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Where am I from?

Where are you from?

A simple question, well sort of. Even though it is a seemingly innocuous question, asking where some one “comes from” actually looks to discover the initial impressions of a person by situating them culturally as well as geographically. There are plenty of social stereotypes centered around geographical location. Like it or not, identifying as someone from a small rural city will give a different impression as someone from a large urban city. This does not mean that one is “better” but that a set of assumptions (correct or not) will be made about a person depending on where s/he identifies as her/his place of origin. What place we select as our geographic identity, in my experience at least, says more about our individual identity and current location than whichever place I was “from.”

I’m from Wisconsin

I was born in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s a lovely place, or at least that’s what I hear. I was only two when we left so I have no memories of the city. Despite the fact I can’t remember my birthplace, as a kid in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I enjoyed self-identifying as a Cheesehead. Though I suppose I was technically a Michigan football fan growing up (I know, what was I thinking), I took special interest in cheering for Ron Dayne and the Badgers from my first city.

I enjoyed the novelty of being from another state without having to be the new kid. Like most of my classmates, all my memories were of Western Michigan. I did not have to adjust to living in a new city, because I did not remember the old one. But, if I wanted, I could still claim to be foreign. In grade school, Madison could be my exotic birthplace.

I’m from Michigan

Wisconsin still holds a special place in my heart as my birthstate, but as I grew up I realized that millions of people are from Wisconsin. It’s not as unique as it seemed when I was a child. So my Michigan experiences became much more important to my self-identity.

My Michigan-ness really set in when I went off to college. Going to Notre Dame, I was suddenly in contact with people from states all across the nation. States that didn’t point to their hand when explaining where they came from (Grand Rapids is in the middle of the palm below the far side of the pinky). I met people actually “from” Wisconsin. So it was then that I very consciously and consistently became from Michigan, specifically Western Michigan. I met a fair amount of people either from Michigan or very familiar with the state so differentiating myself as being from the West side set me off from all those students from Detroit, well suburban Detroit.

A quick aside–Being from a city vs a suburban area often seemed to be a point of contention between students from Chicagoland. I once witnessed an argument about whether someone living in an Indiana suburb of Chicago could claim to be from the city, despite living in another state. Further complicating the debate, the Hoosier Chicagoan lived closer to the actual city of Chicago than the Illinois suburban student.

As I moved further from the city, where I was “from” became, without a doubt, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Even though I spent most of my time in South Bend, Indiana. Of course if I had identified as from South Bend, I would have been identified as a “townie.” And I was certainly not one of those.

I’m from Nebraska?

While I was clearly in South Bend temporarily, my move to Nebraska was more permanent. Assuming I stay living in Lincoln for the length of my Ph.D., Lincoln will be the city in which I’ll have lived for the longest after Grand Rapids. Also by then, I will be nearly a decade removed from Michigan being my year-round residence. So where was, or rather “am,” I from? When I travel I literally come from Nebraska. I have a Nebraska drivers license and have had for almost my entire time living in the state. I consider myself a resident, but does Nebraska feel the same way? I was just reading an article on UNL’s new athletic director, who the University Chancellor Harvey Perlman noted is “not a born Nebraskan, but he seemed like a Nebraskan when you sit down and talk to him.” So I wonder. Am I a Nebraskan, or do I just seem like one?

Lincoln is my home, though I can’t say it’s my hometown. When answering where I am from, after noting that I live in Lincoln I often mention that I grew up in Michigan. Perhaps this comes from a persisting effort to distance myself from being a “townie.” I like to think of it as pride in the furniture city, but then again maybe I just want to be from an exotic land. One just below the pinky in about the middle of the palm.

Published in Urban

One Comment

  1. Svetlana Rasmussen

    For someone who gets the question in the title in connection with their accent, the answer to this is much more obvious, and also less. I will always be from Perm, Russia (a million-people city in the Ural mountains) wherever I physically reside, even if I manage to get rid of my accent entirely (and this might as well happen one of these days).

    On the other hand, I got to answer the title question as many times in my home town, as in America, again partially due to the “foreign” sounding accent in Russian that I’ve developed over the years (and this one would be much less easy to get rid of). But what seemed to bug the Russians who popped the question was the fact that I am married to an American. For them, homeland is definitely where your family is, but my case turned out to be tricky. They saw me both as a potential “traitor to motherland” and also as a patriot, since my husband and I were brave enough to live in Russia and work low-paying Russian jobs (teacher/instructor) 40 teaching hours a week. My answer to that has always been that my home is where my husband is, regardless of the geographical location.

    While this might seem a witty response to a tricky question, it is actually not, for one simple reason – this is not an “American” response. A citadel of the “Protestant ethic and capitalism” from the very beginning, America values the working man before the family man. Americans work more hours a week than many other developed nations, and by all means are expected to put work priorities before family ones (the lack of state daycares, maternity welfare, and care facilities only reinforces the point). So it is only natural for someone like Harvey Perlman to name the new athletic director Nebraskan to show how he would fit into a job, where you can’t be anything other than a Nebraskan – after all, can a person coming from a spiritually different place truly understand 83,000+ people gathering every football game at the Memorial stadium? The desire to be spiritually one not with the family dwelling, but with a place of work and study is something many successful Americans are conditioned to from a very early age. Alienation from it is damning to one’s position in the collective, and maybe eventually to one’s whole career. So yes, Brian, and yes, I am too, are intellectually from Nebraska, but also Notre Dame in your case and School 77 and Perm State University in mine. Whether it is a “cone of shame” or a badge of honor depends, I believe, not just on one’s advisor, but also in a large part how comfortable and well versed in the field one has made themselves in the years of study. And yes, that makes you definitely not from Wisconsin.

    P.S. The spell-checker here apparently does not know about the Ural Mountains.

    P.P.S. All the variety of issues connected with views on working women, approval of state welfare systems, protestant ethic and family values at the foundation of America, are, of course, debatable; I thought examining them would lead away from my point.

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