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Where Are You From? Let’s Rephrase the Question

american flag mosaic where you are from

It was October of 2017. Our family had just PCSed back to my home state. My oldest son was four years old, and we had just enrolled him in preschool to prepare him for kindergarten. One afternoon and on our way home from school, I asked him about his day. He said, “Mama, where are we from?”

I knew where this question was headed because I have been asked this plenty of times before.

I replied that we’re from Indiana. I figured since he missed the first month of school because of our PCS, some of the kids were asking if he moved from another city or state. Yet that left my little four-year-old confused and asking more questions.

“What country are we from mama?”

“How is baba (dad in Arabic) in the Army?”

I was quite surprised by the questions he was asking at such a young age. I answered: We are from the United States, and his father joined the military to pursue a career as a pilot. He let me know that some of the kids were asking him where he was from during recess and when they didn’t like his answers, the questions had grown in number and detail.

military child outside

As a parent, I can see why some people may ask these questions.

I’m sure the kids in my son’s class didn’t fully understand what they were asking. After all, they were preschoolers! I expected this to happen to my children at some point in their life, but not at four years old.

I believe they heard it from their parents, who were likely curious about our family. My husband is a tall Middle Eastern-looking man who often wears his army uniform during preschool pickup; he speaks with a Texan accent. As for myself, I’m fair, have a mixed look from my mixed family, wear a hijab (a Muslim headdress for women), and at times speak in two languages to my boys. While I can understand the curiosity, I would have preferred for an adult to approach me and my husband to ask these questions rather than involve small children.

So that brings me to the question: Where are you from?

It’s a simple yet ambiguous question that I’m sure many of us have heard or encountered. As military families, we have been stationed across the United States and even in other countries. We have probably heard this question countless times.

While this question may seem simple to the person asking, it can feel complex for those answering it.

“Is it the country or state was I born or is it where I grew up?”

“Which city do I currently live in?”

“What’s my ethnic heritage?”

“Do the languages I speak define where I am from?”

Personally, I don’t like this question. Especially here in the United States and within our military community.

We are a country made up of all different backgrounds, and most of us have been here for centuries and generations. Yet due to our color, faith, languages, and/or heritage, the question always contains subtext. As humans, we are hardwired to be curious and inquisitive about our world, and while there’s nothing wrong with curiosity, knowledge and asking questions, I think there’s a distinction between asking someone where they are from out of curiosity and asking them out of suspicion or fear.

Not only do people ask where we are from, they ask how we are a military family. This makes it seem as if the military is only for certain people. It feels as if they are questioning our loyalty to the country that we were born and raised in.

I’m not sure what practicing a certain faith or having a certain skin color has to do with one’s military service, and I do not like having to defend my family or our life.

children huddled togetherThe same goes for military children. They are often born in a different state than their parents or even a different country; they have been raised across multiple states and countries and may speak another language. The “where are you from?” question brings on a sense of confusion, especially for younger children.

Diana Hartman stated this in her article about how this question makes military children feel: “As they get older, however, many military children get tired of being asked, ‘Where are you from?’ because so often there are more questions (and more confused looks) right behind it. Some have developed answers that best work for them while others still aren’t sure what to say.”

So perhaps we should rephrase the question. 

The next time you encounter someone and reflexively want to ask where they are from, try a different tactic. Start by asking about their family heritage. Inquire about where they grew up or where they currently live. In turn, share your family heritage and the like.

And finally, ask yourself why you are curious about a person.

Ensure that your questions are genuine. I can assure you that you will have positive feedback, and the person will be much happier to share their stories with you.

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