Not From Around Here

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?

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9 Responses to Not From Around Here

  1. Wade says:

    TI. One could always break into a refrain from that old traveller from Canuckville, Hank Snow. I’ve been Everywhere….

  2. Barry says:

    I have found that only Canadians know where the provinces are, although others do recognize some major cities. I have often been surprised how many people are from elsewhere.

  3. Miruka says:

    “Yo no soy ni de aqui, ni de alla…” I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world… But that’s too poetic for an answer.

  4. Marion Neiman says:

    In the States for a few months each winter, I’ve learned to ask for the restroom, the ticket (bill), and a box (takeout container) when in restaurants and I don’t even notice now when someone says “uh-huh” instead of “you’re welcome”. I’ve also recently noticed myself calling perfect strangers “hon” – where did that come from?! Still, people delight in picking out the eccentricities in my speech and letting me know I don’t quite fit in.
    As for where I’m from, I faced that quandry recently when Facebook asked for my hometown. Is it where I was born? Where I lived from 9 to 18 years of age? Where I went to university, met my husband and got married? Or where I have now lived for 40 years? None of them feel like “my hometown” in the 50’s golden, picket fence, Mom bakin’ cookies sort of way. Finally I just picked one; I don’t think anyone that doesn’t know me cares, and anyone who cares, knows the answer.

  5. Susan Wright says:

    Perhaps one reason why this is such a difficult question for us to answer is that many Canadians move around. I was born in Ont, spent my childhood in Sask, teen years and early 20’s in BC, moved back to Ont for my husband’s Master’s degree, then back to BC for his first job, then to AB (Edmonton) for his 2nd job, then Calgary for my education, then to Pittsburgh for my job and finally back to Calgary (whew!). Obviously your colleague would have tuned out after the second move to Ont. So now my response is: My home is Calgary. That seems to satisfy them.

    Thanks for the insightful post.

  6. Jim Taylor says:

    I lived in Vancouver, but was born in India. When we teenagers went “south of the border” for American beer, I always had trouble at the Canadian immigration booth. Why was I born in India? Why didn’t I have brown skin? Was I a Canadian citizen? Could I prove it? Eventually, I discovered that a good lie worked better than the truth:
    “Where’ya born?”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      I remember crossing into the USA for a day trip from Ottawa, back in 1975: three couples, three cars, the reasons for this profligacy lost in the mists of time. If body language is any indication, the US Immigration agent wasn’t much taken with the exotic names he was encountering in the two forward cars: Shapiro, Budnyck. Where are you going? Both drivers answered, truthfully: Lake Placid, for the day. He persevered: Where were you born? Both drivers answered, truthfully: Poland. By the time he got to us and heard the last name – Taschuk – the agent looked a little shell-shocked. Where are you going? Oh dear, same answer: Lake Placid, for the day. He was game, at least: Where were you born? Ah, a change in the pattern: Edmonton, came the (equally honest) reply. Equally honest but, somehow, less believable, at least if body language is any indication. If the highest form of lying is to tell the truth in such a way that it isn’t believed, we were, collectively, masters of the art that day.

  7. Most people just want AN answer, not THE answer. Asking superficial questions is the human form of ape-y nit-picking — comforting, a way to judge if a person is a threat or not. But, I’ve read that 3% of travelers invent completely new personalities for themselves when talking to strangers. It’s a fact!

  8. John Cotton says:

    Isabel, your blog is brilliantly entertaining. Thanks. (Sorry I missed this post on the first pass).

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