Where are you from?
It’s a question that gets more complicated the older I get. Does it mean where feels like home? Where does it feel like I’m from? Where was I born? Where I grew up? Where I grew into myself?
The older I get, the more those answers vary, and to spare you the memoir-length answer to the first two questions, I will start with the easy ones. I was born in Quito, Ecuador, but I grew up in Silver Spring, just outside Washington, DC. I only just starting saying “I grew up there” because, as of two years ago, I’ve spent more time outside of where I was born than the time I actually lived there.
When I talk to other people who have spent a significant time in another place than where they were born, the common theme is the fact that where they were born no longer feels like home because they’ve been out of it for so long. By those terms, I’m from here, the DC-Maryland area.
That logic gets tricky when I’m in the US, to no one’s surprise. When I’ve been outside the country, most have no issue believing me when I say I’m American. After all, I sound American with the non-regional accent I developed while learning English as a second language (and after I shed my Latino accent tell that only surfaces when I’m nervous or tipsy). Although it’s less common to say I’m American when I’m in the US, the few times I’ve said it in front of my family, I’m quickly berated with “You’re Ecuadorian!”
But am I?
I no longer identify with core cultural principles of the country (except an infatuation with potatoes in all forms), I know next to nothing about the current political outlook and I would get lost if dropped off on any street and told to go to the house I grew up. The last time I went back was 2008, and even then I didn’t feel like I belonged there anymore, and now that it’s twelve years later, I often experience the feeling that other “Others” feel when contemplating belonging: I’m too much of THIS to be fully That, and I’m too THAT to be fully This.
That’s a feeling I took with me when I moved to London, but sadly I didn’t spend nearly enough time there to deserve the coveted “I’m from here” badge and had to settle with “I live here.” I grew into myself in London, and for that it will always live in my heart whether it wants to or not.
London is my three-year love affair. My geographical true love. Through disappointment, heartbreak and loss, London never lost its charm. During tough times far away from home, some people are quick to point the finger at the city, its unfriendly people, rodents in the underground transportation system or extortionate rent prices. Not me. London never let me down.
Leaving London was heartbreak in its own right, the kind of heartbreak that comes when you say goodbye to someone you love because being together isn’t that simple. When saying goodbye is the only option because the alternatives are too complicated or downright impossible. So you part on the best of terms, the friendliest and most loving break-up you’ll ever have.
London further complicated my sense of belonging, because my answer to “Where are you from?” had even more layers, not least because there was never a box I could check off in demographic information forms. There, “Other” was my go-to, the characterization I always avoided at home because it felt harsh, because I had boxes available to me at home.
Yet, that characterization of “Other” provided added opportunity, the air of “mystery” (but never exotic – I’m not a fruit) that allowed certain foibles that I was ridiculed for at home. Like in college, when I was talking about study abroad to incoming freshmen and how my choice was influenced by my priority of wanting to go to a place where I spoke the language. When I said my native language was Spanish, the response was “I thought I could hear an accent in there.”
Or more humiliating yet, when my answer to “Where are you from?” was betrayed by pronouncing words wrong, like fun-gee instead of fun-guy when describing a mushroom in science class, or saying words that are not correct like “dumbly” or “indignated.” An answer further betrayed when phrases from my native language fit a situation perfectly but there’s no translation, or when my brain beats me at translating and comes up with a word that’s not incorrect but it’s wrong. “Babe, we need a balance in the bathroom, to weigh ourselves.” Because “scale” in Spanish is balanza.
But for every foible allowed, there was a microaggression, or a remark I chose to take as well-intended because the alternative was too contentious (too contentious for a former almost-mother-in-law, anyway). Where are you from? A question that some think allows them to see my culture as a party trick, something to relate to me when they introduce me at a party. “This is Vanessa. She’s Spanish.” How to even begin to correct that?
That’s one of the reasons I love London, because it posed me with challenging questions, but challenging in the way someone you love challenges you so you can find the answer yourself and be better for it. London gave me so many questions, situations and decisions I needed to overcome to arrive at who I am today, and for that, I’ll love it forever.