Having lived in so many places and being so many things, I often feel like an outsider no matter where I am or who I am with. I am not from any one place. The place where I was born is not the place I call home. The country where I was born (USSR) no longer exists. I am a dual citizen but the two countries whose passports I hold are neither my birthplace nor my country of residence. For the most part, I know who I am and I know where I come from. But I definitely don’t have a simple answer to this seemingly simple question, “where are you from?” Because it’s complicated.
The long answer or the short answer?
Often times when people ask “Where are you from?” I don’t know what to say. In that moment I am evaluating whether the right move is to answer with a simple “Toronto” or whether my relationship with that person warrants unloading my entire life story on them.
Even if I want to respond with a short one-word answer and just say I’m from Canada, I get a dubious “really?” Because on top of everything else, I have a slight accent. at least I hope it’s slight. That’s what my friends tell me.
My accent gives me away as a foreigner. But because it’s slight (hopefully) and it’s a mish-mash of all the other places I’m from, people can’t pinpoint what kind of accent it is. They usually guess that it’s some sort of European accent. I often get people thinking I’m French Canadian but those people are crazy since it sounds nothing like a French accent. My guess is, they hear I’m from Canada and they try to figure out why I don’t sound Canadian.
I generally don’t mind explaining who I am and where I come from. It can be kind of fun. At the best of times I enjoy seeing the other person’s eyes widen in surprise. “Yes, it’s true. People like me exist” I think and nod. But the “where are you from” conversation is one I have with almost every new person I meet. Since we’ve only lived here a couple of years, we’ve been meeting a lot of new people. That means I’ve had a lot of this same conversation.
Everyone is unique
In truth, mine is not such a unique story. In the GTA there are a lot of Russian-Jewish-Israeli-Canadians and I have a few friends who fit this bill. But here in the Bay Area it seems to be a more rare occurrence. There are a lot of Russians here and many Israelis as well but I have yet to meet someone who is both, like me. I guess that does make me kind of unique. But when every person I meet is surprised, it can feel less “special” and more “sideshow freak”. Like I’m some kind of novelty, representing something they haven’t come across before.
It isn’t that I don’t want to tell people about myself I just feel like I’m being forced to reveal too much too soon, sometimes sooner than I am comfortable with. Before I’ve had a chance to assess the situation. Sometimes I joke first and say “everywhere”. Or I take a deep breath and let out a dramatic sigh as if to let them know “get ready, here it comes”. Self deprecating humour to let them know that my answer is about to be unusual and maybe I’m not totally comfortable with it.
Say too much… or too little
If you know me well, you might be surprised to hear that I hesitate to talk in any situation. I am naturally a person who talks too much. I’ve heard it all my life from friends and family. When I’m comfortable, I talk too much, I can be blunt and I reveal way too much. I like me the way I am and my friends do too. But I have run into situations in my youth where my natural openness and frankness resulted in negative consequences.
I’ve gotten more cautious, more jaded and I have learned to hold back on how and how much I talk when it comes to new people and unfamiliar situations. I don’t want to come on too strong, talk too much about myself right away, accidentally offend anyone or act overly familiar. Instead I tend to be reserved and try to hold back. I fear I come across as standoffish. Perhaps I overcompensated too far in the other direction.
These two sides, the talks-too-much me and the don’t-bombard-the-poor-person me, are at war every time I get asked where I come from. I feel vulnerable and hesitant to open up to a stranger. But I don’t want to hide who I am or allow a potential friend make assumptions about me that are untrue. I do at times wonder if my answer will change the person’s attitude towards me. Ultimately though I really believe in openness. If I’m going to become someone’s friend, I need to be able to open up and know they are open with me as well.
At the end of the day, whether I like it or not, the complicated answer to “where are you from?” is truly a part of who I am. I can’t seem to distance myself from the path I took to get here. It colours my thoughts and opinions as much as it does my appearance and speech. Time after time I choose to embrace it and reveal myself. To paraphrase Doctor Seuss, I am who I am, that’s a great thing to be. There is no one on earth who is me-er than me.
Enjoyed this post? You can read more about my life as an expat and the difficulty of being far away from family
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