A few days ago, I had a conversation about what I said when asked where I was from. This morning, I came across this rather spiffing talk by Chetan Bhatt about not being defined by the answer to the same question. As this was clearly a message from the Dark Lord Cthulhu himself, I had to share.
My experience is that the answer to where are you from (or similar questions) depends on context anyway. I’ve lived in Bristol for over half my life, but wouldn’t say that made me “from” Bristol. However, if I was at – for example – a national conference for a political party, I’d put myself forward if they wanted people from Bristol. When I go on holiday, I might answer Bristol, the Weat Country, England, or Great Britain. The same has been true throughout my life: if I was visiting somewhere privately, I’d say I was from my home town; but if I was visiting as part of a school activity, I’d say I was from my school. Even before I considered law, I had the instinctive sense of nuance: while “where are you from?” can be as much of a phatic as “how about this weather?”, it is often a request for different information; for example, which areas do you have local knowledge of.
Of course, I was never challenged on my choice unless I misjudged the hidden request behind the question. So, it took me a little longer to discover the “what species of Other should I reduce you to?” version of the question. However, once I did, I strove to take that same step that Bhatt suggests: actively not defining myself and others by arbitrary subsets of humanity.
Where I find myself less in agreement with him is the idea that where you are from is entirely an accident: I agree that – certain metaphysical views aside – one has no choice in the location and biology of one’s birth; but one does have some choice in how one accepts or rejects the norms of one’s environment. So, one can arguably be proud of choosing to act like someone from one’s nation is stereotyped as acting. Which might, for many purposes, be functionally equivalent of being proud of where one’s from.
Perhaps a better way to approach the question is to start from the idea that pride isn’t zero sum: that I can feel good about being a member of a subset without that meaning other subsets are lesser. Then, it doesn’t matter for almost all circumstances whether I’m a Bristolian, a German, or a cat.