I haven’t lived in the United States for almost 12 years. I can’t count the number of times a week I am asked, “Where are you from?” or some derivative of that question. I always hesitate before I answer, a habit I dislike, but it is a question that does not have a simple answer, and I’m forced to think before I reply. I have to think about the actual information the asker wants, which can vary quite a bit, depending on circumstances. I realize Americans are, more and more, a mobile society, but the question, “Where do you live?” or “Where are you from?” asked by one American to another has a limited connotation. Not so for the expat.
I spent the first 20 years of my life in Texas, followed by 17 in Tennessee and 10-plus in Mississippi, before I joined the U.S. Foreign Service. Today, I live in the Czech Republic, my legal residence is Tennessee, and I own a house in Mississippi. If I am relatively sure the intent of the question is what part of the United States I call home, and the asker is foreign, I answer “From the South” Most non-Americans have as little understanding of the geography of the United States as Americans do of other countries. I learned early on that most foreigners know New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Any place else is just a mystery and answering “From the South” seems to satisfy them. In fact, I once spent about 10 minutes on an overseas flight trying to explain to someone that I was going to Mississippi, the state, not Mississippi, the river. He never did get it.
If I am asked the question when I begin work at a new embassy posting, I know they want to know the location of my last post. If I am traveling away from my post and someone asks the question, I always answer with the city of my current residence. About 50 percent of the time, that solves the issue. Sometimes I can have great fun with this, like the time I was in Thailand and answered the question with Pakistan. The young lady behind the counter repeated it twice with a look of amazement on her face but, since the address I had put on the registration form was indeed a Pakistan address, she didn’t argue.
If I meet people from Texas, I always tell them I am, too. I still think of myself as a Texan, even though I have spent two-thirds of my life outside of Texas. I cannot remember ever meeting someone from Mississippi overseas, but if I am introduced to a person from Alabama, Georgia or another southern state, I will counter that I am from Mississippi. And, if some stranger is pushing me about my nationality, and I am uncomfortable with giving the information, I say I am from Nova Scotia. No one knows where it is, how they talk or anything about it—shuts them right up!
Is it any wonder I’m confused?
For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.