Being a foreigner living in Japan means that you will find yourself answering a lot of questions. One of the most common questions is “where are you from”. It’s a super simple question that is often asked by other foreigners who are curious as to what corner of the planet the person they are conversing with is from and by Japanese people who want to break the ice. (After all it is one of the first 10 phrases foreign language students learn to say.)
Providing an answer to this question isn’t much of a challenging task. Spit out the name of a place, the other person usually says something like “oh really” and you’re on your way to whatever topic it is that follows. There really aren’t any wrong answers. . . . . . . or are there?
The unfortunate truth of my past experience is that there are in fact wrong answers. The odds that you will say something that someone else won’t necessarily agree with or understand are about 50/50. In fact there is even a small percentage of people that you will flat out piss off because you consider yourself “from” a place that they do not think is acceptable. This can put a person in a very difficult position. Do you answer with the place that you consider yourself from or the place that is socially acceptable to the person asking the question?
Over the years this very question has troubled me. Ok so I’m not having sleepless nights or anything but to say that I haven’t entered a social situation and cringed at the thought of being asked “where are you from” wouldn’t be entirely true either. The reason is quite simple. . . I answer with “Ginowan” and people (particularly foreigners) have a problem with that. How much of a problem you ask? Enough of a problem where people will drill me with questions like “no I mean where is home” or “where is your family” to which I continue to respond Ginowan. My choice of Ginowan as the place that I am from is not because I am some type of smart ass who has anything to prove (anyone who knows me well enough will tell you that) but because for what is coming up on a decade I have made Okinawa, Ginowan being where I have lived for a good chunk of that time, my home. My car is in Ginowan, my home is in Ginowan, my family is in Ginowan. . . . my entire life is in Ginowan.
Of course the socially acceptable answer to this question is Boston although I anticipate that it doesn’t really matter where you answer as long as it is somewhere within the United States. Then why not just answer with Boston? Isn’t it easier just to fold under the peer pressure rather than making waves? Nope. It’s not me and it’s not home. I mean how can a person even call themselves a proper Bostonian if you can’t navigate your way to a lobster roll or give directions to the best blue plate special in town? The less comedic and more depressing response is that many of the things I remember as being “back home” are now gone. People have moved, local favorites demolished and the nice neighborhoods have edged their way closer and closer to becoming the slums. The reality is after 10 years where you were from becomes more of a memory than anything.
As much as places have changed I too am not the same person that I was, nor am I the type of person that can be represented by saying that I am from Boston. The reality, despite what anyone else will tell you, is that when you start to come in on that 10 year mark almost everything about you changes. The food you eat, crave and make will change. The clothes you wear, how you get around and how you sleep will all change. In other more easy to understand terms if you’re living in Japan as long as I have you start to become more “Japanese” in the way that you live and operate on a daily basis. This is where ‘reverse culture shock’ comes from. People find themselves going back to a place where they grew up, like Boston for example, and realizing that everyone is really loud and there is too much food being served on the plate. . . and what the hell is a cronut?
At the end of the day it’s really the person answering the question who determines what the most appropriate answer is. If you don’t want to know, don’t ask. . . . that’s my philosophy. So what if the answer is Mars, Ginowan, Atlantis or Georgia? Just smile, nod, maybe throw in a “oh that’s nice”. Why not try asking questions that don’t criticize the answer like “how long have you lived here” or “what brought you here”. If you’re not happy with the answer simple move on.