The first time I was asked "where are you from" was shortly after I turned 17.
I was born and raised in Romania, of Romanian parents, of Romanian grandparents, and roots as static as I could trace, as far back as I could go. I grew up sheltered, in a largely homogeneous country that was just beginning to outgrow communism. No one else was from anywhere else.
When I was 17, I earned a scholarship to study at a tiny boarding school on the northeastern coast of Italy. I was the only student from my country, in a school of 200 kids from ~85 countries. We asked each other "where are you from" all the time.
And when we finished mapping our approximate origins, we would ask again - but “where in Romania are you from?”
It was the most obvious portal to discovering each other, and ourselves. It was beautiful, never hurtful, because each of us were always at both ends of the question.
When I moved to Evanston, Illinois - a pristine suburb on the north end of Chicago - for college, I very quickly found myself at the answering end of the question. Though my complexion could hide it for as long as I kept quiet, my accent revealed I was, somehow, misplaced. I all too quickly developed a knee-jerk reaction to tag my country of origin to my name every time I introduced myself. “I'm Roberto, from Romania.”
(To this day, my partner - who I met freshman year and cackled when I introduced myself to her that way - makes fun of me for it.)
I had it easy. Over the years, my accent faded, and my presence would never be questioned in any room. Apart from strange asides (like when a well-meaning woman at a fundraiser told me I could easily lose the accent if I tried a little harder), the question all but disappeared from my interactions.
It helps when I introduce myself as Rob instead of Roberto. Roberto is an invitation to guesswork, to ask the question, whereas Rob might buy me hours before I have to explain where I'm from and how I got here.
"Where are you from" is such a natural first question because we associate so much of who we are with where we come from. It opens up doors for deeper questions, associations, and commonalities. But we also project assumptions and stereotypes learned from often superficial interactions with stories that feature unfamiliar geographies.
Innocuous though it may feel, "where are you from" can be a really loaded question. At times, it's merely a curious attempt to confirm our guesswork - we take cues from sight and language to infer where people might be from before we get a chance to ask them. (Let me guess, you're Italian. Mexican? Spanish? I didn't know Roberto was a Romanian name too!)
At worst, it can carry within the implication or accusation that one may not belong here.
That is why it is almost never the first question I ask anyone. Even when it's asked with the best of intentions, you never know how it will be received.
Fiction writers think of origin stories as necessary backstory for the writer to know about their own character, but not always necessary for the audience to receive. Origin stories are the stuff of exposition, and exposition is boring, so that's why in most fiction you'll never see someone ask another character "where are you from." If backstory must be revealed to move the story forward, it usually doesn't come out in conversation, but through action, language, objects.
Subtlety is a virtue in fiction as much as in real life interactions. We can't prevent our inner judges from forming first impressions at the speed of light. But we can stop ourselves from guessing out loud. And we can practice asking more precise first questions.
Where did you grow up? Where were you born? Or, my new favorite, where have you been?
Many expats will have multiple answers to origin questions ready to wield based on the context. I've learned to capitalize on assumptions by delivering what will benefit me. I'm always Rob in a Starbucks, because I want to get out of the way quickly (and prefer my name spelled correctly.) On the other hand, I signed my college essay applications with my middle name, which is very obviously Eastern European. I knew that focusing on being born in a poor Eastern European country fresh out of communism might gain sympathy. I don't have a choice of where I'm from, but I do have a choice of how to frame it.
We all have those choices, to a degree, and we make them all the time; whether to gain sympathy, avoid discomfort, or simply direct attention away from the question. In certain situations I don't really care to explain what it was like growing up in a country the other person knows nothing about, so I might just say, I'm from New York.
Where we are not from also matters. I am keenly aware of the privilege I have in being able to use my name as a shield from the responsibility of being white in America. In a certain context, I could emphatically declare that I'm not from here - I'm not "American," so I might eschew culpability for how people who look like me have historically treated people who don't.
At the same time, I’m on the pathway to citizenship, and the answer continues to complicate. I will always honor my place of origin, but I don't always find myself bringing it up so quickly in a first interaction. I've lived in New York long enough, so in low-stakes interactions I might say I’m from New York, however quickly that claim falls apart under examination.
The fact of the matter is - I have the choice of saying one thing or another, and I will be believed. For me, there's never a: really? But where are you really, really from?
Except for when I cross the ocean.
Last time I visited Romania, just over a year ago, I went to get a haircut in the neighborhood where I grew up, east of Bucharest.
After a bit of small talk, the barber couldn't help but ask - where are you from?
I paused to consider the implications.
"See, your Romanian is so good, but I can't quite place your accent."
"I was born two miles away." But could I ever claim again I'm from there?