A dangerous question lurks in the minds of well-meaning people everywhere. A question not dangerous to everyone, perhaps, but for some, especially for families of some English as a Second Language students with whom I’ve had the chance to speak, the question might be unsettling.
“Where are you from?” People will ask, innocently smiling, not knowing that they have touched on a point that shakes the displaced to their very souls. For dammed up in this one question is a potential flood of many other questions, questions which have perhaps not yet been fully answered even in the mind of those who are being questioned: “Where are you from?” leads to “Where is your home?” and “Where was your sense of self formed, and your identity nourished?” These questions eventually lead to “Who are you?”; a startling question for anyone to encounter, and a laborious one to answer on a daily basis.
Still the question must be answered, so as not to seem rude. So those questioned begin to once again dig and scrap, and a kind of frantic pondering ensues as they mentally sort through different pieces of information: many houses and cultures, many stamps on a passport. They are not for the first time, searching, but they hope that maybe this time the answer will come. That somehow a place: a country, town, village - anything - will come forward and make itself known, that someplace will claim them for its own. The displaced must hope that the too-many options will somehow meld into one obvious choice. The child of a refugee or an immigrant finds that there is perhaps one too many homes to choose from, and that he is just as curious as the one who has asked the question to find out what he’s going to answer. More than curious even; anxious is a better word. There is a feeling that something is at stake.
Of course this is not the case with most people; for most “home” is an easy concept. Ask these blessed people where they’re from, ask them even the harder question of where they consider home, and they’ll answer you without the least hint of doubt in their voice, without the slightest shade of worry passing over their face, or trace of uncertainty across their minds. These people, being seen by the gods as somehow the most fit to bear this blessing, will smile an easy smile and tell you where they were born and raised. Born and raised. Home. Easy.
For Mimi’s child the question will not be so easy to answer. Mimi is from Ethiopia, and she has just recently found out that she and her husband are going to have their first baby. Of course they now have a flood of choices before them concerning which culture they are going to raise their little American-born, Ethiopian child in. And in this regard Mimi and her husband are surely not alone; all who have raised children in a culture other then their own have tangled with this beast of a issue. But I wonder whether parents like Mimi, who have to ask the necessary question of what culture they will raise their child in, who have to ask essentially “Where will my child be from?”, know the terrible power they wield. I wonder if they have a choice.
Consider too Claudio, from Mexico, who came to the U.S. when he was a teenager because his father wanted him to come. I wonder where he will now find his identity, if he will find it in the land in which he lived the first half of his life, or the land he will likely live in for the rest of his life. Perhaps Claudio will never really be home; perhaps he will only ever live in a corner which he had no choice but to back into. I wonder if I could grow fond of a corner.
Perhaps it seems frivolous, though, for people to make such a big deal about wanting to live where they were born, or, at least in some way or another wanting to be able to call the place they’re living now “home”. Perhaps to some, wanting to be raised either in the same culture as your parents, or the same culture as your peers seems superficial. But those who are tempted to think this way of the the people whom Judith Ortiz Cofer describes as “the perennial new kids on the block”, would do well to consider the gift they possess, the gift they were born and raised with (562). They posses the gift of being from somewhere. It’s a gift inexorably bound to the most basic of all gifts, the very gift of being, itself. Such might be tortured by the question of where they are going to (in the future or the hereafter), but at least they know where they’re coming from. My heart goes out to the child that can list many places he has lived, but has no clue what to tell people when they ask him where he is from.
For those who are not of any culture, the ache indeed must weigh heavy. However, could it be that these seeming unfortunates, the displaced, the uprooted, and the divided, those who are going through life homesick, but without a place on earth to call home, are better prepared for something in the end? Might they be better prepared, perhaps, for a different home, a home that lies beyond this world?