WHERE ARE YOU FROM?

Where are you from? Why do you ask? The author’s intention is not to answer a question with a question, but to ask you to ask yourself why you ask this question in the first place, if you do, and to consider what it might mean to the person questioned. And if the above wording is a little bit hard to process, it is because I am suggesting that we are all capable of understanding more than we think we can, even if the language is a little non-standard, with just a little bit more effort and good will.

May I introduce you to a friend? He started off washing cars when he first immigrated to this country, because he did not have the language skills for other work at that time. As he washed cars for long hours out in all kinds of weather, his boss would sometimes come by and signal good job with thumbs up. He would point out parts of the car and instruct my friend: This is the hood. Repeat after me. This is the door. Repeat after me. Hood. Door. The boss started telling him, some day, your English will be good enough and you can start selling cars for me! My friend would shake his head in doubt. He was a midlife immigrant, already in his 40’s when he arrived, and he feared that he might never be able to learn enough English.

But his boss was encouraging. My friend kept trying and learning. As time went on, his boss gained a heartfelt respect for him. And why wouldn’t he? My friend is hard-working. He has a heart of gold. He has a great sense of humor. He has an excellent memory and he learns quickly. He is very optimistic and has a lot of gratitude. He is creative and gifted. He is honest and has good character. To me, it is especially delightful that he is so playful, and still has a joking, innocent and charming way about him. He can talk about pretty much anything and bring a smile to the listener. But at that time, most people he interacted with in his new country could not understand him. His boss must have been quite intuitive because he was able to see beyond the language barrier and see my friend as a whole person even before the English developed. He knew him beyond words.

I think my friend’s boss is very special. In my experience, many people cannot get beyond a language barrier to try and see a person as they are, allow for their personality, or even fully recognize their humanity. Many people, when they face someone who cannot speak much English, just shut down and turn away rather than reaching out. There is an unbearably deep well of loneliness that many immigrants face, and the language barrier is just one more wall among many. One more separation.

Years have gone by since my friend’s car-washing days. More than a decade. My friend is now wonderfully fluent in English. He has been able to buy a home and put both of his children through college. And yes, he now sells cars for that very same boss. He is great at his job. People like him and trust him. He speaks with a slight accent. He is friendly and bright, and knows how to talk to people. He knows about the product he sells, and he is a good listener. But as he chats with customers, he tells me, they inevitably try to place him. He estimates that it takes his customers around 20 minutes of chatting before they are comfortable enough to finally ask their burning question, “Where are you from?”

He lets them know he lives here in town, so he is from right down the street. So they ask him where he lived before that, and he mentions a nearby town. But they don’t stop. They cannot stop themselves. They need to place him somewhere that is not here. They continue to question him as he gives a history of where he has lived since arriving in the United States, and then they finally break down and ask outright what they really want to know, so they can place him: “But where are you from from? Where are you from originally?”

He will act surprised and ask them, “Wait, why? Do I have an accent or something?” Then his eyes sparkle and his face breaks into a friendly smile and his customers laugh with just a gentle touch of embarrassment. Then because he is so open and friendly and patient, he usually goes on to talk about his ethnic background, his place of birth, and his language. Maybe he adds just a little bit about his journey. And this question session can happen several times a day, adding up to ten or twenty times a week, fifty or hundred times a month. It accumulates to five hundred or a thousand times a year. He has been here 15 years now, so we can estimate that he has fielded this question around ten thousand times since he arrived. If he hasn’t quite reached that number, he will, because he is still getting questioned.

My friend takes these question sessions very nicely, and is able to find the humor in it. That is one of his gifts. But for a lot of people, whether based on looks or language, it gets tiring to relentlessly be reminded that one is “not from around here” or doesn’t seem to be “one of us”, wherever those lines are drawn in a given community. I appreciate my friend’s gentle humor in turning it back to the curious, and drawing them out until they finally admit that they want to know “where are you from from?”

Yes, it is natural to see and notice people who don’t look like us, or don’t sound like us, whoever “us” is these days. I get it. But we need to be exceedingly careful as we explore other people’s histories and placements. We need to be careful not to pigeonhole others by getting the name of their country or religion or ethnic group, and then presuming we now “know” who that person is and can place them into a little box in our mental framework of what we know about other cultures, places, and people. When we do this, even with the best of intentions, we are bound to miss out on a person’s deeply unique humanity, and a wonderful opportunity.

When I met this friend, 35 years ago, I was working in his speech community. I was the second-language learner. I was the one with the accent. He reminded me the other day that we were once in a group of five or six sailors, sitting in a little cabin aboard a huge fish processing ship at sea, joking around, and then he noticed everyone was laughing but me. I could not understand the joke that was told. I was the outsider, even in this friendly set of shipmate buddies. And a lot of the other sailors on the ship kept telling me, as if I didn’t know, that I was a woman on a ship. I didn’t belong there. Some of them, including the captain, were very verbal about how they didn’t want me there, and how I was bad luck for fishing, too. But this friend just very naturally treated me like a real person. He saw me. He acknowledged me. And I will never forget that lovely, healing, expansive feeling. It wasn’t about his becoming an expert in my specific culture or gender, or about my language skills. It was about recognizing our common humanity, and honoring it. His doing so is why I remember him 35 years later, and still call him friend.

If I worked with my friend at his car dealership, and one of the customers asked me where my friend was from, I would answer this: He comes from a deep well of bubbling happiness, like a spring in a meadow. You would probably want to go there, but it is only accessible through a lifetime of experiences, some of them very hard, and challenges that most of us have never faced. He comes from an outlook of humorous acceptance, where laughter is soul medicine. He comes from a place of gratitude for the opportunities he has been given. He comes from a place of struggle, and risk-taking, and overcoming. How did he get here? He arrived here through a hugely optimistic leap of faith. And his faith and his hope and his charity made it here intact and are still with him. He has my utmost respect, and he deserves yours. So thanks for asking. And please spend some time thinking about the way you choose to question others about their place in the world.