You know that thing where you’re in a group and someone asks you something that seems innocent like “where are you from” or invites you to “tell me about yourself” and you just freeze?
Yeah, me too.
My mind races. I’m trying to analyze my audience, gauge the situation, and figure out how much energy I have in this moment to dive into the details and manage my audience’s responses.
You see, some of us don’t have simple origin stories. We wander the earth a little heavier, carrying both the losses and joys of a mixed background or multiple international moves. We can’t give straight answers because there are none.
Too often, our solution is to keep it simple.
I’ve lived in 6 countries and at least 12 cities. My parents are from two different countries. I carry two passports (one isn’t a country my parents are from).
What is the answer to “where are you from” if you don’t remember the place you were born and you hardly knew your grandparents and your parents have finally settled down, but only since you were 18?
And who gets to decide?
Where did the rule come from that said I have to be “from” somewhere? Why do my origins mean so much to you? Why do people question my answers when I give them?
I spent years giving the short answer. Often simply saying “My parents live in North Carolina.”
It was true. It explained my trips back to the States and I feel like it’s home because that’s where my parents, my heart, is. But if my parents move tomorrow, I won’t feel an urge to return to North Carolina to visit. Is that a home?
A couple years ago, I started giving people the option. If they asked me where I was from, I asked if they wanted the long or the short version. The short version is the North Carolina story. The long version – well, it’s the long version. It raises more questions than it answers, but it’s also faithful to me.
Listen, we spend a lot of time answering questions to make our audiences comfortable. We want to be a good guest, to put our hosts, our interlocutors at ease.
If you’re already marked “different” by your face or your skin or your language or your clothes or the food you brought for the potluck, why make things more complicated? And I’m not talking about the kind of different that’s interesting, I’m talking about the kind of different that sets you apart, the kind of different that means it’s going to be your job to find a way to relate, to make yourself relatable.
So, here’s my suggestion.
When a simple question makes you freeze, it’s because you (we) are overthinking it. Answer however you want. Give the long answer. Give the short answer. Say you don’t want to answer. Bounce the question right back at them.
But don’t explain yourself or introduce yourself or shape your story for other people if it’s at the expense of being true to yourself. You can be from 17 places if you want to be. There are no rules. You can disown whoever and whatever you want. You can claim whatever you want.
You tell your story your way and it will be the right story for the right time.