Written by Gabriela Gil ’20. Illustration by Maheen Syed ’19.
It is the first day of Freshman Orientation. Just a few hours in and you have already met more people than you could ever hope to remember, have more new numbers in your phone than you could ever have imagined getting in a single day, and have carefully formulated your answer to almost every first-day question you have gotten. These answers come out quickly, with a faux-suave allure, as you try to make connections with the strangers around you.
“What is your concentration?” Undecided with an interest in psychology, you answer with ease and receive an empathetic head nod in response.
“What dorm are you in?” North Wayland.
“Have you met your roommate already?” Don’t have one.
“When did you move in?” Yesterday, Mom helped lug everything through the halls.
“Where are you from?” … You pause. While the answers to the other questions were easy to quickly blurt out, this one proves to be more challenging.
Most people know how to reply, but you do not. No simple location comes to mind, no quick answer, nothing that may help start up a conversation without requiring a longer explanation than you may want to give.
This was my Orientation week dilemma. “Where are you from?” they asked, and I didn’t know how to reply.
I suppose I could have gone with the legally accurate response. Technically, I am a first generation American Colombian. With both my parents originating from the colorful Latin American country, I can lay claim to both a Colombian passport and an American one. But do my passports define where I am from? They do not tell the whole story. I am a first generation American Colombian, however, the majority of my life has been spent outside of the borders of either nation. Having been born in Atlanta, GA, I moved to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam at the age of nine. This was my first move abroad, but it was not my last. It was in Jakarta, Indonesia where I spent five transformative years until my high school graduation.
The United States, Colombia, Vietnam, Indonesia – all these countries make up my identity. In some way or another, they have helped form the person I am today, and in the process I have adopted traditions from all four cultures. My passports come from the United States and Colombia, and yet Vietnam and Indonesia also have roles to play. For it is because of the playdates and kind, yet tenacious role models of my years in Vietnam that I will forever fight for what I believe in and always take off my shoes when I enter a house. It is in Indonesia where I explored what I could of its deep oceans, high volcanoes, and vibrant peoples as the calls to prayer of the nearby mosques rang through my opened windows. My admiration of ecological and human diversity grew as I did, experiencing the realities of its national motto, “Unity in Diversity”.
These are experiences that are simultaneously essential to my sense of self and impossible to summarized with a clear reference to the countries on my passports. Therein lies my challenge. I struggle to introduce myself, my identity with its multi-national origins, to the strangers that make up my first-year orientation encounters, but in reality this is simply an extension of conversations I have had with those around me my whole life. While my future classmates force me to face the question of where home is, and what that means, with their cordial questions, others have done so with much more blatant intents to challenge.
“But where are you really from?” they have asked. They often said that I am not Colombian enough because I have never lived there, but the blood that runs through my veins says differently. They argued that I am not American enough because I do not have an ounce of American blood within me, but this is where I took my first breath. And I have no right to claim an Indonesian identity, but that is where I currently call home, despite having no lasting links to the extraordinary archipelago.
In a world whose borders are quickly changing, and disappearing, the identification of a single place from which someone is from proves to be more and more challenging. Not only can the place identified on one’s passport(s) be simply an identifier of heritage, but there can also be locations that may not fit into others’ understanding of “home” and yet have been of upmost importance to the development of one’s personhood. All too often my response to the question of where I am from has been marred by the expectations of other people – the way they believe the question should be approached and the judgments they have already made on my identity.
Perhaps thanks to the broken records that are Orientation week questions, this is no longer the case. They made me stop and realize that as complicated as it may seem, every place that has contributed to my sense of self will be important to me – they will always be where a part of me is from. Indeed, while you may argue that I can claim none of these countries as my own, they have all played their unique role. Distinct yet coexisting, they claim parts of my identity that I cannot fully unravel for while I took my first steps on American soil, I grew used to climbing the hill to my Indonesian high school. And regardless of our location, my household spoke only Spanish and celebrated Christmas with Noche Buena.
So where am I from?
I can’t tell you for sure. And I don’t think I should have to choose.