“Where are you from?”
When I hear this question I freeze and take a deep breath while my mind runs through the permutations of an algorithm I have yet to complete. Do they mean where I was born, where I grew up or whose country’s military I served? Who is asking? How likely am I to see them again? How much time do I have? Do they really give a shit? People usually expect a simple answer, but there’s no way for me to respond without either telling white lies or needing to elaborate. And even if I had all the time in the world to explain, the problem is I don’t know.
If I’m in a hurry, the cop-out answer is Seattle. Usually, that buys me a pass and the conversation moves on, but small talkers will say something like “Oh, I went to Holy Names,” or “Oh, the Seahawks are killing it!” and then I just have to stare blankly at them because I have no idea what they’re talking about. More importantly, it’s not really true because all I did there was enlist in the Navy and spend the occasional holiday.
I could go with Greece, but then I get one of two responses: either it’s “on their bucket list,” or they “loved Mykonos/Santorini/Crete!” Then they assume my life was something out of “Mamma Mia,” which is akin to assuming being from America means you grew up in Disneyland. The other problem with saying Greece is that I only spent grades 2-12 there and then left as quickly as I could. I don’t play soccer, I don’t dance in circles throwing napkins and smashing plates, and I don’t really care that part of Yugoslavia is now called Northern Macedonia.
Sometimes I just say it’s complicated, but then there’s always some poor soul who helpfully chimes in “keep it simple, where were you born?” Bangladesh. “Oh, so you’re Bangladeshi?” No. How can I be if my parents moved when I was two months old and I have no other ties to the country?
Then there’s Greek-American, or American-Greek, seeing as hyphenated origins are all the craze now. But even that implies an experience I never shared, something akin to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Greek-Americans attend Greek festivals, worship in westernized Orthodox churches, and go to ‘Mediterranean’ restaurants that serve feta cheese in crumbles instead of slabs. Greek-Americans have a Greek community in the United States. They’re united under a common identity. That, I think, is the crux of the issue.
Identity means different things to different people, but according to the dictionary it’s “the quality of being identical.” Sameness, oneness, congruence. When we ask someone where they’re from, we’re really asking them what they are — the implication is that the title implies traits. Our brain loves these cues of similarity so that we can put each person in a nice little box with a label and tuck them neatly away into a mental filing cabinet with others like them. It’s a lazy form of stereotyping.
But identity is also “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is,” and boy, do we want that fact. We’re desperate for a sense of connection to our surroundings and an origin story that explains our existence. At a talk I attended last week, classmates of mine described identity with yoga mat phrases like “it’s a ship to navigate the perilous waters of life,” or “it’s an umbilical cord that connects us to our origins,” or “if you don’t know where you came from you can’t know where you’re going.”
I can empathize with the sentiment. I can see why someone would crave a continuous line of footprints in the sand with an agreed upon place we came from, a destination to look forward to and a community along the way. But that fact of being also implies a desire for absolution. Instead of asking ourselves the difficult questions like “Where should I go and what should I do?” we ask the easier “Where would someone like me go and what would they do?”
Not me. I don’t care if my ancestors were merchants, warriors, scholars or royalty. I don’t care if they were endless generations of plebeians, helots, surfs and peasants with bloodlines mixed by conquerors, rulers and occupying forces. I don’t care if you call me Greek, American, Bangladeshi, Greek-American, white, male, straight, atheist, veteran, old, young — it’s all crap. If my identity rests in titles, then it’s a marooned ship without sails and I’m floating away on a raft. If it’s a cord, I’m ripping it off.
So if you see me, feel free to ask me where I’m from, but I’d rather tell you who I am. I’m Nestor, and that’s what matters to me.
Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’ stanford.edu.