People frequently ask me, “Where are you from?” When I reply with the unsatisfactory, “Cincinnati”, they shake their heads and further and ask, “Oh, I mean, where are your parents from?” Reluctantly, I give them the answer they want.
I find it frustrating because it allows others to define me by my ancestry and the preconceived notions that are associated with it. Taiye Selasi tackled this topic in her recent Ted Talk called “Don’t Ask Where I’m From, Ask Where I’m a Local.”
She explained that there is a three-step test in determining where someone is a local: through rituals, relationships and restrictions.
Selasi describes rituals as anything from daily routines to household habits, and how these are replicated elsewhere in the world. I wake up each morning, shower, get ready, eat breakfast and begin my day. Selasi said that her mother brought the ritual of taking shoes off before entering their house, which is the same rule in my house. We speak on the phone to our long-distance family members about once a week. Our house is kept very clean. The food is always immensely flavorful. In this way, Selasi explained, people can connect to various cultures. When I go to India, I know exactly how to behave in someone’s house, because of the similar rituals we practice in our home. In some other parts of the world, though I have not yet been, similar conditions apply.
Relationships are interactions with people that directly influence emotions at least once a week, according to Selasi, whether the interactions are “face to face or on FaceTime”. For me, these people are a mix from those in Mason, those in Bloomington, and people I knew in Mason who are now in other cities. Selasi describes these relationships as “home”, but for me, they are unspecific to a particular place — they can survive anywhere.
Restrictions are things that physically enable or disable someone from living somewhere — for example, passport/visa/green card validity, wars, economic trouble, financial struggles, discrimination, whatever it may be. I am thankful to be able to live in the U.S. and grateful that as a first-year college student I am not yet living independently and able to rely on my parents for support. This privilege is also a restriction, in a way. I’m expected to attend the same college for four years, and after that, I have some leeway, though I am expected to get a job and begin working or attend graduate school. (Again, not complaining).
So when I’m asked where I’m from, the answer isn’t India. Not really. Though I find a few things familiar in India, I am definitely not a local. My parents are — though not of all of India, no one is a local of a whole country, just specific communities. My dad is from Chennai, and my mom is, too, but she’s also from Dharwad. They’re both from Irvine, California, as well. And we’re all from Mason, Ohio, the place where we live and are most recognized. Soon (which is an indefinite amount of time), I’ll be recognized in Bloomington, Indiana, or at least in the bubble that is the Indiana University campus.
The experiences that my parents created in their homes around the world don’t resonate with me, because they’re not mine. The cultural assumptions that could be made about people who live in India don’t apply to me, because I’ve never lived there. If someone wants to get to know me, I hope that they will not ask where my parents or I are from, but instead about my own experiences, ideas and locality.