a loaded question dressed up in innocence. The poor people asking me that question never know what’s coming until they’re knee deep in my explanation. So let’s break this down bit by bit.
To start, the easiest answer I have is when I am traveling abroad. Then I can say either the US or China, based on if the asker wants to know where my family heritage is or where I grew up. Since I’m in another country, I don’t have to explain in as much detail and general answers like that work. But when I’m in the US and people ask me, it’s too broad to just say “United States” – they’ll want to know what state, what city even.
Where am I from? If you mean my ethnic background, my familial “roots” then the answer is China. More specifically Northern China and even more specifically, Shenyang in Liaoning Province. This drills down enough that those familiar with Chinese geography and culture will know right away some basic things: I am from a Mandarin-speaking area, I probably have some Mongol in me, and there are certain slang terms specific to my region that I may use. This also explains why I often get mistaken for Korean – we are very close to (both) Korea(s) and people living in the same region tend to look alike. However, this doesn’t mean I’m truly Chinese. I’m certainly nothing like those who grew up there.
Where am I from? If you mean where I’m living now, then I would have said California, Southern California, Los Angeles, or Valencia. Do I feel like I am Californian or an Angeleno? Yeah, by now I do, since I’d been in the area on and off for a decade. I didn’t grow up here though, so I don’t consider it anything more than my most recent home that felt like it. For now, I’m still not connected enough with Virginia to think of this as my real home, even if my beloved condo, husband, and cat are here.
Where am I from? If you mean where I grew up, oh boy. I didn’t grow up in one place – which do I choose? I really can’t pick, since I spent an average of 3 years in each throughout my childhood before moving on to the next. First, 3.5 years in China, then about 2 years in Pennsylvania, then 3 years in Kansas, 1 year in China, 1 year back in Kansas, 2.5 years in Missouri, 3.5 years in New York, 4 years in California (2 in Valencia, 2 in Westwood/UCLA), 1 year in England, 2 years in California, 0.5 years in Singapore, 2 years in California again (El Segundo), and then back and forth between CA and Virginia for 1.5 years until my most recent 1 year in Virginia. Do I feel Mid-Western, as my 7 years there would suggest? No. Do I feel like an East Coaster? Certainly not. Do I feel like a West Coaster? Only in more recent years.
Where am I from? If you mean where I identify with the most, where my childhood memories are, where I consider home… I really don’t know. I can’t pick a single place, whether a city, a state, or even a region. For my adult life, it has mostly been the greater Los Angeles area, within about 50 miles. But my childhood? There is just too much of a story there to give a simple answer. And then of course I am now officially moved to Virginia, giving me yet another piece to the identity puzzle.
Who knew such a seemingly straightforward question would create so much havoc in my attempt to answer.