It’s part two of theme week on Small Answers, where we have two stories discussing identity and place, and how these concepts overlap and diverge (read the first piece here).
The question “Where are you from?” has never had a simple answer for me. Growing up, I was never sure if the asker wanted to know where I was born or where I live, and now, I wonder if they want to know where I was raised.
It seems like a small question, but for me it holds a lot of big answers. It asks how I identify myself and what shapes me—is it the country and culture my family is from? Is it the place where I made my first friends? Or is it where I feel most at home?
So, where am I from?
Well, I was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1988. (I know, I know. I’m a baby.) It’s a hot, humid place and to be honest, I have no memory of living or leaving there. But it’s as much a part of me as anything–especially every time I gossip with my mom and aunts over dinner, find myself pulled towards Vietnamese-American graphic novels, or getting caught casually gnawing on cartilage from a chicken bone.
I spent my entire childhood and teenage years in Southern California. It’s a constant 75 degrees and sunny kind of place, and I have so many memories there. It’s the place where I learned English and where I first fell in love. In love with sleepovers and books and MTV and school and the internet and swimming and food and all the things that help you become who you end up being. It’s the first place I laughed at Friends and Seinfeld and fell head over feet for NY152 in You’ve Got Mail. It’s the place where I had my first interview and got my first paycheck. It’s also the place where I got dumped for the first time. In.a.Barnes & Noble.parking.lot. And cried because my sister got married on my birthday. (I was 11.) And wracked my brain for synonyms for “great” and “said” for English papers. It’s the place where I got my degree, and all of my student loans, and figured out how to feed myself on my own.
So when people ask where I’m from, it is Southern California that most shaped me during the formative years of my childhood and adolescence. But I live in New York City now, where I did an initial six month stint and then fell hard for a city that had always played a supporting role in my favorite movies, music, and books. That was almost four years ago.
New York is a place of extremes—emotions, smells, weather, people, losses, and successes. It was the first move I made away from California without knowing when, or if, I would come back. All at once, the places and people that had such a huge hand in who I was fell away. My patience waned. My style favored all black, everything. Walking was always an option. My ambition vaulted, ever upward. I scoffed at Facebook posts about coat and boot season when it hit 65 degrees. While waiting to board a flight from JFK to LAX, I realized I’d began to identify as a New Yorker.
Yet, as I walked down Riverside Park, drank water from the tap, became excited by and then suffered through the winter snow, celebrated new friends’ birthdays, gave subway directions to tourists, made care packages for my niece and nephew, figured out that the “10 or more” line in Whole Foods is shorter, kept up with the Kardashians, picked out a new rug, and got reprimanded for not calling my mom often enough, I felt people and moments from past places come back to me, new experiences recalling the old.
I found connections to my past in unexpected ways. In small, quiet moments and in crowded rooms, there was an old friend’s sense of humor in a new coworker, my mom’s perfectionism in my own DIY projects and the universal joy of summer in the first bike ride of the year. In these details, all of the places I’ve considered to be “where I’m from” overlap.
I’ve come to realized that I’m not from just one place or one culture. I’m from Vietnam when I put Maggi on my fried eggs, I’m from Southern California in the way I crave traffic jam karaoke, and I’m from New York City when I share Jon Stewart’s feelings about how deBlasio eats his pizza. Where I’m from isn’t who I am; it’s a part of who I’ve become. Some places more, some less; they all vibrate at their own unique frequencies and resonate the closer or farther I move from them.
This evening, at the dawn of my quarter-life, I’m anticipating a wave of changes: an imminent move back across the country, a partner turned professional musician, a job hunt, and a wedding. These all will shape my life and challenge me in ways I can’t imagine, introducing me to people, bringing me to places and into communities I’ve yet to hear of. And I can’t wait to find out where I’ll be from next.
Image: La Perruche et la Sirene, by Henri Matisse (1952)