“Where are you from?” is a question I hear often.
When I am in California, the state where I have lived since I was 13, went to high school, college, and graduate school, worked for my entire career, owned property, and have been raising my kids, the answer goes one of two ways.
Sometimes, I pause to consider what to say. This makes people visibly uncomfortable, because they realize the question is either difficult or inappropriate.
Other times, without missing a beat I say, “I am from here. I am Californian. I grew up in San Francisco.” This leads to either awkward silence, or further inquiry about where I am “really” from and attempts to learn my precise heritage.
After all, my name is Olga. While I was in Ukraine, I was a proverbial plain Jane. I was one of seven Olgas in a class of 28. In the United States, I am either the only Olga or one of the few Olgas people have met in person. And from what I hear from others, I have a distinct non-American accent. This combination makes people believe there’s no way I could possibly be from here — from San Francisco, from California, from the United States. And so they inquire, unsatisfied until they hear an answer that fits their assumptions.
After witnessing this awkward exchange a few times, usually at parties, my American husband explained that the “Where are you from?” question is merely an innocent curiosity, part of polite small talk. It is meant to be a prompt for me to share who I am. According to him, there is no need to stop being my articulate self and create needless awkwardness.
He told me that the answer is simple: “I was born in Ukraine.”
But it’s not that simple. And I’m honestly not trying to be awkward. I just can’t control this reaction. It is naturally there, especially now that I can anticipate the natural awkwardness that follows.
And although it may be asked innocently, the question itself implies that I am not from here, whatever “here” means. It implies that I am a foreigner — a very integrated one, but still foreign. The question implies that I don’t belong, at least to some extent.
That’s a really difficult reality for someone who spent her formative years in California to grasp. After all, I was an American teenager in an inner city school. I grew up with the American teen culture of the nineties, with baggy clothes, bare midriffs, and boy bands.
I definitely didn’t have a Ukrainian experience. I have been in California longer than I have been anywhere else. So although I was born in Ukraine, I feel that I am from California.
“But that’s not what people want to hear,” my well-meaning husband pointed out to me.
Why should I care about what people want to hear when it comes to my identity? It is mine, not communal, after all. Isn’t the question meant to uncover who I am? Why should I live up to their expectations?
“Because it is polite,” my husband explained.
“Polite?!” I am surprised. “It’s mostly misleading,” I protested. “Since when is lying polite?!”
He disagreed. “Olga, Ukraine is where you are from. It is where you were born.”
Yes, it is where I was born. But I don’t think that is where I am from. It’s not where I grew up, where my identity was formed, or where I built my career and family.
Our conversation quickly descended into a classic Socratic questioning — that happens when lawyers marry each other. I point out to my husband that according to his logic, if I were born in an airplane flying from Ukraine to the United States, I would have to tell people “I am from the airplane.” Wouldn’t that cause an uncomfortable silence?
I have had similar discussions with non-family members as well.
For example, a well-meaning vendor who was pitching his business to my department asked me the “Where are you from?” question when he met with me and my then-manager for the first time. This caused reaction number one — a very pregnant pause as I considered how to answer his question in a way that would not jeopardize our professional relationship.
My manager later asked me why answering the question was so difficult. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you be that speechless,” he commented.
“Well, how often are you asked where you’re from?” I asked him.
He could not think of the last time people asked him this question, even though he was born in another state and spent less time in California than I had. “That’s my point,” I told him. “People assume that you are from California, even though you are not. But you belong nonetheless.”
Others have pointed out to me that it is merely polite to have a conversation that flows in a predictable way. They believe I shouldn’t make people feel like they’ve asked me a dumb question. But on some level, it is a dumb question. It may be a natural and easy question to ask. But it is certainly a wasted question.
Even if I gave you a polite answer and told you where I was technically born without an awkward pause, your understanding of me as a person will not be enriched if you ask “where I’m from.” All that tells you is where I was born, why my name is unique, and why my accent sounds foreign. All it does is put me in a simple box, labeled “not from here.”
If anyone actually wants to get to know me, they should ask me a question that requires more than a five-word answer.
Don’t ask me where I’m from. Ask me what drives me.
I would be happy to share my passion for startups, gender equity, visual arts, and justice. I will happily tell you how law and public policy fit into my personal and professional lives. I’ll gladly explain how my passions influenced where I choose to work, how I like to contribute in my community, and how I raise my children.
This way, we won’t have a short, to-the-point conversation. Instead, we can have a long, deep, and meaningful conversation. And you’ll have a glimpse at who I am as a person, not as a category that neatly falls into a box.
Where I am from is not the same as what as drives me. In fact, knowing where I was born will only give you a minuscule glimpse as why I get up in the morning. Because “where I’m from” doesn’t tell you where I am now, how I got there, or where I’m going.
So, why not ask me this question?! Why not get to know me as a person?
If you ask me, “Olga, what drives you? Why do you get up in the morning?,” I will certainly not stumble. And I will never be speechless.
I will give you a very rich answer about my goals and hopes. I’ll tell you about how I would like to leave the world in a better shape than I found it. I’ll even share my complete mission statement, with values and concrete steps I take every day to get there.
Of course, you don’t have to engage in this deep dive about Olga. We can just get down to business or have a superficial discussion about the weather. But either way, don’t put me in a box as part of small talk.