“Where are you from?” can seem like the obvious question to ask someone you’re meeting for the first time. It can reveal so much about the person—hobbies, culture, languages they may speak, interests. It seems like a simple enough question to fill awkward pauses with, but in turn can actually lead to a long conversation requiring coffee and pastries. So, pour that coffee, order that chocolate croissant you’ve been eyeing, and get comfortable, because I’m about to tell you my story.
When I was 3, I lived in Austin, Texas for a year. My chubby little self’s favorite pastime was playing in the sandbox. I didn’t know exactly how to speak English at the time, but I was in the process of learning how to repeat short phrases that I’d hear on TV. One day, while I was playing with my older brother, a young boy walked up to him and threw sand in his face. Indignant, my brother stood up. Since he was already in kindergarten, I watched as he pointed his index finger at the child and said in a very practiced tone, “Don’t bother me.” The child went away and we continued to play.
I thought all was well until, a few minutes later, the same child came over and threw sand again. This time, however, it was in my face and not my brother’s. I was ready. Standing on my stumpy legs, I pointed my index finger at the kid and stared him straight in the eyes, just as my brother had done.
“Old McDonald had a farm!” I said. The young boy looked at me with a worried look on his face, which only made me feel more confident.
“E-I-E-I-O!” I added, convinced that I was saying the right thing. The child turned around and ran as fast as he could, and I sat back down, oblivious to the fact that he had probably gone away thinking I was completely nuts.
Though I had said something far different from what I had intended, I had looked the child in the eyes and pointed at him with my index finger. Thus, in Austin, I learned that we don’t always have to say the right thing, and that nonverbal communication can be entirely effective.
When I was 5, I lived in Madrid for a year and a half. Though I spoke Spanish fluently, I learned to respect the language in a way that Mexicans don’t. Mexicans make everything diminutive, in an attempt to tone everything down and make it sound softer. A kiss is “besito” instead of “beso,” a favor is “favorsito” instead of “favor,” and a taco is “taquito.”
Things are different in Spain. Spanish people know that words have to be said directly. I learned that I could not ask to borrow things instead of buy them as we do in Mexico. Language has to be used efficiently, and my vocabulary needs to be chosen carefully in order to convey exactly what I mean.
When I was 11, I lived in Panama for a year. Everything was wildly unfamiliar at the beginning, even though Spanish was the common tongue and it was also a Latin American country. In particular, I could not understand why so many people honked at each other while driving. It sounded like a symphony every time I walked outside.
It wasn’t until my dad mentioned this phenomenon to one of his friends from work that my family learned that honking was a good thing. In Panama, honking while driving is a way of letting others know that you’re there. It’s nothing personal, or against you, but simply a way of saying that you had other plans and here you are, stuck in the same traffic—almost a bonding experience.
When I turned 14, I started boarding school in Connecticut. There, I learned that service is truly valued in the U.S. In Mexico, volunteering is done when your best friends are also going to do it and you have nothing else going on. On the contrary, in the U.S., service is completed, especially when you have other things to do, because people take it seriously. Everyone contributes.
In the U.S., there is also a different generosity when making friends. People are more open to getting to know you because of who you are, and not who your parents or grandparents are. In Monterrey, you practically have to know someone’s whole lineage and family tree to be friends. During my time in the U.S., I’ve learned to take advantage of the way friendships are made, to open up and embrace new relationships much faster.
This is a long-winded way of saying that, though I may have a Mexican passport, I’ve been shaped by different cultures and experiences that are not necessarily found in Mexico. In Austin, I learned about non-verbal cues. In Spain, I learned about speaking effectively. In Panama, I learned about not taking things so personally. In Connecticut, I learned about giving back to the community. Though saying that I’m Mexican is the simplest answer, it’s not 100 percent accurate.
I like to say that people are seasoned. They’re sprinkled with different cultures and different values that have been mixed together over time. We cannot always attribute our whole personality to being from a certain place. And that’s okay, it’s even common!
Next time you want to get to know someone well, consider asking them where they’re from first. But, if you aren’t ready to learn their whole life story, maybe just stick with “What’s your major?”
Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor