Monday, June 6, 2011

Who are You, and Where are You From?

Where are you from?

It’s an innocent question, an easy one. People ask it expecting a few words in reply, a simple answer: I’m from Chicago. I’m from Branson, Missouri. To which they can respond: Oh yeah, I’ve been there. Or, Oh, what’s that like?

But when someone asks me this question lately, I freeze.  What do I say? And how much do I share?

To get you up to speed, I’m currently (living in? residing in? visiting?) Austin, Texas. The Fiancé accepted a summer internship here, and I tagged along, because: a) it was a chance to spend time together after eight months of long distance, b) I had nothing going on employment-wise, which meant I sure as hell wasn’t staying in Pittsburgh, and c) I’ve never been here, and I was curious.  I love going new places; it’s like an adventure.  (Though living in a characterless condo and going swimming every day isn’t exactly backpacking in Patagonia, but you take what you can get.)

But back to the question at hand. The obvious answer is that I’m from Michigan. I was born and raised there; I went to school there. Yet “Michigan” isn’t really significant to my adult life, other than being the place where my family lives. I never worked there (my adolescent stints at Meijer and The Pita Peddler don’t count), I’ve never paid my own rent or mortgage there, I haven’t directly been affected by its economy, its recent pains.

Actually, I'm from farther east, closer to the thumb.  But you get the idea.

Now, I suppose, I’m “from” Pittsburgh, though that doesn’t feel right either.  Three-quarters of the year I go to school there and am employed there, and I rent my own apartment—just me!—for the first time ever.  I have friends, a place where I volunteer, “my” gym, “my” stores, “my” places I go to write. But it feels temporary, secondary.  Temporary because once I graduate, I’ll move on to—I don’t know where. Secondary because it’s not really where I want to be (no offense to the University, and my incredibly intelligent and awesome friends). But, if this were Pretty in Pink, Pittsburgh would be Duckie (Jon Cryer, forever the second banana): he’s cool and nice and all, but you don’t want to date him, or take him to prom.

So who’s Blane (as played by Andrew McCarthy)? New York, of course, and Brooklyn specifically. I’m well aware I can’t technically say I’m “from” New York, or, God forbid, that I’m a “New Yorker.”  There are rules about making such claims, and being that I only lived there for four (I’m ashamed just by typing that paltry number) years, I can’t take ownership other than to say I lived there.

But when I’m standing in front of someone new, and they are politely waiting for an answer—so they can start to form a connection, and begin to piece together who I am—to say “Brooklyn” seems more telling than any other option. It’s where I ended one career and began another (and another), where I made my first real adult friends, where I grew my first (and only) real adult relationship—essentially, it’s where I became an adult.  And Brooklyn remains, in relationship terms, the One Who Got Away—the one who is the measuring stick for other relationships, other cities.  Which is why poor Pittsburgh, with its bad food and Midwest sensibility, never stood a chance. And why I keep fantasizing Austin to be Brooklyn—it’s just that someone shrunk it down and turned up the heat.

So what do I really say when people ask that deceptively simple question, Where are you from?  Inevitably, too much. That I’m from Michigan, but worked in New York, and now I’m a grad student at Pitt… And then their eyes glaze over, or they look at their watches, or gaze longingly at their cars, their escape.  And I realize I really need to keep it simple or I’ll never make new friends.

But I guess that’s the problem with clinging to a past relationship—it makes it that much harder to form a new one.

1 comment:

  1. I usually say Brooklyn, but with the caveat that I "grew up" in The Wasteland. I mean-- I don't say "Brooklyn" in an attempt to mis-represent where I'm "from"-- but like you say, "from" means a lot of things. If it means "where do you connect with on a fundamental level of identification," then Brooklyn. If it means where did I exit my egg & spend my tadpole years, then The Wasteland.