“Where are you from?”

That’s one question that every backpacker has heard countless times.

I spent over a year, between the summer of 2018 and 2019, being a digital nomad and traveling through Europe . When I was traveling, I had to respond to that question so many times. Sometimes, I had to answer it over a dozen times in one day because of the sheer number of new people I was meeting. It’s also a common conversation starter in hostels.

“Where are you from?”

Is the answer pretty straightforward for you? Well, not for me. Pretty shortly after I started solo traveling, I was ready with a variety of answers to this question depending on

  • whom I was talking to
  • where I was at the time
  • my perception of their interest in the answer
  • whatever I felt like saying at the time

Before you judge me and think – “So you just made up stories every time you were asked where you were from?” No no, not at all. I did not lie. Perhaps I could have made up a completely random persona, backstory and name for myself at every new introduction and live out all my “if i were a spy” fantasies. Maybe that would have been fun. But I didn’t do that.

So why then did I have a variety of responses? Well, it’s just that the answer was never straightforward for me.

Having to repeatedly answer this question over the course of a year, resulted in me reflecting quite a bit on the concept of identity and what it meant to me. I was fortunate to have many meaningful conversations with some wonderful humans I met along the way. Conversations with like-minded and not so like-minded individuals broadened and evolved my perspective. It helped me understand my personal views better.

“Where are you from?”

So what does this question mean? What are people asking?

Where do you live? Where is your home? Where have you lived the most? Where do you live right now? Where are you visiting from? What is your ethnicity? What is your background? Who are you? Where are you REALLY from?

Almost everyone I met had the best intentions when asking that question. Let me be clear, I myself ask that question quite often! I’m not saying it is an inherently bad question. I’m just suggesting that we take a moment to think about why we like to ask that question.

Let me be clear, I myself ask that question quite often! I’m not saying it is an inherently bad question. I’m just suggesting that we take a moment to think about why we like to ask that question.

Most people I met while traveling were either

a) using that question as a conversation starter OR
b) genuinely wanting to get to know me

So when it felt appropriate, I would tell them the medium version of the answer. It went something like this:

Them: So, where are you from?

Me: Well, I was born in India, but spent a good part of my childhood in the UAE (Dubai? have you heard of it? yea yea – the country is UAE. No, no not UE. U.A.E – United Arab Emirates), then back to India and then lived in the United States for over 10 years where I spent most of my adult life. I lived in Arizona for many years and then spent a couple of years in the Bay Area – San Mateo and then San Francisco which is where I was before I started my trip. For the last year or so I’ve been traveling around Europe and was in {insert city name} before here.

Them: Oh umm okay…{insert comment about the length of my answer}. But where’s home for you?

Me: Well, I don’t really have a permanent home right now. Today, this city is my home. Tomorrow, who knows? *smiles awkwardly at my own bad joke*

Them: But where do you feel like you’re from?

Me: ….

To me, I’m from all of these places and from none of these at the same time.

When you’re a third culture kid or TCK (yes, this is a thing) who’s moved around so much, what is HOME? Can you really define it? Can it be encapsulated in one word?

Home is where I live right now. Home is the residence where my parents currently are. Home is where I am surrounded by people I know and love. Home is where I feel like I belong. Home is where I feel like I am meant to be. Home is here and now.

I have come to realize that to a lot of people, where they are from is where their home (house/abode/apartment/dwelling) is because that’s where all their possessions are. Is it the same then if you own a house on a piece of land. Is that your home? Without all your possessions, would it truly feel like your home?

When I was traveling, this was my “home”.

Also, I’ve slowly gravitated to a minimalist lifestyle over the years. I don’t really have that many possessions anymore. Backpacking around Europe quickly made me realize that I didn’t really need much. Moving locations constantly, I also realized that at this stage of my life, I do not have a strong need to live in a home that I own (And absolutely no judgement if you feel like you do. To each his own, right? And hey, who knows – I may feel differently about it down the line). I’ve actually found both the idea of minimalism and location independence to be quite liberating. But more on that in a separate blog post on minimalism. Now back to the question:

“Where are you from?”

To some others, where you are from is determined by your country of citizenship. I’ve been an American citizen for a number of years and I was an Indian citizen prior to that. So am I American? Am I Indian? Am I Indian-American? The answer here isn’t straightforward either. And depending on who you are talking to the answer can be quite contentious. Any of those answers can be deemed inaccurate, irrelevant or unpatriotic.

“Where are you from?”

For others, your ethnicity determines where you are from.

Pro tip: When you are asked where you are from too many times in one conversation or when the questioner is in disbelief of your answer, usually what they want to know is this – “What is your ethnicity?”. Let’s assume they mean no harm.
And for people asking that question, you should know – this is a question when repeatedly asked can offend people depending on the person, cultural context and situation. I know my answer is complicated so I don’t get offended when I’m asked my ethnicity under the poor guise of a “where are you from” question. But I’ve seen it bother and hurt those who’ve had to defend or almost prove where they are from too many times. Be kind.

So why do we have this need to know? Why do we obsess with our own identity and the identity of others? One reason may be so that we can size them up. We have been conditioned to make snap judgments based on the answers. Maybe it’s just curiosity. Perhaps we think it would help understand their culture. Maybe we think it will help understand the person we’re talking to. Maybe we feel it will help us connect with them.

The depth of the answer is important if we are genuinely trying to connect with someone. On the other hand, if all we have is the surface level answer, a conscious effort should be made to not assume that we know everything we need to know about the person we’re talking to. We are all a sum of our entire life experiences. The beliefs of our particular demographic don’t necessarily have to reflect ours. So then why do we not judge others the same way? I think people generally do not like to be boxed into one category and stereotyped so why are we quick to label people “this” or “that”?

I sometimes feel that we treat our identities just as we treat our favorite sports teams. Inclusion seems to immediately carry the responsibility of hatred of the rival team. It seems to demand pride in your team no matter how it has performed and you are supposed to represent it till you die. Does that really make sense or is it just a concept designed to sell you more team t-shirts?

I like to think I am a “citizen of the world” (ugh so corny). I cringed typing those words because it is typically a phrase uttered by pretentious self-righteous backpackers. But that’s not really a thing is it? You don’t get your “world passport”. I wish! (Cue: Imagine by John Lennon).

In the current landscape of increasingly polarized public discourse on almost every relevant topic, we sometimes have no choice but to identify with certain labels or terms. It seems like we always need to have one concise answer to the metaphorical “where are you from” question as opposed to having the option of providing the long form answer.

The news cycle is filled with topics such as wars between countries, religious clashes, identity politics and the rise of nationalism in the world. We are quick to announce our identities when we are proud and quick to disassociate from them when we are ashamed. We proclaim our identities when we feel oppressed and we denounce them when we feel misrepresented. We hold on to our past identities when we are uncomfortable with change and we latch onto our new identities when we are ready for change. What are we actually saying when we are proud of where we’re from? What is our intention when we are quick to judge others based on where they are from? Are we seeking to understand or are we trying to differentiate? Are we ready to move forward or are we holding on to our past? Are our actions coming from a place of compassion and empathy or are we acting out of fear?

There’s so much more nuance to these answers than can be put in a blog post. But the only way we can learn and grow is by having meaningful conversations with one another.

So then tell me. Where are you from? No, not the short version. Tell me the whole story.