Scene one from frosh year. Make that scene one any year. You're sitting in the dining hall, enjoying your chicken fajita in solitude, when someone you've never even seen before sits down next to you.
"Hi, I'm Rachel."
"I'm Natasha. Nice to meet you." Then the pause. Neither of you knows anything about the other, except maybe that she needs a haircut and doesn't eat very much. Obviously you've got nothing to say. "So, where do you come from?" she asks.
I've never understood that question. Is it referring to my views on life, to the slant with which I approach the world? Or is it referring purely to where I was born, where I grew up?
My inclination is to reply "nowhere" or "every-where," depending on my mood, but that sounds pretentious and doesn't solve the original problem of finding something to talk about.
"I was born in Berkeley, moved to various cities in Europe, and then to Washington, D.C., but my mother lives in Paris. Now I live in Massachusetts." Unfortunately my answer didn't really get us very far into pinpointing my exact origins. But then, I don't really know them myself.
I look at the various nationalist groups in the former Soviet Union and envy their attachment to one group of people, strong enough to encourage the killing of non-group members. I look, even, at the Germans--my would-be enemies in my persona as a French Jew--and wonder why re-unification was so important to either half. Who are these people with such a strong concept of nation?
I like to think I'm no longer alone in my lack of a home state, at least, if not a country. In the U.S. most families do not stay in their hometown; those of my generation will move many more times in a decade than our parents did. Even the wonderfully nationalistic French voted for (okay, by a small margin) a unified Europe.
Why are we asking, "Where do you come from?" if I'm not the only one who has felt like a mongrel shuttled from place to place? My roommate doesn't think she has a home state, either, having been dragged from Oklahoma to Arizona to Iowa and elsewhere. Now she, like I often do, says she's from Boston, though we're not exactly Bostonians.
If I were to answer that `I'm from small-town Nebraska,' what would my dining companion assume? Would she enter into a conversation about the taste of corn, or the flatness of the terrain? She'd probably ask if I knew her cousin Sally, one of the four people who lives out there.
Does my answer make me the stereoptype of, and spokesperson for, the random place with which I identify at that moment? As a Parisian, would it automatically be assumed that I am a snob, or as a Washingtonian, a political junkie? Perhaps I am both, or neither.
Maybe answering the question would simply satisfy some kind of background check. Russians always ask me why I'm called Natasha. I used to answer that my mother just liked the name, but that was never sufficient. Now I respond immediately that my ancestors used to play violin in Odessa (one ancestor, name unknown, a long time ago); they nod, satisfied.
Perhaps Rachel does not mean the question geographically. Perhaps I should answer that I consider myself a fairly liberal feminist with an odd sense of humor. Or that I grew up without a TV and therefore have a vast hole in my basic cultural knowledge.
At Harvard, the question becomes even more specific. "What house do you live in?" we ask, in order to pin random dinner companions down to one of 12 personality types.
I recognize that the question is posed for a reason, to make some desperate connection with a person whose hair color is almost all you know. I am guilty of asking as well, perhaps because it is a more tasteful alternative to "what is your social class?" (also ambigious, and, one would hope, insignificant) or "what is your racial or ethnic make-up?" and less personal than "whom have you slept with in the past month?"
Asking these questions would elicit no more than the predictable outraged response--certainly not a direct or revealing conversation. But the question "where do you come from?" is even less revealing not because it tells no intimate details but because fewer people have one answer.
I am a Northern Californian some days, indignant at the Southern Californian's water-sucking strategies. On those days I become my father, my grandmother, and might even count the number of Jewish names in an airplane crash.
On other days, I am a European who refuses to understand the fascination of Americans with the sex lives of political candidates. (Sooner or later, my D.C. persona will presumably lecture me on that point.) I am from everywhere (a limited everywhere) and nowhere.
Most importantly, I have come to realize that I am not unusual, that I need not feel like the only rootless nomad. Instead, I have become my roots, all of them. By having many, it is my daily interpretation which matters. Next time, perhaps Rachel could ask instead, "How did you get here?"