"Where are you from?"
By Kadi Hodges
After all the times I’ve been asked that same question, I ought to have a snappy comeback by now. I don’t have one. I know I’m ethnically ambiguous and people are curious. It’s a good story if they have lots of time. They don’t usually have lots of time. The answer is too complicated for the checkout line at the grocery store or the lady who scans my card at the gym.
Lately I keep my ancestry.com results handy on my phone for them. As we can see from those results, I’m from Eastern Europe, Nigeria, Ireland, Mali, Benin, Finland, and Senegal. Also, I’m 1 percent hunter-gatherer, but I’m pretty sure that’s an occupation rather than a place, so I don’t know how that got in my DNA.
Yep. That’s where I’m from. I assume that’s what most people mean when they ask the question. But I’m not really from any of those places. Of all the places I’ve traveled in my life, I’ve managed to generally avoid the places I’m from.
My father is from the slaves who worked the fields in rural eastern North Carolina. My mother is from the Lithuanian immigrants who settled in a cluster in Chicago a hundred years ago.
They were both Peace Corps volunteers in Sierra Leone, living a dusty road apart. They married there, and they stuck around longer than usual - almost two decades, both in the Peace Corps and working in related careers in Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Liberia. I’m from the rainforest of humid, turbulent West Africa of the 1970s and ‘80s, and I’m also a little bit from New Jersey.
I’m not an immigrant, and I didn’t grow up in the United States. I feel almost no connection with the dominant ethnicity on my ancestry results. I picked up several languages when we moved around, but now when I hear any of them I open my mouth and Spanish emerges, effortlessly and mysteriously (it was the last language I learned, and the one that’s reinforced most regularly). I can pick out a Liberian accent in a crowd of any size, but most Liberians don’t seem impressed by that skill. I’m a multilingual, multiracial Third Culture Kid and Global Nomad. I’m definitely a Peace Corps Kid. That name struck me right away: those are my people.
Except the kid part. I’m not a kid. Even my kids are barely kids. The only thing not middle-aged about me is I’ve been dying my gray hair purple. As I’ve gotten older I’ve felt less irritated with the curiosity of strangers and less interest in belonging anywhere. I will never have the experience of walking into a room of people who look like me or have similar cultural backgrounds.
On the other hand, strangers stare less than they used to, or I care less about what other people think than I used to. I’ve found my tribes. I can find them anywhere, and they’ve been based much more on the depth of my relationships with individuals than with ethnicity or a common background. My gaps in cultural literacy exist no matter whom I’m with. I’m an outsider everywhere, and I don’t mind a bit.