“Where are you from?”
A question that I am asked many times during the course of my day. But the answer has never been clear nor concise.
I was born and raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I came to the United States, at age 18, for my undergraduate education and my parents immigrated after my freshman year of college. They settled in Atlanta as we had family there. After college, I lived and worked in New York City and finally moved to Burlington, VT for medical school.
When someone asks the question, “Where are you from?” I find myself weighing these three options: Bangladesh, New York City or Atlanta. But it is hard for me to decide which one to choose.
I feel more American than Bengali. I view the world as a new American. I am ill-informed about the Bangladeshi society, art, politics, media and even the cricket team. A lack of basic cooking skills has also meant that I rarely indulge in Bengali cuisine — something that is central to Bengali culture. My loved ones all live in the United States and they all have American concerns. This may be the ultimate example of acculturation, appropriation or assimilation, but I now rarely identify with my native land.
New York has been the obvious choice. My formative years were spent there. My personal, emotional and intellectual growth is directly linked to the people, culture and the politics of this state. But I have only spent four years in the New York metropolitan area and a little over two years in the city proper. I have no roots in the city. I was very much like the millions of transients who take up residence in exorbitantly priced tiny apartments in search of an authentic and quintessential NYC experience. I feel like a fraud when I claim NYC as my land of origin — as if I was feigning it to look hip and sophisticated.
I have never laid claim to Atlanta. My entire family now lives there year-round but I hesitate to call it home. Having only spent two to three weeks at a time in Atlanta and knowing only half of the tourist attractions in the city, I remain oblivious to what makes the city and its people tick.
As uneasy as this convoluted sense of belonging makes me feel, what truly puts me ill at ease is the need a lot of people place on knowing this information.
There is the innocuous “Where are you from?” and then the probing “Where are you from?” The person who asks the latter question seems to always know the answer, always expecting me to conform to their image of who I am. The nurse who doesn’t believe I am from New York City — “You don’t sound like you are from New York!” The technician who is incredulous that I am from Atlanta — “You are not a southern boy.” And the doctor who seems perplexed when I state to be from Bangladesh — “I thought you were Indian!”
But it is always difficult to tease apart which “Where are you from?” question is being asked. As I thought about the distinction between the two, I came up with what I thought would be the perfect answer. It was a pithy answer, similar to the answers everyone else would give. It wasn’t the whole truth but it wasn’t a lie either. And it kept me from having to continuously retell and explain my immigrant experience to strangers. It also allowed me to judge which of the two questions was being asked.
Q: “Where are you from?”
A: “I am recently from New York.”
I have routinely used this tactic as I changed services and hospitals regularly as a third-year medical student. This approach is not 100 percent effective. But it has been surprising to note the number of people who have very similar replies to my answer.
Q: “But, where are you really from?” Or,
Q: “Where were you from before New York?” — As if it is hard to believe that a South Asian can also be an American.
I have decided that people who have the above reply are asking the probing version of the question.
What I cannot understand is why this information is so important. There is the obvious answer, that it allows people from the same place to form a connection, it provides a sense of kinship. It can also be used to stereotype people and endow a person with many characteristics and qualities, no matter whether they deserve them or not. It helps people to categorize others into neat little boxes and helps us make sense of the world. And the more nefarious reason is that this information allows someone to feel superior about their standing in life while simultaneously making someone feel inferior. There can be a multitude of other reasons why this question is so important. I am not oblivious to how race, gender, socioeconomic class and perceived citizenship status among others play a role in why this question is asked. Nonetheless, it is astounding how something so mundane is used to codify and summarize people.
Identity issues are not exclusive to medicine. In the current political climate, identity is fast becoming a polarizing topic. I chose to believe that medicine was different. That the intellectual and compassionate nature of this work separated medicine from the typical fallacies of the majority. Somehow the white coat was able to create a true meritocracy. However, we still remain members of a greater society and in that world, race, gender, class and sexual orientation matter. The hospital is not exempt from the daily struggles of America. And this has been an important realization.
If you, the reader, were one of those people using the “Where are you from?” question to establish kinship, to find commonality between strangers — I propose that we use a different question. Maybe,
Q: What is your favorite color?
Q: What kind of books do you read?
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
Q: Are you a dog or a cat person?