Where Are You From?
It had been over five years that I had been thinking about what would be the right response to the question “Where are you From”. Like all of us, I was asked this question often enough — both in social gatherings and even in work settings.
My job involves meeting people. I meet many people every week. Very often, while speaking to individuals about their career trajectories (I work as a Consultant in the field of Executive Search and Selection), the roles are reversed and I am asked about mine, which is when this question comes up.
Other times, people just ask. They want to establish connection — find common areas that are meaningful and engaging. Probably because the answer can help your mind create a frame of reference which in turn is an easy effort for the brain. Without this frame, the brain would have to work very hard to ‘understand’ who you are. Alternatively, the mind would have to be completely free of judgement to be able to establish connection.
Yesterday, once again, I found myself totally deflecting this question and starting to respond by where I studied and the various cities I have lived and worked in.
And then one morning, serendipity brought me to a TED talk by Taiye Selasi. https://www.ted.com/talks/taiye_selasi_don_t_ask_where_i_m_from_ask_where_i_m_a_local
I will be honest and say that I hadn’t heard of Taiye Selasi before this day but when I heard her speak, I knew her questions were same as mine and I also realized that her answers were very close to mine. More on that later.
I wanted to answer the question “where are you from”. I haven’t found meaning in cities and countries — I mostly have thought of them as man made boundaries. Actually, quite honestly, I haven’t felt any connection with the city that I was born in, even though my almost 80 year old father has lived there for 50 years, or even with city where I went to college thus fist time experiencing independence, or even the city that I currently live in, where I have now lived for 20 years. And this lack of connection perpetuated my search for the answer to the question.
It has been difficult for me to find continual bonding with cities. I was raised in a small town in North Of India, about 100 miles from the Indian capital city of Delhi — a small town I don’t feel a connection with — because while I was there I continuously struggled against deep rooted orthodox perspectives about women and their place in society. But then maybe it was just me.
When I moved to college to another city also in North of India — I again failed to find meaning in the city, perhaps because I was in a restrictive college environment where (and I suspect, still ) even though you were an adult you were ‘allowed’ to go out of the college campus only once in a week, to return by 4pm. And the gender differences even though unique, were still huge.
And I have lived and worked in my current city for over 20 years — and the inequalities seem lesser. But I still don’t feel the belongingness.
My connectedness with cities I have lived in has been very limited and also limiting — I have not lived in a city where I would feel ‘home’. And lack of this anchoring has left me perplexed so often.
My pursuit has been so significant that I have reveled in reading about travel and displacements. I have bonded with writings about living in countries that no longer exist, with writings about moving between countries and the ebb and flow in these sojourns.
Selasi’s talk affirmed my non — belief in geographical frameworks. Perhaps frameworks are merely for reference, therefore most of them are insufficient in capturing the intense depth of ideas. When I heard her speak, I knew why it was so hard to answer this simple question. “Where are you from” really has no simple answer and the quick web it weaves in my head each time I am asked this, can not just be cut open. If you put your hand in that web, it will surround you and entangle you.
But I am moving forward. Selasi’s framework of Rituals, Relationships and Restrictions is giving me a model to think. Now when you ask me “Where are You From”, I would look shocked, then stutter and would still have an inadequate response but I would do this with the belief that the question itself isn’t right. And I might still have to reframe the question in my head before responding to it. That might help.