I got asked something today from a complete stranger, a question I don't get asked much when I'm right here on my home turf of northern Kentucky:
"Where are you from?"
Our school has some visitors today, educators interviewing our staff and students about how safe our school is. The interviews are taking place in the library, and I spent most of the morning directing traffic, giving directions to bathrooms, vending machines, and the next schools in the district some of these folks have to go to after they leave us. An older gentleman I had been spending some time helping looked at me and asked me where I was from.
I gave him the name of the northern Kentucky neighborhood north of my school that I called home for most of my life and still call home now (though the part of that town I live in is an annex and really more in culture and housing like the southern part of the county where I work.)
"No. I mean where you're from...originally. I travel all over the state and I can tell you have roots somewhere else."
Now, I do not hear the slightest southeastern Kentucky twang in my own voice. Compared to my mom, I talk like the damn Yankee I mostly consider myself to be. It's rare that someone calls me on something they hear in my speech patterns, something that to practiced ears gives away my Appalachian heritage.
"Originally, I'm from Knox County. But we moved up here when I was three."
"I would have guessed as much. You don't really have an accent, but you don't sound like the rest of the people I've talked to today, either."
I suppose I don't. I drop my g's at the end of -ing words (I enjoy runnin', not running, in case you were wonderin') and when I'm speaking angrily or with great enthusiasm, I do bad things to my vowels and tend to add extra syllables to curse words. ("Shee-it! Hay-ul!") And if you listen to what I say, and not just how I say it, it's a dead giveaway. It's one thing to gradually get rid of an accent; getting rid of the colloquialisms I heard during those formative years of language development is quite another and at this point will never happen. I'm more inclined to come out with, "Say what now?" if I don't understand what you said the first time than I am to bring out that baffling northern Kentucky-ism for asking someone to repeat themselves: "Please?"
That's where I draw the line at tryin' to fit in with y'all.
Is there really a more loaded question, though, than "Where are you from?" Great writers have written entire books essentially trying to answer that question.
We're all from more than a place.
Even trying to pin it down to just one place is tricky for most of us. We're pretty insular here on the outskirts of Cincinnati, a place infamous for a lack of change and movement. Most of my friends grew up here, and their parents grew up here, and their grandparents grew up here, and so on. But many in the group I hung with in college were from all over and had lived in multiple places and even have moved on to various parts far removed from where they're "originally" from.
If you want to get all technical about it, I am from:
Heidrick, in Knox County, Kentucky. Erlanger (Cincinnati, for all intents and purposes.) Danville, home of Centre College, and a town that possibly has more to do with who I became than any other. Falmouth, after the flood, and during a time both it and I were trying to adjust to a new way of life built on old foundations. Lexington, probably my favorite place place that I've lived for a variety of reasons I can't quite put my finger on but which may have something to do with the freedom and joy of unencumbered youth.
All these places left their mark on me no matter where I tell people "home" is. I feel at home in any of these places; I know their streets, their houses, and how to find a grocery store and a Dairy Queen.
Kentucky poet, children's book author, and novelist George Ella Lyon has a poem called, "Where I'm From" that I've heard her read at writing workshops numerous times. It's a beautiful ode to her childhood home, her parents, her community. After she reads it she asks participants to brainstorm words and images about where they're from and read it out loud like a poem. I'm no poet, but this is my "Where I'm From"; if only I had the guts to say all this the next time someone asks me, "Where are you from?"
I am from mountains
and from bluegrass.
I am from small rural towns
and from the suburbs of almost-major cities.
I am from the dust of coal mines
and the smog from interstate highways.
I am from rivers that run wide and quiet
and rivers that rage and flood and destroy.
I am from Pentecostals
I am from soup beans and cornbread
and Skyline chili and goetta.
But no matter where I've been
I am from UK basketball fans.
How about you? Where are you from? And would the guy who talked to me today be able to tell from your accent that you're not from "around here"?