I arrived early and alone to a new event of the sort where you just sit and watch. The event was running late to start, and I sat there uncomfortably, looking around for acquaintances and/or mustering courage to talk to strangers. After a while, I saw K whom I knew a little bit through tango. K arrived with a few friends, but there were not enough seats for all of them to sit together any more, so she sat next to me (yay!). We talked about the week so far (it had been eventful for both of us) and about her recent travels. At some point, I asked her where she grew up, “Taiwan,” she said.
The event started, then there was a break. K looked around and said: “I think we are supposed to network now. Let’s do that.” I gladly followed to learn how that is done. One of the strangers with whom we “networked” asked K: “Where are you from?” K stared back quietly for a few seconds and said, softly, with a smile: “I don’t know how to answer that.” The stranger stared back. So did I, in amazement.
I resent hearing “Where are you from?” from a new acquaintance the second I open my mouth.
First of all, as years go by, the question becomes more and more difficult to answer with any relevance.
At the core of my resentment though is the sentiment that I am guessing is shared by my friends with brown eyes and dark hair when they hear either “Where are you from?” or, worse, “What are you?” before much else. When we first connect with another human being, the basic longing is to discover how we are similar. “Where are you from?” as an unconcealed reaction to my accent or your brown eyes sounds way too much like “Why are you different?” Too much like rejecting me as I reach out.
K stared back quietly with her brown eyes for a few seconds and said, softly, with a smile: “I don’t know how to answer that.” Then turned to me: “The question you asked me, ‘where did you grow up?’ is much easier. I was born in Kentucky, but is that where I am from?” And so we were similar in our confusion about the dreaded question.
Last weekend, I started the yoga teacher training. In the first class, the program director had us meet each other. We were to find a new BFF whom we hadn’t known before and get to know them. Since that “networking” incident with K a few months ago, I had been deliberate about faking extroversion at gatherings; so I already started meeting fellow students before the exercise. Still, I shivered at the assignment, because it was specifically, to ask their name, …wait for it… where they were from, and why they decided to do the training.
My new BFF grew up in a small town called Campinos, in the South of Brazil. He lived there until he was about 13, then in Rio for a few years, then moved to San Francisco a few years ago. Rio was very different from his home town, and San Francisco is different still, although his home town is changing too. My new BFF works as a fitness instructor, and he wants to learn how to teach yoga, too, because the kinds of exercise he teaches now are just about the body, and yoga allows us to truly learn about ourselves. Besides, he was a chubby kid growing up until somebody helped him transform and lead a better life. Now he wants to be able to help others, especially the people who struggle with their bodies, maybe even with injuries, and yoga is the way to be able to do that.
Once we got to know each other in pairs, we went around the circle introducing our new BFFs to the group. There were people with different accents. There were people with different hair, eyes, and body shapes. There were people born in different countries or different US states. There were a couple of people who moved up from the Philly area around the same time as I. Some people looked to stay, some looked to go. A few wanted to become yoga teachers in the near future. Most of us arrived with the intention to deepen our practice, to develop better understanding of ourselves, and to learn to help others.
The all over the place answers to “Where are you from?” showed how similar we were, having arrived.