"Where are you from?" The Ambivalence of Home
I was born in Ohio, but I am not from Ohio. My father was a sociologist, so as a young child I moved to Malaysia, where each day I rode to preschool in a yellow rickshaw. But I am not from Malaysia. After moving to New Zealand, I spent the occasional summer evening in the back of a pickup truck hunting opossums: I remember their red eyes high in the trees as the truck lurched to a stop, grownups piling out, shotguns at the ready, but I am not from New Zealand. I spent seven years in Kathmandu, Nepal, until I was fourteen years old, where I attended an international school, and my mother taught there too. But I am not from Nepal. Sometimes I wished that I was because then I would not have stuck out so much: look at the white foreigner meandering through the bazaar on the back of his best friend’s Honda scooter.
“Where are you from?” people would ask me in Nepalese, and I would say, “America.” But I didn’t feel American. In ninth grade, I moved to a small town in northern India to attend boarding school. The school was strict and religious, and the dormitory food was terrible, so on Saturdays I would escape into the town with my friends and meander all day through the food stalls and gorge on Masala Dosa and Aloo Paratha. The vendors would ask me in Hindi, “Where are you from?” and I would reply, “America.” But I am not from America, and I am not from India either.
When my parents got a divorce, my mother moved my sister and me to a small town in Vermont, where I attended a nearby prep school. I was fifteen and living in the United States for the first time. Now I looked like everyone else, but because I was new, people would still ask where I was from and I didn’t know what to say. The one-word answer “America” no longer applied. Sometimes I would say, “Boston” because my parents were from Boston and I think I had some trace of their original accents. But answering “Boston” was risky because it’s close to Vermont, and once someone said, “Me too. What part?” and I didn’t have a good answer. Vermont was so cold in the winter that if I touched my tongue to my lips while waiting for the school bus in the morning, it would stick there. I am not from Vermont.
After my year at prep school, my mother moved us across the country to Boulder, Colorado, where I attended public high school. One good thing about Colorado is most people are originally from other places, so it’s easier to fit in. In high school, my best friend’s father was German and his mother was Mexican, so he understood that where you are from can be a complicated equation.
After graduating high school, I joined Ringling Brothers Circus, and moved to Venice, Florida to train as a clown. The circus was full of global nomads, so you might think that I’d have fit right in, but one interesting thing about circus life is that people define themselves by where they are from. The Hungarian acrobatic troupe doesn’t spend much time with the Norwegian dog act and neither group is interested in getting to know the clowns. People hate clowns, generally, and that includes other people in the circus. I did spend a lot of time around animals though, and one nice thing about elephants and lions and horses is they don’t ask or care where you are from.
After a year traveling America by train and performing thirteen shows a week, I was very tired, so I left the circus and moved to Portland, Oregon to begin college. But I was restless there too, and bored with living in America, so I moved to South Africa to work as a tour manager for a traveling opera company. I loved South Africa, but one thing I learned while living there is that it’s a very hard place to be from. If you are South African, you have inherited either great burdens of oppression or great burdens of privilege. I am happy not to be from South Africa.
I wondered where I could go. I spent several months in Europe with a backpack, going from country to country, staying in youth hostels, talking with many people from all over the world, and always answering the omnipresent “Where are you from?” with uncertain resolve.
Twenty-seven years later, I still don’t have a good answer. I found my way eventually to Denver, where I became a teacher, and Denver has been my home now for almost twenty years. My house feels like home; the leafy streets in my neighborhood feel like home; my classroom feels like home. My children have lived here their whole life— “Where are you from?” will never haunt them like a riddle.
I am not from Denver. I am not really from anywhere. Sometimes clichés can be annoyingly true: home is where your heart is, and my heart beats with the pulse of a dozen far-flung places.