One of the most generous openings in conversation is, “Where are you from?” It follows all the rules of good decorum*. It invites the person to talk about herself.
“Where are you from?” is a question I get invariably about two minutes after I have said something in the presence of people who don’t know me. It’s the accent, of course. I moved to Norway at the age of 26, too late (according to experts) to hear the new sounds well enough to mimic them. There is also the fact that, even after private (expensive) tutelage and serious attempts to master it, I still suck at the Norwegian grammar. But the fact is that I have lived here nearly half my life here—more than half my conscious life. I gave birth to two boys here, reared them here, and have worked in the public school system for more than 15 years. My books are in the public libraries. In the school libraries. I was a Norwegian national representative for a human rights organization for several years. There are days when I feel that I kind of belong here–if I belong anywhere.
If I try to brush off the question, and answer that I’m from the US, they say, “I know, but where?”
“I moved around a lot.”
Usually, this is followed by the person telling me where in the US they have ties: aunts here, nephews there. More often than not, they have a much closer connection to a particular part of the country, to particular people over there than I do.
I wonder if my lack of connection leads others to the unconscious understanding that I must be some kind of pariah.
I have been trying to remember which philosopher talked about loneliness as a contagion. It’s human instinct to feel unease around the edges of the community. There is a danger in the association with outsiders. We rush back to the center when we have the opportunity.
Loneliness is a familiar feeling. There is a cold comfort in that, at least. The role of the outsider is at least definable. And now, as a Norwegian citizen, inevitable.
For years I tried to explain to my (ex-) husband about this sense of loneliness. He listened. He said that he could imagine the kind of homesickness I must feel. But it has never been homesickness. At least not in the sense that it is most often used.
Standing on the edge of any conversation and then trying to casually take part—a sudden, disconcerting, change of topic: I experience the question “Where are you from?” as roadblock. A reminder. An unintended declaration of, “We know you don’t belong here.”
More than that, the question makes me feel diminished: whittled to myself at 26. A fraction of my life, and the least interesting part at that. (Or if not the least interesting, the part that is best left presented on a therapist’s couch, not at a buffet table.)
This is my problem.
I know full-well that no one is trying to make me feel small, or excluded. Quite the contrary. But answering the question of where I came from, tells you either far too much for polite conversation… or nothing at all.
I need a good, prepared answer.
I’m thinking Narnia might do?
Or wherever it was that Edna St. Vincent Millay saw her drenched and dripping apple trees.
Those are true answers, if not befuddling.
I will forever be the awkward one at parties.
But I can aspire to be like the Ada in The Piano,
“I am quite the town freak, which satisfies!”
I could be the Horse on the motorway.
Anything but the stereotype of where I come from.
*At least most of the time. But since I am easily identified as American-born, the question is sometimes nothing more than a guise and a segway for the person to wax unpoetically on their views of American politics, or the American character – usually gleaned from their exposure to television shows like Dr. Phil. But that is a digression… and a pet peeve.