After a lifetime ‘abroad’ and unable to speak any language with a proper native accent, I’m still learning how to be a foreigner gracefully. Maybe I’m simply more immature and rootless than many other people. It still bothers me when I’m in a certain country where English is not the main currency, and people assume I’m no good at speaking their language and insist on talking to me in English no matter how many times I respond in their own.
It also still bugs me when people ask me, “Where are you from?” This is often expressed as, “I hear some kind of an accent, but can’t quite place it… where are you from?” Usually, when I’m at home in Seattle and dealing with clients or professional associates, I respond as politely as I can, but don’t really know what to say.
I’ve noticed similar reactions in other long-term foreigners. It seems natural that everybody is from somewhere. But, really, where are you from? Why is it so hard to just answer the question? To start with, the assumption is that you are not from here, and an unwelcome exclusion may be implied. People put you in a box, take you out of another one, and so forth. It can be confrontational and create distance where no distance is wanted.
Also, the facts are not all that easy. I was born in Germany, never felt at home there, and left as soon as I was able to. I resided in a certain country, then lived and traveled in a couple of other ones, and eventually found my way to Seattle, where I mostly liked it and also realized I was tired of roaming. I’m still here. There really isn’t an easy answer for me to “Where are you from?” Yes, at some point I came from somewhere, Cologne, which I recall as a lovely city that didn’t really belong in that strange and cruel country, but the Cologne I remember doesn’t really exist anymore. I yearn for it sometimes, but that doesn’t bring it back. To respond with “Seattle” doesn’t seem quite truthful, especially when I’m having one of those days where I’d rather be anywhere than here. It gets complicated very quickly. I must have responded hundreds of times to the follow-up question, “But your name doesn’t sound German…?” Even though listeners’ eyes usually glaze over when I do.
Other foreigners tell similar stories. You live and travel a bit, and a few decades later you realize you’re not coming from or going to anyplace in particular, you don’t feel a lot of loyalty to any place or country, you’re from Earth and hope to be a decent person. Try giving that as an answer to “Where are you from?” and prepare for some severe irritation.
But there’s another way to listen and reply to the question “Where are you from?” My advice is to minimize any chat about the facts, because, shockingly, nobody actually cares. The questioner has noticed a difference, or something you nonetheless seem to share with her. What she is likely asking is, “What do you and I really have in common?” Now, that is something you can explore with her in a much more interesting conversation than anything to do with distant, mythical places. You can get the trivial details out of the way and move on to a more meaningful exchange. Once or twice I succeeded with something like, “I’m originally from Germany… and I really love baking bread and making pasta at home.” This approach tends to be more satisfying and truthful—bread and pasta are much closer to me than Germany ever was or will be. Most people like eating one or the other, so the risk of starting a completely inappropriate conversation is low. But you should adjust for context. In a professional environment you might want to direct the talk more towards the skills or issues you want to focus on. “I grew up in France, where people celebrate the twentieth year of SMS communications this month.”
So, fellow foreigners: Please experiment, and be patient with your conversation partners and yourselves.
And you, dear natives: I’m curious—where are you from, really?