Where am I from anymore? Like any good American I left a hometown which still managed to leave a strong imprint in me, live in a major city where I impact others like a local although I’m also clearly not from here, and have a mindset fixed on further cities in which I may live that I admire but haven’t even been a part of yet.
Am I still a New Yorker since I lived there from birth for most of the following 32 years? Finally a Chicagoan after 14 more? Still a bit of a New Jerseyan after my 18 months of living in the Trenton region as a teenager, since to this day I still have no patience whatsoever for New Jersey jokes? Am I shadow Angeleno? Or shadow (fill-in the future city demonym)? What, if anything, does my ethnic background make me? How about my religious background? Both of them?
As a middle-aged trained urban planner who knows cities most by their “feel,” I wonder this all the time. If you’ve lived in multiple places, you may, too. What’s the answer? How do we draft our personal definitions of origin?
In her 2014 Ted Talk (“Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local”), author and photographer Taiye Selasi gave an interesting response. As she tells it, she was born in London, England. She was raised in Brookline, Massachusetts. She is of Nigerian and Ghanaian origin. But she is a “local” of Accra, Berlin, New York, and Rome.
Ahh, now we’re on to something. For her, the question of where you’re from is conceptual. Yes, your birth certificate may say X city of your passport X country, but what does that really say about your experience? Or your identity formed from that experience?
More importantly, how does that question capture your daily experience where you live now, or the impact places you have lived in the past had on the person who you eventually became there? Especially if you were in those places not by choice? Or by chance?
Does a simple answer to that question empower you as a person, or take your power away? Does it really say enough about who you are? Does citizenship and demonymity (where you’re from by city) equate at all with real human identity?
The answers seem obvious, but it’s up to you to answer them for yourself. Selasi would have it that the emotional impact of your day-to-day in specific places says a lot more about who you truly are than simply the single place that you’re from, or the places long ago where you were raised. It all comes together to form a multi-varied picture, but the places where you feel at home take precedence.
What I love about this is the way it completely eliminates the need to “choose sides,” so to speak. You can acknowledge your origins, but you can still treasure the places that really feel like home to you.
Thinking about things from Selasi’s perspective, I can understand why I have felt so very Chicago for so long–since I have been a part of Chicago in my day-to-day for so long–and yet why that feeling has always carried such a sense of guilt for me, as if I’m cheating on my hometown where I haven’t lived for almost a decade and a half. Or why my time in my favorite cities–where I have often been remembered and recognized (for example, in Lisbon, in Los Angeles, in Orlando)–carries intense meaning for me.
If I adopt Selasi’s way of responding (or mine, as I blogged around this a little last November), I was born in New York City. I was raised in Queens, New York, and Trenton, New Jersey. I am of Puerto Rican, Chilean, Venezuelan, and French origin. But I am a local of Chicago. That still doesn’t capture my Judaism or my at-homeness in other cities. But I can’t deny that it says a lot more about who I am as a person than simply saying that I’m a native New Yorker. It’s an admission that takes off a lot of self-imposed pressure and unearned guilt. Most of all, it makes it a lot easier to simply be in the city where I am now.
And eventually to go to whatever city I want to be in next.