Where are you from?

and why it matters

Where are you from and why it matters

In my ESL class, I have students from Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Columbia, Argentina, Pakistan, Croatia, Russia, and Mexico. “Where are you from?” is one of the first questions we ask when someone new comes to class. We smile and celebrate their country of origin and learn about their journey to Richmond, VA.

New students come weekly, so the question never really rests. As students practice interviewing one another, the question “Where are you from?” resurfaces. This week, one student is bold enough to ask me a question about Americans: “Why do Americans always ask me this question? Why do they assume I’m not American?”

Other students begin chiming in:

“Yes! No matter where I am, I get this question. I’m in America for 15 years. I am American.”

“Every time I’m in a store, someone say, ‘Where are you from?'”

“I’m in this class because I don’t want an accent. I want to sound like everybody else.”

“Why do people always say ‘where are you from?’ I feel like they are saying, ‘You aren’t American. You don’t belong here.'”

Belonging.

It’s the most important feeling in the world. Belonging is why infants need to be held, why beggars look down when they ask for money, why orphans need families, why refugees need a home, why why children cry when they’re laughed at, why teens succumb to peer pressure, why less-than-perfect sports teams can succeed greatly, why foster kids have the odds stacked against them, why gangs hold such enormous power over their individual members.

Everyone needs to belong before they can thrive.

You belong. That’s what I tell my students. This is America, and everyone belongs here if they obey the laws.

I tell them I sympathize with their feelings of belonging. I can’t say I understand, because I don’t. But I’ve traveled a lot, I’ve moved a lot, and I get what it feels like to belong and not to belong. Then I make a declaration of sorts–it’s a bold, faith-ridden assumption about the American people: I suggest that Americans ask the question out of intense curiosity, not judgment. We are an adventuring, thrill-seeking, competitive, success-driven kind of people. It’s in our DNA. We are genuinely impressed by people who move from far away because they believe our country is their best chance to start over. To build a better life. To give their kids the means to be who they want to be.

We ask each other the same question, I tell them. We say, “Where are you from?”  and what we mean by that is, “What state or city are you from?” Our country has different regions with different accents and expressions and cultures.

I say that Americans are intrigued by uniqueness, even though mass marketing tries to make us all the same. When we hear someone speak, we try to figure it out. We love the guessing. New York City? Pennsylvania? Boston? New Orleans? Savannah? Minnesota? Arkansas? And the hey, dude!  kind of Westerners from California or Colorado who remind Easterners that they need to get outside more. Our country is as unique as its landscapes.

I attest in my most comforting, authoritative kind of way: I think most Americans are genuinely interested in your background when they ask the question. We Americans are all immigrants, or our ancestors were. We appreciate the journey you’ve taken. When Americans ask you where you’re from, they are just saying, “Welcome to America” in their own casual way. They’re saying, “Join us.”

My students nod slightly, thinking of the tribes, religions, and ethnicities in their countries of origin. Of the bigotry that’s prevalent there and prevalent here. I am self-conscious of it, too, of the resistance to non-European migration.

I feel that I must make a disclaimer, in case they meet one of our less accommodating citizens. We have problems, it’s true. Some Americans don’t want immigrants. You may run across some of these people. But on the whole, I think you should assume that people are happy to meet you. That they are interested in you.

My students smile at me. Today, one of them calls me. She says,

“I had to call you in person. I could not text what I want to say. I cannot write the words that fill me so much. You have taken scales from my eyes. I have such joy in my heart. I cannot say how deep is this. I want to thank you. I thank God for you. I did not understand why people keep asking “Where are you from?” I am here 25 years, and they still ask me the question. Why they cannot understand me? Then you explain why they say that. They are curious. Now I am so happy.”

It’s called belonging. In all this time, can it be that no one else has made her feel like she belongs?

What else are we called to do?

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