Maybe it's something everyone asks in any city, but I get asked where I am from, or did I grow up in New Orleans, as though to place my origin is to place me, to triangulate the source of influence that has bled into each facet of my personality. For a while when I was asked this, I would say Virginia, where I went to college, because I would rather have been from there than from Maryland, because it seems no one knows much about Maryland; to most, it's a pretty nondescript place, the only marker for memory is Baltimore or the DC overlap.

I was born in Baltimore, but grew up no where near there. I grew up in Ocean City, and I guess for a while I didn't want to be associated with that area because again, no one knew where it was. It's a muted version of saying you're from Orlando, where people know nothing but Disneyworld, nothing but national attractions, the tourist biz.

I am learning that, for me anyway, where I am from denotes a lot about me, most of which I am not proud. Living in someone else's vacation spot isn't uplifting for your self-esteem, but it has made living in New Orleans an easy transition, although not a healthy one. Just because you lived near a nuclear plant or a federal prison as a child doesn't mean you liked it enough to include in your itinerary for future moves, yet you may find yourself near them again by default, almost out of habit for what is already familiar.

I recall several times I was listening to some video biography of a band or a writer or some other famous person, and they always start with where they grew up as a foundation; it's where we all start, literally, where we stem from even if we hated every minute of it or never wanted to leave. It's one of the first things you might ask when you meet someone new, and usually you will have little in common but it helps establish something, even if at first it's stereotypical and shallow. As you continue to know them, you may see their origin coming through in the choices they make, just as your life experiences frame your patterns and goals.

Where you're from is as inherent as your skin color, your philosophical standpoints, prejudices and pet peeves, as hard to escape from or come to terms with as your childhood or every step you've taken since then. And being one integral part of each of us, it was one that was pretty much a decision made without our consent, so that we are chained to it helplessly and at some point we all come to terms with how that has affected where we go from there.

I grew up cursed enough to move numerous times, all throughout the state of Michigan. Unfortunatley, though, I am very good at severing all ties to people and places where I've lived (or conversly, I'm very bad at keeping in touch), so if I'm asked if I know someone in, say, Grand Rapids, I usually say "rings a bell", but that's about it.

So, is "where I'm from" where I went to high school? Where college is? Where I was born? Where I lived the largest percentage of my life? Where I feel most at home at??


I usually just say Michigan, that's the only good answer I can give.

When asked where I'm from, I have to stop and think...not because I can't recall where I live, but because I'm really not always eager to answer honestly, to undergo the scrutiny or knee-jerk reactions some people display when told I hail from Kentucky.

After they have scanned me up and down and discovered, to their surprise, that I wear shoes, have all my teeth and walk reasonably erect, they glare as though to challenge my claim. "What part?" "Owensboro." And gods help me if they watched MTV's The Real World and remember that John Brennan lives here. Fortunately, few do, and the next question is invariably "Where's that?"

Call it pique, but I know the three largest cities of my neighboring states and take umbrage when "outsiders" display exactly the ignorance they stereotype my fellow Kentuckians with.

Whenever this is asked of me, the speaker is never interested to know what region or regions I have lived in. In reality, it is an underhanded way of saying, "Excuse me, but you are obviously not Caucasian, yet I cannot place your exact ethnicity because you all look alike. May you please my curiousity and tell me what country you are from so I can call you Chinese or Japanese or Dirty Knees?"

Of course, my first instinct is to answer the question as any "normal" person would. I give my home state or home town. At this point the speaker makes some sort of statement that I misunderstood the question. Somehow I managed to think their question actually meant what it asked. Somehow I'm supposed to understand that their question is really asking something quite rude, then to ignore the fact that it's rude, and finally, to actually answer it.

There's just one more layer of complication. I was born in the United States. Asking where I was born is not going to get you where you want to go, because I will answer you truthfully. At this point, the speaker will become agitated at my ethnic and nationalistic situation, which is becoming rather common these days.

Then comes the breaking point, when the incessant need to know overrides any semblance of tact. "What I mean is, what is your country of origin; what is your ethnic background?" I've given them a hard enough time. I give them an answer. Maybe they learn something from this. They probably won't.

It works every time. Regardless of how often I get asked, every time someone new asks it, my brain locks up. Usually I pause long enough that whoever is asking feels the need to ask it again.

I have no place of origin. I am an American. I have moved so often that where I have lived has had almost no relation to the kind of person I am, or the customs I keep dear. My place of birth is not the answer they want. Born in New York City, moved away before I was even a year old. I am not a New Yorkan.

Nowadays I find it easiest to simply tell the inquirer that I joined the Navy from Colorado. This satisfies nobody, however. I need to come up with a better answer. They will usually push and pry some more, and I will tell them not only where I was born, but will give them an itinerary of every place I have lived. This can take a while.

And still, this rarely satisfies anyone. The color of my skin does not betray my nationality, nor do my major features. Nor should they. Not even I am sure what I am. I know there's some black, hispanic, and Danish in me. I also know there is more than that. I have been called black, caucasian, hispanic, and even once someone thought I was asian.

Race confuses me. And so does the 'where are you from' question.

I don't think I'll ever figure it out.

”Where am I from?” Interesting question. Times have changed. When I was a kid growing up in a small town in Upper Michigan, the question was: “What nationality are you?”

People asking the question generally surmised that I was at least a first-generation American; what they really wanted to know was the origin of my parents or grandparents.

This was an era and in a locale where many of the prominent town residents had “come over from the Old Country”. These were the “Wops, Polacks, Swedes, Cousin Jacks, Hunkies, and Frenchies” who had immigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1910. This was the generation that built our highways, laid our railroad tracks, and homesteaded the last of our unoccupied land.

I went to school with their children, first generation Americans, children who often became fluent in English only in the first grade. I was second generation American. None of us had the Founding Fathers in our backgrounds; we did not know what the letters “D.A.R.” stood for.

My mother, the last-born of a large Italian-American family, was fair-skinned and blue-eyed. “Wop” or “Dago” was rarely used to describe her. My father’s family, Canadian born, had been among the early settlers in the area.

With my Anglo-Saxon surname and fair complexion, I was always careful to specify that “on my father’s side I am Scottish-Irish but my mother is Italian.” I learned very early that this would save my questioner from future embarrassment.

I left that little melting-pot nestled among the Great Lakes when I reached my majority and have subsequently lived on another three of the five continents.

Chameleon-like, I quickly picked up the protective coloration and accent of the native born in Australia and in Europe (in Africa I was a marshmallow). But I still never quite fit. I was “the Yank” or “l’Américaine”.

Now I am back in my country of origin and, even here, I feel like “odd man out” at times. Part of the reason - I do not consider it a “problem” - is that I am missing thirty-odd years of the evolution of Americana. I am constantly saying, “When did this change?”

I still say “flat” instead of “apartment”, but when I write that polysyllable word it comes out French: appartement. My cuisine is an ethnic mixture, a mixed blessing as I constantly bemoan the lack of this or that ingredient. Rules of etiquette vary from country to country; I always seem to be lagging one country behind.

I sometimes feel as if I have left bits and pieces of myself all over the world. To replace what has been discarded I have picked up odd patches of this and that. I feel like a coat of many colors, a work in process, albeit a homemade job. I have dual citizenship, and I sincerely hope that the United States and France never go to war again.

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