Most of the time when you meet someone new, they ask, “Where are you from?” It seems like a fair question. We’re all from somewhere, right?
The place someone is from acts as an identifier, a stereotype, a way to figure who’s who and what they’re like.
Live outside your own culture for a few years, and where you’re from doesn’t seem so simple. When someone asks me, “Where are you from?” I find myself hemming and hawing as I look for the answer to the question they’re really asking— ”How can I relate to you?”
For expats, the question of where you’re from seems limiting. Saying the name of the city, region, or country isn’t enough to explain who you are because you’re no longer just from where you were born or live, you’re more than that.
I think part of the expat identity crisis comes from speaking another language.
I once had an American friend tell me the only way she could speak Dutch without feeling like a fool was to create another persona. When she spoke Dutch, she became a tall blonde woman named Hanna, who rode a bike, had a perfect accent, and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.
Speaking a different language makes you feel different. My children and I often joke about how our voices sound different when we speak French. We become alternate versions of ourselves. I imagine this is part of the where-are-you-from confusion.
But it’s not just us. It’s the people around us who get confused as well because we don’t fit their “picture.”
Once while visiting the U.S. during summer vacation, I stopped at a local bookshop to peruse the shelves for English books—a rarity in our neck of the woods. As I looked through the clearance section, I discovered a package of thank you notes with an artistic rendering of the Eiffel Tower next to a petit “Merci.” I was delighted.
After looking over the rest of the store’s merchandise, I took my items to the cashier, an overly cheerful 20-year-old who asked me for my zip code.
I told her that I didn’t live in the U.S., so my zip code probably wouldn’t work in her system.
“Really?” she exclaimed. “Where do you live?”
“I live in France,” I answered.
“Wow, your English is so good.”
I smiled wryly and said, “Thanks. I’ve been working on it for a long time.”
Another time I was sitting in the airport waiting to board a flight when a man tentatively approached me. He scrunched up his face and slowly said, “Fffffrrrraaamcais?” (You speak French?)
“Pardon ?” I replied. (Pardon me?)
“Vous-etes française, madame ?” (Are you French?)
“Non monsieur, je-suis Americaine.” (No, I’m American)
“You’re American? I couldn’t tell by looking at you.”
This made me laugh. As a six-foot-tall Amazon goddess, I don’t run into many French women who look like me. But, I was sitting down. Maybe that made me look different.
These stories are just the tip of the no-one-can-really-tell-where-you’re-from-anyway iceberg.
Whether you’ve lived in the same city your whole life, or you’re a world traveler, humans are a culmination of life’s experiences and cannot be defined only by the town we started in. We are complex, not stereotypical.
So, the next time you meet someone new, don’t put them in a box based on where they’ve been. Instead, ask a better question about where someone is going or, better yet, where they hope to go. Maybe that will tell you who they really are.
The real expat life