Main | Thursday, June 16, 2005

Where Ya From?: A Multiple Part Question

"Where ya from, Joe?"

It took me about a month of living in NYC before I realized that there was a distinct difference in the opening questions I was asked when I met new people. In San Francisco, the second question after "What's your name?" was always "Where ya from?" In New York City, the second question is often "What do you do?"

You can draw all kinds of conclusions from that, depending on your opinions about New York and San Francisco, but the truth is, I'm usually happier to answer the New York question. Because in truth, I don't know how to answer when asked where I'm from. First of all, I have to figure out what it is that people are really asking me.

After four years in New York City, I learned that when someone says "Where ya from?", they are actually asking me one of five different things. Just which of the five things they could be asking, you have to guess. Or ask.

First (and most commonly) they could be asking "Where do you live right now?" That's not an unreasonable question to ask someone you meet in New York City, and getting a tourist or business person to talk about where they live is a pretty safe way to open a friendly conversation.

Secondly, they really could be asking "Where did you live before you got here?" OK, that one's easy. I get to talk about San Francisco and everybody has an opinion about San Francisco.

Thirdly, they could be asking "Where were you born?" Uh oh. This is where I talk about North Carolina and being born the redneck son of Newark parents. Here's where the comments about my not having an accent usually come in. And the jokes about Gomer Pyle and Mayberry.

Fourthly, they could be asking "Where's your home?" This is less common than the other questions, but it's a valid question. Your emotional home, your place of refuge, is often not where you live or were born. My home, where I went to high school and college, where my family and my oldest friend lives, is Orlando.

Fifthly, and most interestingly, they could be asking "What's your ancestry?" I get asked this version of "Where ya from?" more often than you'd think. And while my answer is easy, Ireland, my information flow pretty much stops there. I've never been to Ireland, I have no idea where my ancestors lived - not any further back than 1912 and Belleville, New Jersey, that is. While my family tree is thick with Josephs and Patricks and Kathleens, the names are all post-Ellis Island.

I've been pondering the "Where ya from?" thing a lot this week. The Puerto Rican Day Parade was last week, kicking off a long summer of parades and festivals celebrating being from somewhere else. In just the next few weeks, we get the Indian Day Parade, the Dominican Day Parade, the Pakistan Day Parade and many more after that.

Sure, the Irish have St. Patrick's Day, which probably has the largest parade of them all, but in truth, it fails to move me. Going back to when I was a child, I can't recall any special mention of Ireland or any particular Irish traditions celebrated around our house, other than ferocious alcoholism. Except for a preponderance of redheads, our family was about as "Irish" as Irish Coffee, which isn't very.

And yet, I think that there are a lot of Americans in my situation. Those having no devout allegiance to one particular culture or ethnicity, with a nomadic history within the United States itself. Am I a New Yorker because that's where I am writing this? Am I a North Carolinian because I was born there, even though I left over 30 years ago and have no plans to return? Or am I a Floridian because I spent 24 years there, longer than anywhere else? Am I Irish because my great-grandparents left there almost 90 years ago?

Where ya from, Joe?


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