September 6, 2016

Expat Issues: Where Are You From?

Oh, the dreaded question. 

"Hi, my name is <insert any name>. I'm from <insert anywhere>."

"Nice to meet you! I'm Christy, but please just call me Swags."

"Haha, okay! Where are you from?"

"Ummm..." I cringe and laugh, "California?"

My expression every single time.

Why does it always come out as a question?!
Please change the subject and don't ask...

"Oh cool! Whereabouts?"

It's not their fault they don't know how complicated this follow-up question is. Be nice.

Do I go simple and claim L.A. from my college years? Do I hope they've heard of any of the Northern California cities from my childhood between Auburn, Chico, and Redding? Will they appreciate my birthplace of Ohio, the quick six months in Washington state, or my one-year stint in Northern San Diego? Do my parents' recent addresses with all my stuff in storage count in Bakersfield and Visalia?

I turn to my usual answer, "Kind of all over."

At this point, the conversation glides seamlessly to where my interrogator has been in California, and I can almost always relate to wherever their holidays have taken them.

In June, I told my French students that I was from planet Earth. When pressed, I then replied, "America," and finally gave in to their need for specifics with, "California."

But it is beginning to feel like a false claim.

I haven't lived in California in over five and a half years. It's looking like I may never live there again.

There are certain things about me that are most definitively Californian. The way I talk (some call it an accent, I call it a style), my casual dress code, and my earnest expectation that it will be sunny everyday from April through October.

My European friends think I have other "Californian" qualities as well: high energy, extreme happiness and optimism (this might be their way of saying I think it will be sunny all the time), and my blue-eyed blonde look.

There are other stereotypical Californianisms that I am definitely not: I don't know anybody famous, I didn't grow up walking to the beach, I'm not tan, my hair isn't that blonde, and I'm not a liberal Democrat.

The most Californian picture of myself I could find, circa 2007.

But what makes us from anywhere?

I may not be the perfect person to answer this question.

It was already a long story to answer "Where are you from?" before I moved overseas in 2011. This year my American friends and family said I was "from" Germany, but that sounds weird because I lived in France four times as long as my one year in Germany. Maybe someday, "from Germany" will be more accurate, but I should really learn to have a full conversation in German first.

However, I am a firm believer with Nora Ephron that everyone should "be the heroine of your life, not the victim."

If there is anything I have learned from not having one hometown and living as an expat, it's two things.

1. "Home is not where the heart is; 

home is where my stuff is."

This may sound super materialistic, but let's be real: living out of a suitcase always feels a little bit lost. No matter where Marc and I have lived, our meager chunk of Euro life supplies (our stash fits into one medium-sized vehicle) has always come with us.

Our clothes have been in cabinets, closets, drawers, and are currently stacked in bookshelves. Our tablecloth covers whatever table we have and our adopted-from-the-dumpster chairs always fit. No matter where we have lived (in our combined thirty plus moves), our "things" have supplied us with the sense of familiarity and home.

2. "I'd rather have a life about where I am 

in the present and where I'm going

 in the future than a life about 

where I'm from in the past."

The places I have lived and been have all played a part in the person I have become. But these places are part of a story that has already been written. I revisit them from time to time, but mostly to reflect on the memories. It is very much like reading through my teenage journals and going through childhood memento boxes: it's good to remember and it's good to reconnect.

But the past is not a place to live. Yesterday's choices have already been made and have already shaped our today. Today is always running away from us, and we have to make the most of it. Tomorrow will bring new decisions, new growth, and probably a few more new places.

"It is in what direction we are moving. We must sail sometimes with the wind, sometimes against it - but sail we must, and not drift, nor lie at anchor." - Oliver Wendell Holmes

Sometimes the path is straight up a wall.

I don't know how many more times I will move in my life. Maybe we'll stay in Vilsbiburg, Germany, forever. We could end up in any European country, and uncontrollable circumstances could always take us back to the USA. I don't know if other continents will be in the picture, but I think we can safely exclude Antarctica from consideration.

I will keep claiming California as one giant collective hometown. I will keep getting confused reactions from strangers as to why I cannot choose just one city. And I will keep trying to memorize the new addresses in my life while trying to forget the twenty-or-so other ones.

I have stopped only asking people where they are from. It doesn't tell the story that is currently unfolding.

I want to know where you live, how you got there, and where you are going. Now, we have a genuine conversation.

How do you normally handle the "where are you from" question? Do you feel like you do or do not have a hometown?