Are you American?
But you speak American.
No, I speak English.
Are you English? Are you Australian? Do you go to church? What religion are you? Are you Catholic? SDA? Protestant? Well, you were baptized, right? So that means – you were not baptized? Do you pray? Do you even believe in God? What are you?
Children have a knack for intimidating each other. They also have a knack for zeroing in on “the odd one out” and picking apart everything that makes her different to see what’s left.
And as much as most of us say and wholeheartedly believe and even embody that we are open-minded, non-judgmental people, accepting of all colours and creeds, I think it is human nature to want to put people in boxes. We do it as children without knowing that’s what we’re doing, in an effort to understand other people and relate to the world.
Why else was it so important for the kids I went to school with to label me? I was a foreigner. I was quiet, reserved, smart, mature. I was good at school. I liked to read. I didn’t cause trouble. I listened to music my parents listened to, not the rap my age group was supposed to like. I didn’t have a religion to define me. I didn’t even know if I believed in God. What was I?
For the longest time I struggled to answer that, myself. I was Canadian on paper; I couldn’t and didn’t hold any other nationality. But I’d never lived in Canada – two-week summer vacations with extended family in British Columbia were the extent of my Canadian life experience. I had spent my entire childhood in Micronesia, a tiny part of the world in a huge ocean that was virtually unheard of except by scuba divers, scholars and military families. I knew basically nothing of real Canadian life – except that the air smelled different as soon as you got off the plane, and they had all the things we didn’t have – squirrels, bookstores, movie theatres, strawberries.
So Canada was where I was “from” on paper, but I didn’t really feel Canadian. And none of the other options fully fit, either.
My dad was Jamaican, so I was raised with “broughtupsy” and grew up hearing Patois, singing along to Bob and Ziggy and Yellowman, having the maxim of “Wanty wanty no getty, getty getty no wanty” instilled in me when I was being particularly whiny, eating rice and peas (not peas and rice, please) and oxtail and patties and dumplings and yes, jerk chicken, but there’s so much more to Jamaican food than just jerk. But I couldn’t say I felt completely Jamaican, either.
And Palau was where I was born, and usually you’re from where you were born. But I couldn’t really say I was “from” there. And Yap had been the home I’d known the longest, but I wasn’t “from” there, either. I belonged nowhere, and fit in with no one. I never had a simple answer to “Where are you from?” because there was no simple answer. If someone asked me that, my answer was always a three-minute rendition of my life story to try to explain to them, and, in hindsight, probably to myself, who and what I was.
I would wonder what it would be like to just be able to say, “Texas. Born and raised.” Or, “Surrey. Never left the place.” To have an identity that was easy to explain, and not met with incredulous eyes or wrinkled noses asking, “Where? Never heard of it.”
Because as grateful as I’ve always been for the amazing, unique background my parents have given me, as a child it can be exhausting to constantly have to explain yourself, to have to counter people’s uninformed presumptions with facts and say, “Yes, actually we do have Internet and roads where I live”, to have to burst their bubbles of assumption and explain that no, you don’t spend all day every day at the beach, and to justify why you’ve never heard of that TV show or seen that movie that everybody‘s seen.
So, now, at the ripe old age of 25, do I finally have a simple answer to that pesky “Where are you from?” question?
No. But I no longer think I need one.