Voices on the New Diasporas - an MIT student journal

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Where You're From

by Michael Obilade

The funny thing about being someone, about being from somewhere, is that you're just not from where you came from – the last place you came from – but you're also from the place you came from before that, and before that, and even before that place. So even if you've lived in one place throughout your entire life, you're not just from that place. You're from that place before they built the gas station on the other side of the street. You're from that place before the shopping mall came to the other side of town, before Emilia Rodriguez and her brother moved away, before your town became a city – from when it used to be called a town.

So when I first moved back to the US – to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and I started going to school at Blackham Elementary with all the other kids in the fifth grade, I knew I wasn't just the flag of wherever I'd just left, even though that's the way it always came out. I was born in Illinois, and I spent most of my life there before moving to the UK for a year, and then moving back to the US. So the last place I lived before coming here was London – but that isn't where I'm from from, it's just where I'm 'from'. I know where I'm from. But when you're ten, it's hard to make everything you know into everything everyone else knows. That's why I'm telling you this, and not Jeanette Adams. Jeanette doesn't understand. The first time I spoke to her, this is how it went.



“What's your name?”

“Marie. What's yours?”

“Jeanette. Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too.”

That was the good part of the conversation. It's me and Jeanette sitting together in English class, and Mrs. Macintosh is going over Alice in Wonderland at the front of the room. She's right at the beginning of the book – I read it two years ago, when we lived in Carbondale. My brother got it for me at the library. Most of the kids aren't paying attention, but she doesn't seem to mind, so we can go on talking to each other – Jeanette and I – for a little while. It's the first day of fifth grade.

“So...where're you from?”

“London – but I'm from Illinois.”


“Yeah. Why?”

“You don't sound like you're from Illinois.”

“But I am.”

“But you don't sound like you are.” She turned to face me in her chair. “You don't even say it right.”

This was when I started to get mad. Who was she to tell me I didn't say the name of my own state right – the name of where I'd spent the first nine years of my life? That didn't make sense, and I told Jeanette as much.

“Just admit it – you're from England, and you've never been here before.”

“You're wrong. I bet I know more about where I'm from than you do.”

“Doesn't matter. You probably memorized it from a book or something.”

“Where are you from?”

“Right here in Bridgeport. I've lived here since I was four.” She stuck her tongue out at me. “So see? I'm from here. Why aren't you?”

I don't like getting in arguments with other kids. It seems like in the end, you just fight and fight and make up and wish you hadn't spent so much time fighting in the first place. She was the first person I'd met on the first day of school, and I didn't want her to turn into an enemy. So I didn't say anything else. Mrs. Macintosh started talking about the first thing Alice saw after she climbed into the rabbit hole, and all of a sudden, I wished I had a rabbit hole to climb into.

But maybe not. Maybe I'd just stuff Jeanette in there instead. And I wouldn't let her out for a year. And when she got out, she'd talk funny, and I'd tell her, “you're from a rabbit hole”. But I wouldn't tell her that, because I wouldn't make her feel bad about where she'd been or where she'd come from, and I wouldn't tell her she couldn't be from Connecticut just because she was born in New York, because I know how it feels to hear someone say things like that, and it doesn't feel good.

But I can't tell her any of this now, because she's ten, and she doesn't understand.

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