A simple question, a conversation starter, that we don't give much thought to and can often answer with little to no mental effort. Sometimes, just the mention of the town or city suffices. Sometimes we must add the state or some nearby landmarks, just a few more words to somewhat situate the listener. It’s just small talk, a go to question when you know nothing else to ask. A favorite of uber drivers and distant aunts; an easy way to get to know a little more about someone. Yet, there is no question that stimulates in me more anxiety and more unspoken curses than the simple question: Where are you from?
It’s not that I am ashamed of my heritage. I am proud to have been born in Panama and lived there for 15 years of my life, and I recognize that I would have never been myself if I did not have this outsider perspective. It’s not that I’m a private person, in fact if you know me at all you know that is definitely not the case. Often you need to ask me to shut up. The truth is, I simply lack the energy or desire to once again have to tell the narrative that is my life, for unlike mosts who may have one worded responses to this question, mine comes with a saga of inquiries and confusion.
A typical exchange would go like this:
“Where are you from?”
“Actually, (yes, for some reason I always add an actually, as if they had told me I was from somewhere else) I am from Panama.”
“Panama! Wow! Like Panama City?”
“No, not from Florida, I’m from the country.” (a more common misconception than you would think)
“Wow! That’s amazing, so why Penn State?”
*Insert variation on how you applied to good engineering schools, got into Schreyer, and by default accepted your offer and lived happily ever after*
“That’s so cool. Your english is outstanding!”
“Yes, well I actually (yet again, actually) I went to boarding school in northern Virginia for three years before college.”
“Oh wow!! What school?”
“Episcopal High School-- no, no, not the one in PA, the one outside DC.”
*The awkward silence often ensues.*
Sometimes I bring up boarding school at the same time as Penn State. Other times, I mention how my mom is from the States and has spoken to me in English since I was born. When I interned in Indianapolis, I was asked the additional question “What brings you to Indianapolis?,” where I would have to elaborate on the company I was interning with and sometimes even what position I held during that summer. I know that the person asking the question, rarely does so with bad intentions. They are usually genuinely curious and polite, and simply address me with the question so that we can engage in a conversation. However, I also know that the more my supposed one worded answer becomes a ten minute one, the less likely the listener is willing to hear me rant about my background.
Many times, I am tempted to lie. But then I think, why is that? Why is easier for me to lie about where I am from, than to explain that more than one place has had a hand in shaping me into who I am? Is this a form of shame? Why is it so important for us to identify with just one place?
See, in my case, I have never been able to do so. I was born in Panama, raised as an American. At home I am the gringa. At school I am the panamanian. I do not relate fully with one culture or the other. I am somehow stuck in the middle. I love both countries, but I also clearly recognize a lot of their faults. I don’t know what to call myself. I don’t know what I call home. But I do know, I am who I am because of both. Both of their cultures, traditions, mannerisms, slang, and mind set have in one way or another influenced the way I think and act, the way I see myself and the world around me. And for that I am thankful. I am thankful to both Panama and the US, and am proud to be associated with both nations.
I don’t believe in labels, especially when it comes to where one is from, and while often exhausting and exasperating, I am proud to have a complicated story, because at least it is a different story. At least it makes me unique.