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Karen Maniraho On The "Where Are You From?" Question

KATE STOCKRAHM, HOST: And now, a story from our commentary series. Karen Maniraho reflects on a fraught question and the complicated nature of home.

KAREN MANIRAHO, BYLINE: I moved to New York last year. Since then, I’ve met a lot of people. And within the first few moments of meeting someone there’s one question that always seems to come up. It’s a question that I never really know how to answer.

A tiny little inquiry, that I bet you’ve heard countless times:

Where are you from?

What I say is: I was born in Canada to Burundian parents. Or I’m from Seattle, we moved there after my dad got an H-1B visa.

But what I’m thinking is:

Well, who’s asking? And, why?Is it the fact that I’m African? Did I pronounce a word wrong? Do they think I don’t belong here?

I’ve always envied people that have quick one-liners to this question. “Born and raised here” “Hometown there.” But as I stumble through my responses, sometimes they follow up with this question’s trickier cousin, “Where’s home?” If you’re an immigrant or a child of immigrants like me, you’ve likely spent a lot of time trying to decide where you fit in the fabric of this country. Or responding to people telling you to go back to where you came from. And what does that even mean?

When I was a teenager, I lived in Washington State. My family would do a two-hour drive from our home up to Vancouver, Canada. It was like a mini-vacation to enjoy the Tim Horton’s coffee we really missed.

On the drive north, we would prepare for that question from a border official. My mom would coach my dad, “Don’t say Burundi. We’re from Washington!”

And my dad would quip back, ”I know where home is, how could I forget?”

But when we pulled up, and saw the immigration officer, my dad would fumble his lines.

It would be this weird confusing dance of explaining to a border official which side of the border we belonged. Almost every time, our car would get flagged for something called secondary inspection. The officer would scribble something on to an orange slip, pass it to my dad, and we would get more questions in a holding area while they searched our car. Years later, we got green cards and the inspections stopped. But the tension never really went away. It didn’t matter that our home was in America. Being Black immigrants put us at risk.

All this for a trip to Tim Hortons.

What do you do when the place you love and call home, doesn’t always love you back, doesn’t know what to do with you?

I’m not at the border anymore but I still feel like I’m on the outside looking in.

I still get the question and it still makes me uncomfortable. I find myself sizing the person up. To them, it’s just a question. To me, it triggers these memories. And it’s a reminder I’m still figuring out how I identify, and which places shaped who I am.

But lately, I’m choosing to believe in the question’s opportunity to connect rather than divide.

On the days I want to keep it simple, I just say “Washington State”. But for those days where there’s more time to dig in and interrogate, I explain that home can be many things.

Where’s home? Well, how much time do you have?

Karen Maniraho, Columbia Radio News.

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