“de donde eres?”
“where are you from?”
it’s a question that i’m used to by now.
i went to switzerland for my junior year and was asked this practically every time i introduced myself. equally familiar was the look of confusion when i said “the united states” and the insistent questioning “but where are your parents from?” “…your grandparents?”
i got the question so often that i wrote my college essay about it.
i don’t look american — whatever that means – i guess. i’m third-generation chinese-american, fluent or semi-fluent in four different languages and none of them mandarin or cantonese, recognizable as asian in foreign countries but easily marked as US-born by how i dress and walk and move in a myriad of “not-really-chinese” ways.
but especially here, where people stay in the same town (even the same house) for generations upon generations and where half the people in the local community are related to my host family, it’s hard to explain all that in limited spanish.
my nicaraguan friend Jennifer tells me, patiently: “it’s because when they ask where you’re from, they’re asking about… (she stops, hesitates, and switches to spanish) …tus raices (your roots). pareces china (you look chinese). you need to explain.”
so my answers end up layering, one on top of the other. i was born in the states, my parents were born in the states too, no, not the same place i was born, yes, two of my grandparents were born in china, yes, i’ve been, no, i don’t remember much, it felt like a foreign country, yes, english is my first language, no, i cannot speak chinese…
i feel clumsy in this explanation, almost guilty about the complication of my heritage.
and even then, i’m still left trying to answer the inevitable questions nicaraguans have about chinese life and cuisine and culture. what is the food like? do they eat bread? do i eat chinese food at home? can i say something in chinese? what do the dragons (the word for “dragon” here is león de china, literally “chinese lion”) represent?
i do my best to respond to everything, hesitant, painfully aware of the fact that my chinese-ness is inadequate to answer fully.
somehow, this makes my american-ness seem inadequate too.
this week, i go to help out with one of our children’s projects in Los Martinez.
when i enter there are dozens of kids laughing, reading, playing, and doing homework — our big project for today is building a cardboard house, and a group of girls instantly pull me into their circle to help them cut and assemble boxes. not all of them have their own (some of them only have pieces of cardboard) and so we’re basically constructing new boxes from scratch. as i build one little girl’s house, she asks me if i’m chinese. i laugh and tell her my standard answer — i’m american, but my grandparents came to the US from china.
but she doesn’t seem to get it.
why don’t you speak chinese? she asks me. what is chinese food like? is it true that you eat with sticks? when are you going back?
i laugh again and tell her that i speak english, that chinese food is good, that yes, i know how to “eat with sticks”, that i’m going back at the end of the day to La Mariposa.
she shakes her head and asks, again, but when are you going back home?
ohhhh. i tell her that i’m from a state in america called oregon and i’m going back home in two months. but she still isn’t quite satisfied.
no, your other home, she insists. in china.
i shake my head, laughing, as another boy tries to explain to her that la extranjera is an america girl, not a china one — she is, in fact, not from the place that she looks like she should be.
home’s a funny word, isn’t it?
home is both the house i’m staying in here and the college i go to in Pennsylvania and the place where i grew up in Oregon. but for this girl, and for a lot of nicaraguans, the question about my home and where i’m from has to do with who i am, where i belong.
and if you’re going to count race, language, heritage, migration and immigration history, it’s an even messier question… one that even i’m never quite sure how to resolve. that answer’s layered, as well — a constant buildup of what one of my friends at BMC calls “diasporic blues”.
where do i belong?
at this point, even i don’t have a good response.
meanwhile, at the project, the boy has finished explaining and walks away, satisfied that he’s clarified things. but i’m watching the little girl, who looks from the cardboard house in her hands to me and then back to the house again.
she still looks puzzled.
me too, kid. me too.