Where Are You From?

This question is ubiquitous when you meet new people – whether in the United States or traveling overseas. Granted, it is easy to answer abroad: я из Америки, из США. Most people can guess I am American anyway, especially when surrounded by other Americans, by volume, laughter, and most likely, dress. Still, some may wish for a more specific answer to this query; Americans most certainly are searching for more detail.

I have never had a ready answer. I was born in Arizona, but I only lived there for four months. I have been back exactly once, twenty-three years later, for around two days. I have lived in North and South California, Illinois, New Jersey, Washington DC, Virginia, and for four years, Japan. Though I lived the longest in Illinois and my family resides there, I have no real attachment to the location, nor do I consider myself a ‘Midwesterner,’ so to speak. Neither of my parents are from there. My father grew up in Minnesota, but his parents are not from that state. My grandmother spent a considerable amount of time in Florida. My mother is from San Francisco, but did jump around several Western states. Her parents are from Maryland and North Carolina respectively. They married against the wishes of their parents and ran to San Francisco in the 1960s – make of that what you will.

Part of the problem is that “Where are you from” has two possible meanings: where did you grow up and where do you live. While the former is difficult for me to answer concisely, the latter is easy. Thus, I usually answer “Where are you from?” with “I live in…” I have only been called out on doing this twice. But, even then, people were more precisely seeking to find out where I grew up.

In Georgia, this question becomes even more complicated. I will typically say I am from somewhere if I have lived there for longer than 3 years or so. Presently, I say I live in Virginia; by the time I am done with my doctorate, I will be saying I am from there if I move or visit somewhere else. Virginia will have as much claim on me as any other location I have lived.

However, to be considered “from Tbilisi” in Georgia, your family must have lived in the city for the past three generations. Possibly seven – there was a debate in class about how long it would take to be “from Tbilisi.” Asking were you are from in Georgia would more accurately be where is your family from, as you could have lived in Tbilisi your entire life and not be from the city if your grandparents had also not lived there. Instead, they are ‘from’ the village or region their family had traditionally resided… even if they have never visited and have no family presently residing there.

While answering this question in the US is difficult, I cannot answer this question in the Georgian sense. I do not know any location where my family has lived for more than a single generation, much less three, much less seven. The US has a culture of movement; it is a key component of our national mythos. Moving vast distances for university or for work is quite common. While most people have roots somewhere, many are like me. However, as the vast majority of Americans had to move there from another country, it is unlikely that families have resided in the same location for three generations. A family residing in the same locations for seven generations is impossible for most, unless your family moved to the US prior to its independence and never moved. Certainly possible, but highly unlikely.

This question is oft asked, but they question holds cultural nuance that are easy to overlook. Historical rural-urban divides with little movement between the two, importance placed on the extended family, and an expectation that individuals will remain with their familial units gives the question “where are you from” additional layers of meaning that are absent in the United States. In the coming years, it will be interesting to watch whether the requirements for being from Tbilisi relax as Georgia’s rural populations move into the city in search for work, education, and opportunities unavailable in the rural regions.

By: Courtney Kayser

Program: Peace and Security in the South Caucasus

Term: Summer 2018

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