What is this need to KNOW WHERE YOU CAME FROM?

What is this need to KNOW WHERE YOU CAME FROM?

What is that, especially after you were brought into and loved by a afmily?  It seems rather selfish to me. It also seems like the effort to have a ready excuse for what doesn’t go the way that you want it.  I am trying to understand.

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6 thoughts on “What is this need to KNOW WHERE YOU CAME FROM?

  1. I’ll take a stab at it, but it’s nearly impossible to describe because you have to live it to really understand.

    Say you had amnesia. You wake up and you are in strange surroundings with new people, and you can’t remember your name or where you came from or anything about your life prior to waking up that day. You get a new name, but you know you were called something else before. You eat food, but you know it is different than everything you ate before. You are cared for, but you know they are not who cared for you before. What a difference one day makes. How can you not remember? You know there are so many things about yourself, but they are all gone and you don’t know who you are anymore. You’re too in shock to know what to do.

    This day goes on to the next and the next and you gradually become familiar with this new life. But you are confronted with questions that cause sheer chaos inside you. Draw your family tree. Chaos. How were you born. Chaos. Does your mother have the same color eyes. Chaos. Do your siblings look like you. Chaos. Form field – what ethnicity are you. Chaos. Medical history. Chaos. All you know is you had an identity once and it’s gone now. People keep asking you these things. You look at other families and they all look alike. You have a child and it looks up at you, half your face. You look up like your child and see – nothing but chaos. You look in the mirror and see – a stranger – who looks nothing like anyone else.

    Yes yes yes we can and must deal with this. But in my case almost three years got erased. Three years of culture and language is no small thing. It is not just a trivial thing to lose three years. Those were my formative years. They shaped me on a profound level. But all acess to anything that can tell me anything about the beginning of my story, any clue to alleviate that unworldly feeling like you are an alien dropped out of the sky, born at age three, is denied me. To know see how I will age. Denied. To know even one sentence to cover the hole that is three years. Denied. To have even one image to confirm that I am not an alien. Denied.

    We can get by all right. We just must. But this amnesia induced by others, our original identities stolen is no excuse we make up to blame others out of selfishness. It’s a very very real loss. That nobody else has to confront except adoptees and amnesiacs. And it is haunting. And heartrenching. And frustrating.

    Please don’t trivialize this. You can’t begin to conceive what this is like.

    • This is exactly how I feel. These are the words I have been looking for. Thank you for “taking a stab.” I dropped from the sky at 5 yrs old. Gone. Gone.

  2. Adoptive culture is full of inversions, meaning, accusations and statements that fly in the face of dominant practice. They are tactical questions which hide a more sinister accusation.

    Those of the dominant culture revel in their knowledge of “where they came from”. They search their genealogy, they take tours of the “home country”, they set up organizations like the Daughters of the American Revolution. This is first tier “knowing where they came from”. Their symbolic representatives are the founding fathers.

    Those of the assimilated culture revel also in their knowledge of “where they came from”, within the allowed minstrelsy bestowed by those of the dominant culture. And so “ethnic pride parades”, history months, ethnic studies departments, segregated arts and literature, the establishment of orders and lodges based on ethnic affiliation. This is second tier “knowing where they came from”. Their symbolic representative is the Statue of Liberty.

    Those of us who were leapfrogged over this process of osmosis, directly into the heart of the Culture as it were, are hermetically sealed experiments in “blank slate” production. Our indoctrination was supposed to bypass the long, slow, destructive process of immigration and assimilation. We are not allowed a “where we come from”, because this would be a fundamental flaw in the experiment. Our symbolic representative is Woody Allen’s “Zelig”.

    To ask this question, with the accusations of selfishness, and the denial of fault or blame, is to basically say: “Know your role”.

  3. I was adopted. I more or less look like my adoptive mother and like many of the kids I grew up with on Vancouver Island, Canada. No one ever asked me where I was from. They just assumed I was from Nanaimo, my home town.

    I, on the other hand, spent much of my life asking people where their family was from. I didn’t care what they looked like, I just wanted to know. I never thought there was anything wrong with asking people in North America where they were from, since I kinda thought we were all from somewhere and that they would answer proudly. Most of them did. A few gave me cheeky answers like, “From my mom’s belly.” If that was the case, I just left it at that.

    It wasn’t until I was dating a Korean-American who spent his life being asked where he was from, and hating it. He said people asked because they wanted to peg him in and contain him, label him and judge him. I said I asked because I was genuinely curious. That’s all.

    Lately, there’s been a video circulating on Facebook mocking a white guy for asking an Asian woman where she was from. I think it was more like, “What kind of Asian are you?” Of course, he’s touted as the ignorant white guy. I felt sad watching this video. Why is it such a bad thing to ask? Maybe he’s just trying to make friends. Is that such a bad thing?

    Upon reflecting on this so-called ignorant question, I came to the conclusion that it’s not a bad question to ask after all, since we’re all from somewhere. I’m curious. I don’t think that’s a bad quality; rather, it’s one that can generate interesting conversations, and I love a good conversation.

    I also came to the conclusion that I, perhaps more than others, am curious because I want to know what it’s like to know where you are from. I have no idea where ‘my people’ come from. I’ve gone through phases of my life where I attach myself to a particular culture, but the truth is, I was adopted and I don’t know. Sometimes I just say that, “I don’t know, I was adopted.” Other times I say I was brought by the stork. Sometimes I make up a grand story.

    Do I think it matters where you come from? I know that when I do attach myself to a particular culture, I feel a sense of belonging and that’s something I long for desperately. I want to belong to a people. In a sense, I’m the ultimate Canadian because I can’t hyphenate. I’m not Irish-Canadian or French-Canadian or Indo-Canadian. I’m just Canadian. Just. Being Canadian is great, but it’s not an ethnicity, it’s a grand social experiment.

    I recently had a conversation with a friend who’s ethnic roots are from India. She spoke to me quite harshly about belonging, saying that I had no idea what it’s like to be ‘different’. I asked her about her family, with whom she’s very close. I told her I was adopted and that my parents had passed and that I don’t really ‘belong’ to anyone. When Christmas rolls around, she might not celebrate it, but she has a family to go to and a tradition to follow. I spend most Christmases alone. Belonging has very little to do with race and a whole lot to do with what your story.

    I want a sense of roots; I want a history; I want to belong to a people; so, when I ask, “Where are you from?” I’m trying to get a sense of what that might be like to have those things. I’m sorry if I insult you with my curiosity. I’m just trying to make a conversation, maybe a friendship, and, just maybe, for a moment, know vicariously what it might be like to belong to a ‘people.’

  4. Erin’s eloquent reply brings up an important point, which is the balance of power between the one asking and the one answering.

    In a given situation where there is a balance between the one asking and the one answering, then you have this innocent question that comes from curiosity as Erin is framing it. I don’t think we necessarily have to apologize for this curiosity, which is quite natural. If I am in a situation where I can imagine this question being asked from either of the two people (let’s say) present, then this is a balance, and poses no problem in terms of our discussion.

    It is the imbalanced question that poses a problem, and this can be exacerbated by the given context/situation. Meaning, in a given context, if I can’t imagine one of the interlocutors asking this question then we have revealed the power difference involved. I would say 95% of the time this question has been asked of me this is the context of the question.

    I like the reference to the friend who has the luxury of leaning back into a supportive ethnic community. Whereas she might hate this question, she has recourse; a support system. The adoptee does not have this.

    If we examine it further, for the adoptee, it is much more complicated.

    The adoptee returned shifts this balance when in his or her adoptive environment. Especially compared perhaps to an ethnic community that has been completely estranged for generations from its homeland, s/he all of a sudden is able to “walk the walk and talk the talk” and no one is the wiser. I’ve experienced this when back in the States, and I don’t like it, because it shows up the falsity, affected nature, and pretension of identity markers.

    The adoptee returned also shifts this balance in his or her homeland, in the presence of those from his or her adoptive environment. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve turned the tables on “Westerners” who assume I am of this place, and who don’t expect to be lectured back to. Or criticized. Or stared down. Or called out.

    The perilous context is the adoptee returned in the presence of those from his or her homeland. I remember a conversation with an adoptee from Korea who said she didn’t like Seoul and preferred the South because Koreans there were “darker” like her. (This North/South lighter/darker divide is recursive from the global level down to the most local it seems).

    And whereas we are talking about racial markers, I think there is something to be explored in the “evidence” of class markers, meaning, we present our acculturation into a certain class just as obviously as our facial features, hair type, skin color. This is readable by others, who “place” us into a class hierarchy based on its presence.

    An aside.

    The other day I was walking back to my neighborhood from the reference point where my taxi dropped me off. It sits on the Damascus Highway, and in the hot July noonday sun, it is mostly without shade. I decided to not walk as I normally do but shot down a side street of my neighborhood which was shadier.

    Two men approached me, showed me some security papers, and asked for my identification. I showed them my residency visa rather nonchalantly; this is where this kind of thing usually ends.

    “What’s this name?” I pronounced my name for them.

    “You’re Lebanese?” Originally, yes.

    “You have American nationality?” Yes.

    “Do you have your passport?” Yes.

    “What’s in your bag?” I opened my bag.

    “What do you do?” I’m a professor.

    “What’s this?” It’s a pencil case; I teach art.

    “What’s in this camera?” The battery is dead.

    “What’s all this?” Newspapers, magazines, books.

    “Where is your house?” [“beit“, meaning, where do you live.] Here, in this neighborhood. What’s going on? Did I do something?

    “Give us your phone.” [The names, images, music, etc. will spell out one’s political/religious affiliation.] I handed over my phone.

    “Where is your house?” [“diyar“, meaning, where is your family based, another sectarian giveaway.]

    Here, I didn’t understand his use of “diyar“, though I imagined it was related to “dar” (house/original district); I wanted to be sure I understood, so I asked him to repeat himself.

    “You speak Arabic, you’re Lebanese! Where is your place of origin?” I don’t know. I can’t know.

    “Why can’t you know?” I was in an orphanage, and then adopted, and then I came back. I don’t know my family, or where I’m from.

    “Which orphanage?” In Achrafieh.

    “In Sioufi?” [He uses here a rarer, older term to define a section of Achrafieh; it would mark me as “Christian”]. Yes.

    “And you came back?” Yes. 10 years ago.

    “How long have you lived in this neighborhood?” [A mixed neighborhood, Muslim/Christian, but also Sunni/Shi’ai] Eight years.

    “And you don’t know where you are from?” I just explained to you! What do I need to repeat for you to understand? We don’t know where we are from! Why all the questions?

    I knew I had crossed a line by raising my tone, but I also knew that within two blocks were a couple of dozen people who would vouch for me if need be.

    He stared at me, and then gave me back my residency card. I had bested the test, and in the equation of whether I was worth pursuing, the end sum came out in my favor.

    I stood there putting everything back in my bag. I tried to parse out for myself the fact that in this situation I was not given the benefit of the doubt as being Lebanese at first (his question was asked in surprise) but after that I was given the full benefit of the doubt as being Lebanese (with American nationality, as opposed to an American first and then Lebanese second) and as speaking the language.

    In relating this to my friends, mostly Syrian workers in the neighborhood, I wanted to know if there was a minister or ambassador or party bigwig in the lower part of our neighborhood, in the hopes of explaining what happened. I made sure to convey that I was not complaining that this happened to me personally—this happens to them on a near-daily basis—but I was just looking for the reason. Ironically, the only other time this has happened to me here like this was in the neighborhood of my orphanage.

    “Where are you from?” now takes on very particular sectarian, political, religious significance, and there is nothing in the possession of the adoptee that can give any of this away. We are ciphers, non-entities. I worry now that this makes us hugely suspect, because no one can “place” us, in a context where such “placement” counts enormously, even to the extent of one’s safety; to that of life or death.

    I worry that the checkpoints of the civil war are back. I worry that I can’t barely leave my street for being suspect. What was the reason I was stopped? Was it being dressed in black? Was it the beard? What was it? How odd that this maps onto the reasons I am stopped in my adoptive context?

    Then, in a whole other realm: Have I succeeded too well in shedding my class acculturation? Is that even possible? Am I being “read” in a way that I didn’t think possible?

    “Where are you from?”

    I’m from any place where people know me well enough to not ask me that question.

  5. A good friend commented that the checkpoints here are a reminder of how much our “belonging” is not in our hands. Perhaps this question and checkpoints serve similar purposes in different situations? One is the abstracted form of the other….

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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