Thursday, August 15, 2013

Where are you from?: An ode to the Expat quarter-life crisis

In my expat life, few questions fill me with more dread than the question "where are you from?" I think it all stems from a conversation I had with a guy from Australia when I first arrived in Seoul, it went something like this:

Aussie Guy: Where are you from?
Me: I'm from Maine.
Aussie Guy: How the fuck am I supposed to know where Maine is?

It really altered my preconceived notions of how to adequately answer this question. I'd been abroad before, but never had to have many conversations that went past "where's the bathroom?" with non-Americans. Over time, my answer to this question has changed a lot.

I have different answers...

for North American English speakers
"I'm from Maine, and yeah, I know I'm the first person you've ever met from Maine"
for Non-North American English speakers,
"I'm from the States, Maine to be exact, it's the most northeastern State"
for Koreans with pretty good English,
"I'm from the USA. I am from the most northeastern State."
for Koreans with ok English,
"I'm from the USA. North of Boston."
for Koreans with very little English.

Having these different answers isn't my way of treating people any less. It's not subtle racism or xenophobia, it's necessity. My life is typically lived with one guiding principal: judge no one. This umbrellas onto the principal of "don't assume people do or do not know what the hell you're talking about." This made choosing the correct phrases very difficult. It took time to craft these responses. Initially I'd say "I'm from Maine, do you know it?" but I received the "no" answer so many freaking times that I gave up and skipped right to describing where in the States it is. This has led to a few awkward responses of "I know where Maine is," but more typically leads to "ah, ok." 

I needed to change my perception of this question. Ever since leaving Maine in 2005 to move to Tennessee I have been unable to say the words "I'm from Standish" comfortably. Tennessee first taught me that I would, more often than not, be the very first person from Maine a person will have met once I venture outside of the northeast.

However... that's where I'm from. That's where my parents still live, where all of my childhood was played out. I didn't shape the foundations of who I am in some anonymous mass of land north of Boston, I shaped it in the woods of Standish and on the shores of Sebago Lake. The more I think about it, though... the more I see that I'm wrong...

The last time I visited home my mom asked me to go through my bedroom and get rid of things that I didn't want anymore. My room has pretty much stayed the same since I left for college with only minor alterations.  I opened all my drawers, pulled out all of my storage, and sifted through everything. These things that so defined me when I was 18 now, after six years in Tennessee and one year in Korea, seemed almost foreign. Love letters from my first serious boyfriend, random souvenirs from concerts, plays, sporting events, all of these felt like they belonged to someone else. 

I knew that I had been changed forever after my first week in Seoul. I had seen so much, experienced so much and had reverted to a state of childlike wonder where everything was new and everything was exciting. After two years, that feeling has only become stronger. I am a true Marvellian, and at my back I always hear time's winged chariot hurrying near. I live life in Seoul like a tourist on crack, trying to stuff every second with as much experience as possible because deep down I know I don't belong.

I am not from Seoul. I am not from Knoxville. I am not from Standish. I am not from Underhill, the small town in Vermont where I was born. These places are stepping stones. Pieces of the puzzle that is my life. Though some may hold a larger part of the picture than others it is still, as of yet, unfinished. There will be another adventure after this, though this one is not yet over, and in that adventure I shall once again alter. The Expat must be a chameleon, constantly changing to suit their surroundings. We are transient. We are nomadic. We are the ones who refuse to accept life the way that it is.

Where am I from? Underhill. Standish. Knoxville. Seoul. Everywhere. Anywhere. Nowhere.


  1. Nice post and good insights. Part of the reason why people have identity crises to begin with is that they latch onto the idea of the Self as a static entity, a *thing*. It is, rather, a *doing*, a dynamic stream of activity, ever-shifting, ever-evolving. It's a verb, not a noun. This idea can be frightening at first but it's actually liberating. Being from nowhere, for instance, allows you to be from, as you say, "Anywhere. Nowhere."

    1. Absolutely excellent points. It's once you let go of holding on to what you perceive as your "identity" and allow yourself to be constantly molded by the forces at work around you is when life as an Expat truly becomes fulfilling.

  2. I've been following your blog for a while now and as a fellow expat in Korea I could not agree more with the majority of what you have to say! I completely relate to this post, i've found myself shaping that answer into so many different forms when asked where i'm from. Also, chameleon is the perfect word for how I feel about my current state! I was actually just home and trying to find a word to explain how I feel that i'm a really adaptable creature - thank you for filling that blank!

    1. My pleasure! So much of the Expat experience is unexplored because we live in such a fury of activity and many of us spend a lot of our time running away from the things that we do not want to take the time to explore. However, when we take a second we can see just what a profound impact this life has on a person and how that cannot be replicated under any different circumstances.