Where are you from?
I had to laugh when I was reading To Sell is Human by Daniel H Pink this week. Not because it's a silly book. Far from it. In fact my copy is full of little bits of ripped up paper marking things I think I really should blog about in the next few days.
No, I laughed because Pink argues in his chapter entitled Discover the Best Way to Start a Conversation that, in fact, the very best way to start a conversation is to ask this question: "Where are you from?"
He goes to explain himself: "I often ask people 'What do you do?' But I've found that a few folks squirm at this because they don't like their jobs or they believe that others might pass judgement. This question is friendlier and more attuned... it opens things up rather than shuts them down... it always triggers an interesting conversation."
Friendlier? More attuned? Daniel Pink might be smart, but he's obviously never had a conversation with a Third Culture Kid*. As someone who grew up overseas and who had a very diluted sense of being 'from' anywhere, the question "Where are you from?" sent me into a state of nervous shock for approximately ten years between the ages of 16 and 26.
You'd think it would be a reasonably simple question to answer, right?
Not when the response goes a little bit like this: "Well, um, I was born in a midsized town in Australia, but then my family moved overseas. Where, you say? Oh, um, Pakistan. Yes, that's right, Pakistan. No, no, we didn't get shot. No, we're not black either. Yes, we enjoyed living there. No, it wasn't actually that much of a relief to come back 'home' to Australia because I don't have much connection to the culture. Now? Well, now I live in a smaller town in New South Wales, but I have no sense of connection to it. In fact, I don't like it very much at all. Most of the time I'd prefer to be back in Pakistan, except for the fact that I have no family there anymore, and I don't actually belong in the culture either. So, um, where am I from? I don't know. And now I'm about to cry and this is super-embarrassing. So just don't ask me anymore okay?"
It's a question that made me squirm for years.
And to be honest, I still have to think before I answer it. Most answers feel a little contrived; even fakey, as though I'm holding something back. But then, I don't always want to give my whole background out either. The story becomes a strange object that people don't know what to do with. It's an oddity, something to put on a shelf and wonder at. It gets in the way of an easy relationship.
So, sorry Daniel H Pink. I like your book, but 'Where I'm from' just isn't that simple for me.
* A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents' culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK's life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.