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“Where are you from?”

It’s a simple question. People tend to give a few different answers: where they currently live, where they were born, or where they were raised. Sometimes it’s just one place. Sometimes it’s multiple places. It’s not a hard question. It’s just geography, right?

But for whatever reason, whenever someone asks me where I’m from, I freak out a little bit.

I think it boils down to the fact that asking where someone is from is almost TOO simple a question. Locations are more than just places. They’re feelings and memories and people.

Right now, I live in Los Angeles.

I’ve lived in L.A. for almost 5 years. But am I from L.A.? Not yet, not exactly. I live here, and I call it home, and it’s grown on me. But when do I hit that moment, from Semisonic’s classic “Closing Time,” “Time for you to go out to the places you will be from”? When will I be from L.A., if ever?

I went to college in Washington, D.C.

But people don’t normally list where they went to college as where they’re from. Spending 4 years in a place has an impact on you, and again, I don’t want to skip that part of my life. Does every place you’ve ever inhabited deserve to be mentioned? For example, I studied abroad in Dublin, Ireland for a semester—do I bring this up? The places you live help shape you as a person, so by not bringing them up, I’m not acknowledging that part of my life.

I was also born in D.C. But am I from D.C.? Kind of!

I lived in Northern Virginia until I was 9 years old.

And I don’t want to discount this part of my life, either, despite how brief of a time it was and considering how young I was. I have a lot of memories from Virginia: moving into a new house with my parents and sister, climbing the tree in our front yard, walking to Lake Accotink, and going to the Springfield Pool and going to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. By not mentioning Virginia, it almost feels like I’m erasing it from my own personal history.

This then begs the question: Can people be from more than one place?

I moved to Pennsylvania when I was 9 years old.

I graduated high school in Pennsylvania. Most of my childhood friends are from the town of Wyomissing. And I had been going to Pennsylvania since I was born, since it’s where my Nonno and Nonna lived.

It makes the most logical sense to tell people I’m from Pennsylvania. My mom and stepdad and family still live there now. But again, I wasn’t born there, and I don’t live there now. But as of now, I’ve lived there the longest. Is that what makes up where a person is from? Does being born somewhere really matter that much? And do the years count as a metric? And why does having a place of your own—just one place, rather than several—matter so much, even in passing conversation?

The plot thickens: I’m also a Buffalo sports fan.

But I’m not technically “from” Buffalo, which people will always ask or assume I am, after learning I’m a Bills fan. I’ve never lived in Buffalo. My dad lives there now, and my dad’s side of the family has lived there for my entire life. Going to my Grampa’s was always special growing up.

I have some of that Western New York mentality, too. It’s clear, whenever we spend time together, that I have the similar outlook on life and dark sense of humor as my cousins from Buffalo. Does this count as a place where I am from?

How much longer will I be in L.A.? Will I go anywhere else after this? Will I be from wherever I move next? I’m not sure. I’m not sure I’m from anywhere, specifically.

Which is why, if you’ve ever asked me where I’m from, I probably gave you a much more complicated answer than you expected. Because the truth is, it is complicated. I live in L.A.! I was born in D.C., but grew up in Pennsylvania, and my dad lives in Buffalo.”

I will not be constrained by the simplicity of “Where are you from?”

Home, origins, places, people—that all matters. A life history matters. And instead of being boxed into a singular answer, I’m genuinely excited to share all the places I’ve lived and loved. Those places matter to me and helped shape who I am. Where you’re from is so much more than just the physical places.

So, now it’s your turn. Tell me—where are you from?

Erin Vail

Erin is the 2003 West Reading Elementary Geography Bee champion, a TV obsessive, and never not thinking about Buffalo sports.

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