Where are you from?
These days it’s a question fraught with social perils, and yet it’s a good conduit to get to know both yourself and others
I have just spent a few lovely days during the holidays with my wife’s family. They are a really nice bunch, without exceptions. Which is something one hardly hears about in-laws!
One evening, my wife’s mom proposed an unusual after dinner game. Each of us was asked to write a short poem answering the question “Where am I from?” I was a bit surprised. Did she not know that these days even to ask that question may be considered a micro-aggression, whether purposeful or accidental?
In certain quarters it is thought to be rude to ask about someone’s origins, because the question itself may be interpreted as judgmental, or may cause embarrassment, as sometimes there is no straightforward answer. A first generation immigrant, for instance, might consider herself to be both “from” where she was born and from where her parents came.
I get the potential issues. But the game proposed by my wife’s mom also very forcefully reminded me that we miss out on a lot if we are unwilling to answer what used to be one of the most basic (and, usually, innocent) questions posed to people in order to get to know them better.
At any rate, that night the whole family (twelve people) got into the “game” and sure enough in the process of answering the prompt two things happened. On the one hand, each of us discovered something interesting about ourselves, on the basis of what sort of answers came to our mind, and why. On the other hand, everybody learned something new about each respondent, again on the basis of what they chose to write about and how.
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The rest of this essay is an elaboration on my personal answer to “Where are you from?,” not in poetic form, because that is simply not how I express myself. The point of this exercise is for me to embark on a short journey of self-discovery, as well as to introduce myself to readers in a somewhat novel and unorthodox fashion, one that might be more interesting than perusing a standard academic bio.
“Where am I from?”
I am from western Africa, though I don’t remember anything about the place, because my parents moved back to Italy when I was a few months old. My father had spent ten years in various African countries, supervising road construction and getting into bizarrely dangerous situations—like taunting rhinos with a Land Rover until they would charge. Because what else does one do for fun in the middle of the savannah?
I am from a small apartment on the periphery of Rome, where my brother and I were loved and taken care of by my grandmother and her companion, since my parents divorced and neither was willing to take on the responsibility of raising us. We turned out okay, really.
I am from the Eternal City, a place where you breathe history and beauty every day of your life. Where as a kid your adoptive grandfather regularly brings you to visit a huge bookstore right across from Marcus Aurelius’s column, and where you get to pick any book you like and then sit down in a café to enjoy a delicious chocolate and cream pastry.
I am from the Bel Paese, which is not just the name of a pretty good cheese, but the apt nickname of a country featuring so many beautiful places that, almost six decades after having born, there are still lots such places I haven’t had a chance to explore, yet. Oh, I don’t feel proud of being from there. Just lucky.
I am of an elementary school on top of the Gianicolo Hill (not one of the Seven), where a stern but attentive teacher of French origins was kind enough to allow me in her class even though I had skipped a grade. And where I would play outside in the afternoon, right below an imposing equestrian statue of Anita Garibaldi.
I am of a high school in the periphery of Rome, where the police had sprayed bullets in response to students’ protests just a year or two before I arrived. Where I met people with whom I’m still friends, over forty years later. And where I benefited from the patience and skill of some of the best teachers I’ve met in my entire life.
I am of a university entitled to wisdom, where a kind and perceptive professor spotted me in his class during my first semester and approached me to offer a spot in his laboratory. And where another professor, who was teaching an evening course that could have been the epitome of boredom instead made the study of the history of life on Earth both endlessly fascinating and quite a bit funny.
I am of the nutmeg State, where I truly did experience some of the best years of my life—just as they advertised to incoming students at the entrance to campus. I spent endless blissful hours at my desk there, or in the greenhouse, laying the foundation for my first academic career.
I am of the volunteer State, about which I knew nothing other than that’s where they make Jack Daniels. And yet I managed to make lifelong friends there, to develop an appreciation for what it means to live in a “red” state, and to grasp a serendipitous opportunity to switch career and become a philosopher. It is there that my daughter—a major reason I feel so lucky in life—was born.
I am of the Big Apple, where I decided to go to live because I was sick and tired of suburban America. Where I met more friends. Where I fell in love with my wife, yet another reason I consider myself so favored by Fate. As the song says, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Perhaps that’s why I keep feeling on top of the world, though I realize that Fortune had a very large part to play in all of this.
I am of a yet unfolded future. I do not know how long such future will be. Could be decades, could be days. Hopefully the former, assuming I can manage to get there in decent mental and physical health. It’s a future that will bring its share of joys and sorrows, as always. It’s a future that I treasure precisely because I know it is limited. It’s a future that I endeavor not to waste.
And now it is up to you, gentle reader. What would be your answers to this deceptively simple question: “Where are you from?”?