“So, where are you from?” It is a question I have been asked well over a dozen times in the last few months. While my answer is not as complicated as some of those I know, every time I gave my response, I felt somewhat of a cringe. What had prompted this question was a major transitional point in my life – the bridge all budding doctors face as they end their time in medical school and jump to the next set of obligations bundled together and termed ‘residency.’ While walking down this bridge, you are forced to meet many strangers, and in the dense fog of the unknown, you will occasionally bump into them and shake hands, stumble over them and fall down, or just miss them by a hair’s breadth and not really interact with them at all, except maybe other than to be aware of their presence and the potential encounter that could have been.
“Something inexorable seeds itself in the place of your origin. You can never escape the bonds of family history, no matter how far you travel. And the skeleton of a house can carry in its bones the marrow of all that came before.”
– CB Kline, A Piece of the World
When asked this question of my origin, I felt it necessary to give some temporal and spatial rendition of my life, so as to frame myself and my experience of 26 years into a few short sentences and rehearsed chuckles. After every answer, though thorough, I was not sure if I was correct. Sure, I was born in the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I went to school there and then lived in New Orleans for a time. Despite this, I do not feel an intrinsic connection to that place. I lived on an island for 18 months for the first half of my medical education, but I would consider that rock in the middle of the sea anything but home. The largest continuous stretch of time after that was spent in Kansas City, Missouri for my clinical rotations, which was, of course relevant to mention for the purposes of an interview for a position for medical residency, but otherwise held no strong ties in my heart.
My better half, whom I met while in New Orleans, is situated in the quintessential Midwestern city of Omaha, Nebraska, where I have spent many wonderful weekends, though rarely longer than that. When I reflect on my origins, I feel as though the places that I have mentioned above, while encompassing my geographical history, do not do justice to my cultural heritage. My parents, immigrants from the western part of India, have always emphasized this part of themselves upon me, and I would be doing them a disservice if I did not mention that my skin is tan brown and I speak and understand Gujarati. Ironically, when I do reveal my origins – that I was born in the deep Southern United States – often I am told that I have not even the slightest hint of southern drawl.
Perhaps the reason I have been ruminating so much on the question of “where are you from?” is because, like many people in my shoes applying for the next big endeavor in their lives, I have become keenly aware of my sense of identity, which many can – and do – conflate with origin. The phrases “I am a Midwesterner” or “I’m a Manhattanite” certainly paint very different pictures, and when an interviewer is trying to ascertain the core components of an individual, the base layer painted by my city of birth can overshadow even the strongest of second or third coats if those coats are not painted thickly or skillfully enough. My origin and my identity, in my mind, are distinct, though not wholly separate. I suspect with the next iteration of my training – my residency – this will change, and I will adopt my program as part of my identity, mainly from the perceived effort and hours spent at the institution.
Ultimately, like in many arguments or discussions, the critical point – the “fromness” of a person – is very subjective and can be defined in many ways. Obviously, “where are you from?” is a fairly innocuous ice breaker, and I am thorough enough with my response to answer it properly and provide other points of discussion to move forward.