Why is Everyone So Concerned With Where I'm From?
DENALI, ALASKA- We’ve all experienced the oft-irritating phenomena of being in a large group of people you’ve never met before, making small talk. One of the most common questions everyone seems to revert to is, where are you from? Why is this such an important question for us to know the answer to? Perhaps in the deep recesses of our mammalian brain there is a desire to know how similar someone is to you—if they are also form New York, then they are far more likely to share your life experiences, a common background, and subsequent food for conversation. It’s a natural reflex to want to put people in a box so that we know how to interact with them on any sort of level.
Over the past few months, I’ve met people from all over America. Alaska is a mish-mash of Kansan farm boys, 'boarders from Colorado, and fishermen from the sticks of Montana all in search of one thing: a large expanse of wild where they can run, explore, live, hunt, work, play, and in the end, not be bothered by anyone else. The common thread is that people who come to Alaska do not like being told what to do by others. They like making their own rules, playing by them, and living with the consequences. Many of the people you’ll meet here have spent significant amounts of time in remote areas such as this—they’ve lived a seasonal life, flitting about from state to state and plying their trade, trying on the values of different communities for size and seeing if they could make a home there. The result is that when meeting new people, the simple and oft-asked question of “where are you from” is a complicated answer.
In an environment such as this, with people from all over the country constantly moving about and living together for short, intense bursts of time, we are all hyper-concerned with where someone is from. Not where they lived last, but where they are from, originally. The region of this massive country that raised them, and instilled its values in their psyche. Were you a Midwesterner, taught to work hard, be humble, and enjoy the fruits of your labor? Or are you from the East Coast, raised with a mentality to grind, grind, grind, one that those on the West Coast look at with a wry smile and a shaka? America is one large nation comprised of many different regions that all, in the end, share the same values of personal freedom. Yet those particular regions raise their children in very different ways, and when we ask where someone is from we are always curious to know what state instilled its values in this particular individual.
Whether they have chosen to abide by those values or not is irrelevant. Obviously, if you meet someone who is living and working in Alaska, for one reason or another they have made the decision that where they are from is not the place they want to be right now. Of course, they might return home after poking about the country and seeing what else is out there, but they are not born and bred townies that will never leave the place of their birth. Yet the place of their birth is significant, and whether or not someone has chosen to eschew the values of their home state is meaningful when getting to know them on a deeper level.
Someone who grew up in New York and someone who was raised in Seattle and find themselves at the same juncture in life have much in common. Even if you didn’t grow up in the same way, why did you choose to find yourself exploring what it’s like to live in Alaska at this point in your life? What are you looking for? Is it the chance to live in a place where you need to be wholly self-sufficient, without anyone else telling you what to do? Or is it simply another case of wanderlust and sticking your finger on a point on a map furthest from where you currently find yourself?
The concern with needing to know where someone is from stems from an innate desire for everyone to have a story we can relate to. We want to know how someone got where they are today, and to be able to truly understand that, we need to know where they came from. We need to know whether they grew up watching football on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, or whether they played baseball or soccer as a youth, or were ever even exposed to outdoor activities. We want to understand people so we can relate our own stories to them, and in the end forge a meaningful relationship. In the end, it is what makes traveling and meeting hordes of different people such an interesting existence. As someone that is still writing my own personal story, I get no greater joy than meeting someone else with a similar outlook on life and how they want to live it. It’s why I always want to know where you’re from.