Where are y’all from?
The time is March, 1990; the occasion is so-called spring break, there being nothing in the snowbanks of home that speaks yet of spring. Our questioner is a stereotypically blond and bronzed Pasadenan waitress: after all, the girls all get so tanned, or so sang the Beach Boys. She has been busy ferrying loads to our table: whatever diet-conscious breakfast I was favouring then—dry toast, savoury boiled egg, that sort of thing—and the monster platters of omelettes, hash browns, sausages and pancakes that vanish, seemingly without a trace, into my then-teenaged sons. With ravening hordes temporarily occupied, she indulges her curiosity.
I explain that we’re from Alberta; seeing no recognition I amend it simply to ‘Canada’. Totally, totally delighted, she announces why she knew we weren’t from ‘around here’: we were too pale. She bounces off, tickled pink with her own perspicacity; we slide down in our seats, trying to avoid further unflattering comment on our northern pallor.
Where are you from? It’s a disarmingly simple question I’ve encountered many times over the intervening years, more often from Americans than Canadians.
Americans, of course, see more differences than my compatriots do, from my missing-in-action tan to my accent, which can’t quite be placed until I say something hysterically funny like ‘out and about’. Even apart from the accent I talk funny: at the grocery store I ask for a bag rather than a sack, a pop instead of a soda. My linguistic mis-steps extend to restaurants, where I am likely to order brown toast, not wheat; forget that unmodified tea brings the iced version, not the hot; and ask for a serviette, not a napkin. Add to these my tendency to say ‘thank you’ when an American wouldn’t (eliciting an ‘uh huh’ in response) and it’s clear that even if I’m not foreign, I’m definitely not from around here.
Americans are also just that little bit less reticent than Canadians. Are they more interested in their fellows, more self-confident, more outgoing, or just plain nosy? If the underlying psychology is obscure, the outward manifestation is clear enough: they are more likely to say what they think and to engage a stranger in conversation.
As a result, I’ve explained my origins to many Americans, learning which state I lived north of in the process. By mid-life, I had it down pat, able to downshift quickly from hand-waving generality for those who had never crossed our border (Canada), to the adequately specific for those who had travelled to the Great White North (province), to an in-the-know precision for those who had family somewhere in Western Canada (city).
Where are you from?
My questioner now is also an American, but he already knows I’m from Canada. While this temporary colleague on a project in North Carolina can’t possibly care about the content of my response, I’m still stymied. A recent move away from the province of my birth and heretofore usual residence sees me living in Ottawa, but I can’t possibly say that I’m ‘from’ Ottawa: that doesn’t feel even remotely right. On the other hand, if I say I’m from Alberta he will, quite reasonably, assume that’s where I live. What to do?
I’m from Alberta; I live in Ottawa. My pride in this succinct resolution wilts under his flat gaze: clearly he had Something Less Complicated in mind. Smartly changing topics, he confirms my suspicion that I have tripped over the ‘too much information’ line, visible—as always—only in hindsight.
Victim of a congenital incapacity to give anything less than complete and completely accurate answers, I have tragically collaborated with my almost Shakespearean flaw by falling into an occupation where picky reading is an asset. Helping companies respond to government-issued tenders, I have spent years interpreting ambiguous questions from all possible angles, in the process incrementally rendering myself incapable of normal conversation.
Where am I from, you ask? Some days I feel like retorting, What do you really want to know? Where I live? Where I was born? Or what country my grandparents came from? Thus do our virtues become our vices: through excess.
Most interlocutors want to know none of these things; as they are merely waiting for their turn to speak, one response is as good as any other. Where am I from, you ask? Just visiting this planet. And you?