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Education Writing

“Where are you from?”

This planet. And everywhere on it.


It’s a difficult question to answer.

“Where are you from?”

I don’t know. And it’s a problem that’s been written many times before. And like those authors before me, I don’t fit neatly into a box of stereotypical identity: I am not your Chinese-American immigrant from Taiwan, nor am I the epitome of Asian-Americanness from California, and I’m certainly not your blonde girl from rural Wisconsin.


I’m an American. And I believe I am entitled to lay claim to that identity, because I believe in all the things that America is supposed to stand for: freedom, liberty, and justice for all. A thriving, inclusive, respectful democracy and a strong economy built upon the ideology of freedom of individual and choice.

It gets a little tricky when you try to narrow it down a little further. While I live in Evanston because of my enrollment at Northwestern, I don’t claim to be an Evanstonian any more than the next student. Evanston politics are not my concern, and while I don’t have any negative feels about Evanston, I also am distinctly conscious of my disconnect from much of this suburban city’s life and the likelihood of me moving out of Evanston in the near future.

Nor do I feel an attachment to the city of Chicago, because I can appreciate and respect its culture and politics, but I don’t feel as if I understand the culture of the city: its intricacies, its beliefs, its concerns and its pride. To me, Chicago feels like a foreign land, and I’ve never found the pulse of this Midwest city.

I think I have a claim to identifying with the state of Illinois (cause, you know, place of birth and all that), but I don’t do so. For one thing, Illinois still doesn’t have a state budget after two years, and I can barely keep up with the frolicking going on in Springfield. For another, I can’t make a distinction between Illinois and other US states (although I’m pretty sure they do exist), and I’ve left uncertain about how much of my feelings are associated with the Illinois state or the United States nation.


But I’m painfully reminded that I’m not considered ‘American’ because of my race, ethnicity, and personal history. And while I understand where it’s coming from, I’m frustrated that this isn’t a two-way street because there’s no way I can politely and easily explain to someone how these “microaggressions” works.

Like voting. I was venting a frustration about photographers in voting booths during the presidential election, when I was questioned on my identity: “But wait, you can’t vote, can you?”

Or in breakout sessions: “I’d like us to go around the table, tell us your name, what you do, where you’re from, and a fun fact about yourself!” as if where I’m from (or a fun fact about myself, for that matter) has any impact on the subsequent conversation or what I’m able to do.


It’s hard to find statistics that can back up a personal narrative, but I’m pretty sure I’m among the first of a generation whose parents had the economic and political resources to be able to live a life where the idea of a “hometown” falls apart. For the first time in human history, it was possible in the 1980s for an average family to pick up their belongings and move halfway across the globe in search of better jobs and a better life.

And the children born during that time — in the 1980s and the 1990s — are just coming of age now, and it’s starting to shake the foundations of questions such as “where are you from?” and “what’s your hometown?”

I’m not even quite certain what information you’re looking for. Like, are you genuinely curious about my place of birth? Or are you, as I think you are, using this question as a supposedly polite way to try to understand my attitudes and values, in the same way we ask people what they do as an arms-length indicator of your education level, social class, and income group?

I’d imagine many people would give the same answer to both motivations of the question, but I am not one of them. I know what you’d assume based on my answers, and neither my place of birth nor the cultures of my last permanent residence are indicative or informative of my identity, beliefs, and values.


So, where are you from?

By Leo Ji

software engineer and news nerd