"Where are you from?"


Four simple words, yet they set off a wave of panic in my mind.

“Where are you from?”

I wish I could answer that simply, but it’s more complicated than that.

I watch as students around me list the names of American or foreign cities, longing to be able to give a similar, straightforward answer.

But see, I was born in Germany to an American father and German mother, then lived in the US for four years before settling in Hong Kong for the following 8 years. How could I possibly boil all that down into a two-word response?

I am not the only student at Macalester who dreads having to answer this question.

What is the best way to ease this identity dilemma and encourage natural discussion of an upbringing that may be out of the “ordinary”?

As much as Macalester prides itself on being multicultural, it is an unavoidable fact that a large percentage of students are Americans who grew up in the United States and may have never left the country before. This creates a situation where students with more complex backgrounds struggle to comfortably articulate their stories.

The way gender pronouns are seamlessly integrated into the Macalester culture provides a valuable model for how diverse cultural identities should be discussed. Even before setting foot on campus, Macalester students are thoroughly briefed on what gender pronouns are. All students are asked to share their preferred pronouns during introductions. This helps students who consider their pronouns a large part of their identities to not feel singled out when choosing to share this. So why do students with unordinary upbringings still get asked questions that force them to either leave out parts of their identities or uncomfortably stand out during introductions?

The language we use matters. A question as simple as “where are you from?” holds certain biases. It assumes that the culture your parents are from is the same culture you were raised in. This leaves little room for the children of immigrants, dual citizens or students like me who grew up in different places to really share more about themselves.

A shift in language does not need to be anything revolutionary. It can be as simple as changing “where are you from?” to “where do you call home?”. I consider myself “from” a great variety of places, but the city I have the most attachment to is Hong Kong.

But even this use of language has some limitations. An even better alternative would be to ask what someone’s home or cultural background is. This leaves room for domestic students to talk about their family heritage or hometown, while still allowing international students to talk about whichever parts of their culture they most identify with.

Long answers need to be encouraged. An RA or professor leading an introduction circle, for example, could share more of their cultural identities than just a hometown. Many of us have been raised to group people into neat categories. We like easy-to-remember labels, like Nancy is from Beijing or Jack is from New York. We need to make it more comfortable to go deeper into our identities when introducing ourselves. In the process, we can learn so much more than just the superficial facts about members of our community.

College is a hard enough transition on its own, and the last thing any student should be concerned about is feeling singled out during a self-introduction.

If we really want to be a multicultural community, we need to open ourselves up to listening to the diverse stories of fellow Macalester students.

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