Our theme for February is actually a challenge: write a piece without using first person pronouns (I, me, we, etc.)
“So… where are you from?”
The question is a common one in a hostel; so common, in fact, that it soon becomes relegated to typical questions that everyone asks—you know the ones: in college, it’s “What’s your major? What are you doing after you graduate?” In marriage, it’s “When are you having kids?” When you’re very young (and judging from my sister and brother-in-law’s household, it’s a question they ask my nephew a lot) it’s “Do you have a “stinky”? The questions continue throughout life. Necessary? Maybe. Driving everyone slowly insane? Most definitely.
Despite all of this, however, if you consider the original question—where are you from?—it’s interesting in itself. What does it suggest? What does one gain by asking it? Why ask the question at all? Should anyone care?
The question may suggest an incessant need to categorize and then generalize, one more step down the deathly road of accepting people not as people but as facsimiles of a type. Oftentimes people don’t share names in travel; they assume nationalities—reduced to “that one German guy,” in which case, travelers have lost their individuality completely. That would be the pessimistic take on the situation.
And a misguided one. Often, the question rises out of simple curiosity, not out of a desire to corrupt the foundation of society. While often the answer stops at one word, the question has the possibility to lead to some pretty cool conversations.
These conversations are inherently driven by the fact that these people are either different from me or the same, and in this, travelers become an emissary of their country, a representation of how living in a place has affected the traveler. You may not like where you live but you are effectively a model of it whenever the question is answered and for better or worse, millions of people will be judged by what you do.
The question can also mean, “Where is home?” If this is the case, then it takes on further significance. The answer can act as a balm; even speaking the name can reseal the permanent connection to the fact that travelers are not always traveling, that somehow the lifestyle of a traveler is not sustainable and that he or she must eventually settle… somewhere.
A balm—meaning that even though you are not there, home does exist and that in that place among the friends and family and spaces you do, in fact, belong. Like one more note in a song, you fit into the musical bars and rhythms of that place. It’s a truly special notion and not one to dismiss with a sigh and a casual wave, and despite increasing globalization, it’s comforting to some to know that this concept still exists.
But others may chafe at the notion: Home is not where someone grows up… It does not define me… Home does not exist… Indeed the concept does seem somewhat less distinct than a one-word answer. Where are you from? Where’s home? The answer suggests identity. But what if your identity is not inherent in the answer? Identity is inclusive of all the faces, rhythms and spaces of a past, leaving someone a collection of more than where they are from. Home can be scattered everywhere—leaving you partially at home many places, but fully at home nowhere.
This is not to mention the fact that some may not even be comfortable with the notion of “home” and would call it naïve. Many times, people do not live where they want to live; home might be more of a definition that is required of us by work, marriage, money, or other circumstances. Home can be Christmas wrapping paper, happy times, smiles, holidays by the beach, or it can reek of whiskey and cigarette smoke, heaviness and fear. Home might be a peaceful notion for some, an incredibly conflicted and forced one for others.
Whew. Who knew such a question could enforce such introspection or bring forth such charged emotions? Can’t someone just say “Germany” or “France” and leave it at that? Sure. But simply to know that the question brushes on the surface of a vast and complicated set of concepts is intriguing and bears thought—or at least to some.
Ben Rietema (’14) lives in Wanaka, New Zealand at the moment. Besides staring at and running in mountains, he makes a wicked hospital corner and can clean a bathroom like Gandhi (if he were a housekeeper) at his job at a local lodge. He also enjoys saying “HOUSEKEEPING” in the highest pitch voice he can muster before entering a room to service it. benrietema.wordpress.com/