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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Where Are You From?

America's upper "Left" hand corner.

I have had a sort of unwritten rule that I have adhered to in a life of many moves. I never ask people where they are from. Besides the awkwardness of trying to end that question on anything but a preposition (at least in English), I just don’t think that it is a very interesting thing to ask of someone you have only recently met. A person’s birthplace will usually become apparent after a bit of conversation without having to inquire about it directly, if you will only bother to listen to what they are saying.

I think I came to this opinion back when I was living in the dormitory at Indiana University. Back then most of the dorms weren’t coed so we would arrange mixer parties in the lounge of our floor and invite one of the female floors in the same residence hall. At these parties you could hear the same questions being asked over and over: “Where are you from?” and “What’s your major?” My joke back then was that we should have made name tags for everyone that gave your hometown and major and we could have eliminated about 90% of the bothersome conversation going on. Students could just go around and read the tags which would free up energy for drinking whatever hellish punch had been prepared by the guy on the floor with the best fake ID.*

This being the third time in my life that I have lived outside the U.S. for a good length of time, I don’t get that question nearly as often as you would think. Most people I talk to immediately realize that I am not Spanish and a guiri (foreigner) is a guiri is a guiri to most folks. It is also easy for me to tell where someone is from by their accent in Spanish, whether they speak it as a second language or with a Latin American accent. As I said before, I also don’t find a person’s nationality to be interesting in and of itself.

When people do ask me where I am from I have gotten into the habit of answering, “Seattle” (pronounced carefully as Sea-ahh-tell to help non-English speaking people understand). Most Spanish people I have talked to have heard of Seattle and have a very favorable opinion of that great American city. Young kids here all associate Seattle with Grunge and Fraiser, not the worst things to be linked to if you are a large American city, as opposed to, say, crime and violence. I think that saying that I am from Seattle defines me more accurately than simply saying that I am American. I actually chose to live in Seattle; it wasn’t just an accident of birth.

Despite what is portrayed in America’s far-right media, I have never had a negative reaction from anyone when I tell them I am from the U.S.A. In fact, I would say that the opposite is true; people have an extremely high opinion of America and Americans. I think that I probably behave better when I am in another country but I would like to think that I have contributed favorably to this high opinion foreigners have of Americans. I would say the same thing about Seattle; it is difficult for me to imagine that anyone could have anything but a high opinion of one of America’s most liberal cities.

*That would have been me with the best fake ID. I had my old Hawaii driver’s license which was like a credit card with raised numbers and letters. All I had to do was shave off a number and move it over to my birth date.

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